"Bluebeard" (French: "La Barbe bleue"; German: "Blaubart") is a European fairy tale. The earliest know version of the story was written by the French author Charles Perrault and published in his 1697 anthology Histoires ou Contes du temps passé (Fairy Tales from Past Times with Morals or Mother Goose Tales). It is possible that Perrault adapted "Bluebeard" from a pre-existing folktale or an earlier written version of the story that is now lost. The story may also have been inspired by genuine historical events. A version of "Bluebeard" is also included in the 1812 first edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales), the anthology of German folktales compiled by the Brothers Grimm. The story is omitted from later editions of the anthology.
The story's title character is a very wealthy man who, in spite of the strange appearance that his blue beard gives him, has recently persuaded a young woman to marry him. Before going away on a long journey, Bluebeard gives his wife keys to every lock in the house. He tells her not to unlock the door to one particular small room. Inevitably, the young woman's curiosity leads her to enter that room, where she discovers Bluebeard's dark secret.
"Bluebeard' has been adapted for the stage, has been performed as operas and ballets and has also inspired several movies.
Charles Perrault version
Bluebeard is a very rich man who has homes in the town and in the countryside. In spite of his wealth, he is unable to find a wife because he has a blue beard. This makes him look ugly and frightening. One of Bluebeard's neighbors is a noble woman who has two daughters. He asks the woman if he can marry one of her daughters. Both of the young women refuse to marry Bluebeard. Not only do they not like the look of his blue beard, they also know that he has been married several times before and that nobody knows what has become of his previous wives. Bluebeard invites the two young women, their mother and several of their friends to visit one of his homes in the countryside. They spend eight days hunting, fishing, feasting and dancing. The younger of the two daughters enjoys herself so much that she decides that Bluebeard is really a good man and that his beard is not really so blue. She agrees to marry him.
A month after their wedding, Bluebeard tells his wife that he has to go away on business for at least six weeks. He tells her that she can invite her sister and her friends to visit her in his absence. Before leaving, Bluebeard gives his wife keys which unlock all the doors, all the safes and all the boxes in the house. He points out to her one key which unlocks the door to a small room on the ground floor. He strictly forbids her from entering that small room and says that he will not be able to control his anger if he finds out that she has been in there.
The young woman's sister and friends come to visit her. Although she enjoys their company, she cannot stop thinking about the small room on the ground floor. She slips away from her guests, goes down to the small room and unlocks its door. At first, she can see nothing in the windowless room. She then notices that there is blood on the floor. Reflected in the blood, she sees bodies of dead women hanging on the walls of the room. They are the bodies of all of Bluebeard's previous wives whom he has murdered. In her horror, the young woman drops the key to the room and blood gets on it. She picks up the key and leaves the room. She tries to clean the key. Unfortunately, the key has been bewitched. Once blood gets on the key, it is impossible to remove the stain.
That night, Bluebeard returns home unexpectedly early. The following morning, he asks his wife to return the keys that he gave her. With a trembling hand, she gives him all of the keys except for the one to the small room on the ground floor. He tells her to fetch that key. He sees that there is blood on it and knows that his wife has disobeyed his order. he tells her that, since she was so keen to enter the little room, she can take her place there with all of his previous wives. Bluebeard's wife falls to his feet and begs for mercy. He tells her that she has to die and will die soon. She asks to be given some time to pray first. Bluebeard agrees to leave her alone for a short time.
The woman then finds her sister Anne. She says to Anne that their two brothers said they might visit her that day. She asks Anne to go up to the tower and to call out if she can see their brothers approaching. Anne does as she is told. Several times, Bluebeard's wife asks her sister if she can see their brothers coming. Each time, Anne replies that she cannot. Bluebeard also begins to shout up to his wife. He orders her to come down to him and says that he will go up to her if she does not.
Eventually, Anne says that she can see two men in the distance. Shortly afterwards, Bluebeard shouts so loudly that the entire house shakes. His wife finally goes down to him. he raises an enormous cutlass and prepares to strike off her head. At that moment, the young woman's two brothers, who are both soldiers, come through the door with their swords drawn. Bluebeard tries to run away from them but they catch him and kill him.
