The Beauty and the Beast

How did this traditional tale evolve over time?

Walt Disney’s Beast had bear-like features, protruding horns, and clawed hands, but the fabled creature has also had the head of a wild boar, an elephant, a panther, a wolf and many others. This fairytale’s narrative has seen almost as many variations, with the original French fairytale of 1756 being reworked and reinterpreted continuously, eventually making its way into Disney.

Jeanne-Marte Leprince de Beaumont penned the most commonly retold version of the tale. In this, Beauty’s father is a rich merchant, who loses his wealth to a sea storm. Later, he hears that one of his boats may have been salvaged and goes to retrieve it and find gifts for his daughters; a rose for Beauty and for her sisters, gowns and jewels. He is unsuccessful, and on his journey home he stumbles across a palace in which he finds a feast and a warm bed in which to spend the night. Before he leaves, he notices a rose garden and goes to take one, glad that he can return with a gift for at least one of his daughters. Yet, upon picking the most beautiful rose he could find, ‘he was terribly alarmed upon perceiving at his side a horrible beast, which, with an air of fury, laid upon his neck a kind of trunk, resembling an elephant’s.’ The Beast eventually agrees to let the merchant go, if he returns with one of his daughters. Later, the family decide it must be Beauty, and she goes to live with the Beast, who shortly falls in love with her and proposes daily yet she dreams of a handsome prince whom she believes is held prisoner in the palace. The Beast lets Beauty return home for a week with an enchanted mirror and a ring that with one twist will bring her straight back to him. Beauty stays a day too long and returns to find the Beast half dead of heartbreak, but when her tears fall on him she breaks the curse and he transforms into the prince that occupied her dreams.

The tale saw some evolution in the 1991 Disney version. The protagonist’s name was changed from Beauty to Belle and the complexity of her home life was lost in favour of the introduction of Gaston, Belle’s idiotic, arrogant and, thankfully, spurned suitor. The original tale shows Beauty as a kind of Cinderella figure, belittled and treated like a servant by her shallow sisters.Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot wrote the oldest known version of the tale and shows further history of the well-known characters of Beauty and the Beast. The Beast was a prince whose mother was a skilled war leader who went into battle to save her kingdom. Yet, she entrusted the role of babysitter to an evil fairy who, upon failing to seduce the boy, put a curse on him. In Disney’s version, the Beast is instead cursed for his arrogance when he refuses to let the disguised enchantress stay the night. As for Beauty, the root of her good looks and purity becomes clear as she was the daughter of a king and a good fairy, placed in the family of a merchant to protect her from the murderous wishes of a deadly fairy. The rose is a motif in all of these retellings. For Beaumont, it was the gift that Beauty modestly asked for from her father, while her materialistic sisters requested jewels and gowns:

‘Very well, my dear father,” said she, “since you desire me to make some request, I beg you will bring me a rose; I love that flower passionately, and since I have lived in this desert I have not had the pleasure of seeing one.’”

For Disney the rose instead marks the ever decreasing time that the Beast has to end his curse as the petals slowly fall. It would seem unusual, perhaps, for Disney to show that materialistic and shallow requests are safer than those that are more modest and sentimental, as her father’s theft of the rose sent Beauty to the danger of the Beast.

The importance of Beauty’s family dynamic is diminished in the Disney reproduction, with Beauty and her father being the only members present. It is the jealousy of her sisters that sends Beauty to the home of the Beast originally, as they are envious that she was the only one who received a gift from her father. Moreover, when Beauty is granted a brief return to her home, her sisters, in a fake show of sibling love, persuade her to stay for a day longer than promised which sends the Beast into a devastated state of heartbreak. Beauty’s father, additionally, appears to be a more complex character in his pre-Disney representation. Beaumont repeatedly refers to him as ‘this afflicted father’ and the reader learns of his struggles supporting his daughters and giving them the life they desire after he loses his fortune. While the omission of these details reduces the depth of Belle’s character in some sense, adoration of books appears to be an addition by Disney (though Beaumont’s Beauty is fond of theatre) and enhances Beauty’s distinction from her surrounding shallow characters and makes her more relatable to many viewers. Additionally, the speaking and singing teapots, candles, and furniture are also a Disney addition, although the original house was filled with friendly rare birds, some of whom spoke, and a group of monkeys dressed as members of a Spanish royal court.

What is consistent within the traditional tales and Disney’s version is how Beauty is the only character that does not respond to the horror of the Beast with violence or overt fear. Beaumont writes that upon ‘seeing the Beast approach, whom she could not behold without a shudder, she advanced with a firm step, and with a modest air saluted him very respectfully. This behaviour pleased the Monster.’ Even when she is first sent to the palace, expecting to meet her death, she disregards the physical appearance of her aggressor: ‘I reckon on a speedy death, and believe it to be unavoidable, what does it signify whether he who shall destroy me be agreeable or hideous.’ Beaumont shows how despite the Beast proposing to her daily and his appearance, Beauty loves him as a friend. Her notice of his love is handled wonderfully indifferently; Beauty is said to be ‘sufficiently aware that he was in love with her.’ She dreams of her prince killing the Beast, and in her dream she leaps to the Beast’s defence as she is grateful to him for his hospitality and caring nature. Beauty is not a woman hopelessly in love, when the prince she dreams of suggests she abandon or kill the Beast she, appalled, retorts ‘know that I would lay down my life to save his, and that this Monster, who is only one in form, has a heart so human, that he should not be persecuted for a deformity which he refrains from rendering more hideous by his actions.’ While Disney has changed details and different versions of Beauty and the Beast offer a fuller picture of the characters’ histories and motivations, the underlying message of not judging others on appearances remains.

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