After Bluebeard's death, his widow inherits all of his wealth. She marries again, this time to a genuinely good man, and forgets about her terrible experience at the hands of Bluebeard.
Perrault ends the story with two short verses. According to the first verse, the moral of the story is that curiosity should be resisted because it often has unpleasant consequences. The second verse states that the story obviously took place a long time ago. This is because modern husbands are no longer so terrible and no longer ask their wives to do the impossible. According to the last line of the verse, in modern households, it is difficult to tell whether the husband or the wife is in charge.
Brothers Grimm version
The plot of the version of "Bluebeard" recorded by the Brothers Grimm is largely the same as the Charles Perrault version. Some details of the story are, however, different.
In the version of "Bluebeard' recorded by the Brothers Grimm, Bluebeard is a king. He arrives in a golden coach at the house in a forest where a man lives with his daughter and three sons. Bluebeard asks the man if he can marry his daughter. The man is unable to refuse the king's request. The man's daughter agrees to marry Bluebeard because it is her father's wish. She is, however, still afraid of Bluebeard. For that reason, before she leaves, she makes her brothers promise that they will instantly come to her aid if they hear her shout for help.
After Bluebeard's wife drops the key in blood and finds that she cannot remove the stain, she leaves it in some hay overnight. It was a popular German belief that leaving something in hay overnight would remove bloodstains from it. When Bluebeard asks where the key to the small room is, his wife tells him that she lost it in some hay. The reference to hay means that Bluebeard immediately knows that there is blood on the key.
Anne, the sister of Bluebeard's wife, does not appear in the version of the story recorded by the Brothers Grimm. When Bluebeard agrees to give his wife some time on her own to pray, she shouts out of the window to ask her brothers to come and rescue her. Although they respond immediately, she continues shouting to ask them to come more quickly. Bluebeard's wife does not come down to him when he shouts up to her. Instead, he goes up to her and drags her down by her hair.
After the three brothers kill Bluebeard, they put his body in the small room along with those of the women that he murdered.
Stories of people (especially women) giving in to curiosity and doing the one thing that they were expressly forbidden from doing date back to ancient times. Early examples include the Biblical stories of Eve and Lot's wife and the stories of Pandora and Psyche from Greek mythology.
There are also stories of people entering forbidden rooms which predate Charles Perrault's "Bluebeard". The 16th century Italian anthology of folktales the Pentamerone contains the story "The Three Crowns" (Le tre corone) in which Princess Marchetta is carried away by a whirlwind to the castle of an ogress. The ogress tells Marchetta that she can enter any room in the castle apart from one. When she enters the room, Marchetta finds the three sleeping daughters of the ogress who are in danger if anyone other than the daughter of a king wakes them up. In One Thousand and One Nights, Prince Agib is given a hundred keys to a hundred rooms. He is told that he cannot enter the room with a golden door. When he enters the room, Prince Agib finds a flying horse. The horse carries Agib away and then kicks him in the head, knocking out his right eye.
The character of Bluebeard is often said to have been based on Gilles de Rais (1405-1440), a knight and lord from Brittany and a leader of the French army who fought alongside Joan of Arc. Gilles de Rais confessed to murdering a large number of children. The precise number of his victims is unknown. He is generally believed to have killed at least eighty children and possibly as many as six hundred. His victims are known to have ranged in age from 8 to 18 and to have been of both sexes, although predominantly boys. Gilles de Rais was executed for his crimes on October 25, 1405. Gilles de Rais was unlike Bluebeard, however, in that none of his victims were his wives and no bodies were found on his property.
The story of Bluebeard may also have been based on the legend of Conomor the Accursed (a 6th-century Breton king who is rumored in Brittany to have been a werewolf) and his wife Tryphine. According to an 11th-century biography of the British monk Gildas, after Tryphine married Conomor, the ghosts of his previous wives told her that Conomor killed them after they became pregnant and warned her that the same thing would happen to her. When she became pregnant, Tryphine tried to run away from her husband. Conomor caught her, however, and beheaded her. Gildas miraculously brought Tryphine back to life. When Gildas took Tryphine back to Conomor's castle, the walls of the castle fell down and crushed Conomor to death. Many churches in Brittany are dedicated to Saint Tryphine and her son Saint Treneur.
It has also been suggested that the story of "Bluebeard" was originally a Catholic satire on Henry VIII (1491-1547; King of England from 1509 until his death). Henry VIII was the founder of the Protestant Church of England. He is famous for having had six wives and for having had two of them beheaded. The idea that Henry VIII inspired "Bluebeard' is dismissed by John Timbs in the 1859 book Things Not Generally Known: Popular Errors Explained and Illustrated. According to Timbs, the story of "Bluebeard" obviously takes place in an earlier time than that of Henry VIII. Timbs states that the story takes place at a time when lords who dwelt in castles were a law unto themselves and could murder their wives with near impunity. The only fear of such a lord was that some knight errant might come along, discover the wrong that the lord had done and punish him by killing him, as the brothers of Bluebeard's wife do in the story.
According to the 1974 book The Classic Fairy Tales by Iona and Peter Opie, Charles Perrault's "Bluebeard" is a legend that Perrault imperfectly remembered. The Opies point out that there seems to be a gap in the story between the discovery of the secret in the small room and the return of Bluebeard. During that time, the house guests of Bluebeard's wife disappear without any explanation. The Opies also state that it seems to be out of character for Bluebeard to leave his wife alone for several minutes before attempting to kill her and that his reason for doing so is poorly explained.
In the 2002 book The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, Maria Tatar states that having a blue beard indicates the title character of Charles Perrault's story is of otherworldly origin.
The story of "Bluebeard" was once a popular subject for British pantomimes. A pantomime based on the story is known to have been performed at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London as early as 1798. One of the most popular scripts for a pantomime based on "Bluebeard" was written by the British playwright Edward Litt Lamon Blanchard in 1879. Pantomimes based on "Bluebeard" were usually given a Middle Eastern setting and Bluebeard's young wife was often given the name Fatima. As a result of the popularity of those pantomimes, it became common for British illustrators to depict characters from "Bluebeard" in oriental dress throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century.
Several different operas based on "Bluebeard" exist. The opera Barbe-bleue by the French composer Jacques Offenbach was first performed at the Théâtre des Variétés in Paris on February 5, 1866. The opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue by the French composer Paul Dukas was first performed at the Opéra Comique in Paris on May 10, 1907. The opera Ritter Blaubart by the Austrian composer Emil von Reznieck was first performed at the State Theater in Darmstadt, Germany on January 29, 1920. The opera Bluebeard's Castle by the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók was first performed at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino festival in Florence, Italy on May 5, 1938.
The Russian ballet Bluebeard, with music by Pyotr Schenk and choreography by Marius Petipa, was first performed at the Imperial Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg on December 20, 1896.
Films based on the "Bluebeard" story include Bluebeard (France 1901), Bluebeard's 8th Wife (USA 1923), Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (USA 1938), Bluebeard (USA 1944), Monsieur Verdoux (USA 1947), Secret Beyond the Door (USA 1948), Bluebeard (France/Switzerland/West Germany 1951), Bluebeard (France/Italy/West Germany 1972), Very Blue Beard (USSR 1979), The Piano (New Zealand/Australia/France 1993), The Last Wife of Bluebeard (France/Ukraine 1996), Bluebeard (France 2009), Crimson Peak (USA 2015) and Ex Machina (UK/USA 2015).
"Bluebeard" was adapted as the eighteenth episode of the Japanese anime TV series Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics (Japanese: グリム名作劇場; Gurimu Meisaku Gekijō). The episode first aired on TV Asahi in Japan on February 3, 1988.
- Sound files of audiobooks of "Bluebeard" in French:
- Versions of "Bluebeard" in French, German and English on Wikisource.
- "Bluebeard" on Sur la Lune Fairy Tales.com.
- Public domain audiobook of "Bluebeard" in English on YouTube.
- Video of the 1901 silent film Bluebeard on YouTube.