Beauty and the Beast: Not for the Faint of Heart



The 1756 French fairytale of Beauty and the Beast, later retold by the Grimm Brothers as the less recognizable The Singing, Springing Lark, has become a staple of Western childhood: the young girl who sacrifices herself to save her father by agreeing to live with the Beast, until she ultimately redeems both herself and the Beast with love. However, as with most stories – fairytales in particular – there are hidden depths, and just as the Beast is revealed to be an enchanted prince, so the tale itself reveals inner truth despite its outward appearance.


In the beginning of Beauty and the Beast, Belle is attached to her father. When he steals a rose from the Beast’s home, the Beast threatens to kill him but then allows her father to return and even promises to send gold to his home – on the condition that he send back a daughter willing to take his place. Though Belle expects to be eaten, she accompanies her father to the Beast’s palace. Her father leaves, and she is surprised when the Beast shows her nothing but kindness, asking her daily to marry him – though she always refuses. When she misses her father, the Beast allows her to leave, but when she realizes that the Beast is dying of love for her, she returns to the palace. She agrees to marry him, quite forgetting his appearance, only caring for his life and loving him for who he is. Upon her acceptance of him, the enchantment is ended and he is revealed to be a handsome prince.


While other classics such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White revolve around the physical awakening of the main female character to sexuality and adulthood and her place in society, Beauty and the Beast  focuses on the inner psychological awakening of the heroine, manifested in what Jung termed ‘Individuation’ – the reconciliation of the conscious with the unconscious. In fact, in the book, Man and His Symbols, which was co-authored by Jung, a wedding is spoken of as “a woman’s initiation rite.”


Unlike the female characters of other fairytales, Belle is not in need of saving by a male figure. Belle, the heroine, is the one who does the saving. She saves her father, she saves the Beast, and ultimately saves herself. By leaving her father-figure and accepting her shadow, the Beast, the darker side of her unconscious, she reconciles different parts of herself to become a complete person. She unites light with darkness.


But how far back does the Beauty and the Beast story go? Some have speculated that the seeds began with tales of lovers who cannot look upon the one they love without losing them. In mythology Cupid hid his appearance from the beautiful Psyche. She believed she had been doomed to marry a monster, but when she snuck a peek at her lover, he was a beautiful youth. He ran to his goddess mother, and Psyche had to perform several cruel tasks set by her before she was reunited with her husband. Many interpret Cupid and Psyche as being the embodiments of Love and the Soul.


In another mythological tale, the great musician Orpheus wed the maiden, Eurydice. However, when his bride dies, he uses the power of his divine music to journey to the Underworld and convince the gods to let her live again. With the power of his song, he “made Hell grant what Love did seek” on the condition that he not look upon his bride until they had left the Underworld. When Orpheus walked into the daylight at last, after the long dark journey, he looked back for his wife – who had not finished leaving the Underworld. It was too soon, and he lost her. He could not return and gave himself over to grief until he was torn apart by “a band of Maenads.”


Both mythologies have some elements – though not all – of the classic Beauty and the Beast story we have come to know and love. In the story of Cupid and Psyche, there is her belief in a monstrous lover who is ultimately revealed to be a god. The heroine performs tasks for the sake of love and ultimately a happy ending. However, in the tragic tale of Orpheus, the male is the hero, the seeker, and the lovers endings are anything but happy.


The theme of a dark or forbidden love echoes in modern stories as well. In the 1986 film, Labyrinth, 15-year old Sarah dreams of fantastic realms, creatures, and adventures; consequently the Goblin King Jareth falls in love with her. However, when King Jareth takes her baby brother, she must venture through a Labyrinth to the castle beyond the Goblin city to save him. She goes on an adventure, and finally faces Jareth who confesses he has done everything: subjected her to trials, tormented her friends, stolen her brother – all because they were what she wanted. In almost the same moment, she realizes that she is the one with the power, and not only rescues her brother, but realizes that she can be responsible while not entirely giving up her fantasies.


Jareth, while not exactly a father-figure, is a dashing and beastly character – a shadow of her own inner desires. Her selfish desire to prolong her own childhood and escape her responsibilities through fantasy threatens all. If she does not break out of her self-created fantasy world, she will lose everything – both for herself and those she cares about. As in Beauty and the Beast, in the end, a girl slowly awakens and sees beyond her own childish wants and needs; she becomes an adult.


There are, of course, many other modern adaptations of the Beauty and the Beast story. The 1980’s television show, Beauty and the Beast, was a modern day romance with the beast living in the sewers with an entire undercast segment of the city’s population. In the modern television series, Once Upon a Time, Belle (Beauty) also appeals to the better nature of the Beast (conveniently doubling as Rumplestiltskin, the series’ villain). Even the series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, had a romantic subplot where the heroine was in love with vampire, a beast split in two – one half a monster and the other a hero.


However, in my opinion, no other story reflects this internal feminine development quite so well as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical retelling of the novel, The Phantom of the Opera. The themes of light versus shadow, night versus day, the duality of the inner self and the acceptance of someone unattractive for who they are despite their outward appearance makes Phantom an obvious modern parallel of Beauty of the Beast, accompanied by a more overt Jungian psychological meaning. In fact, the musical (as well as the musical film) can be viewed as an “archetypical coming of age” story for a woman.


In Phantom, Christine lost her father at an early age, whose dying words promised that he would send her an “angel of music.” She grows up in the Opera house under the Phantom’s secret tutelage, believing him to be the angel of music, but in reality her teacher is a mad and disfigured musical genius. In the beginning of the Andrew Lloyd Webber adaptation, she is suddenly thrust into the spotlight and becomes the star of the Opera, wooed by the Opera’s patron and her childhood friend, Raoul. The Phantom becomes increasingly more jealous and Christine is torn between her fear of the Phantom and her love for Raoul. Eventually, the Phantom creates an Opera called ‘Don Juan Triumphant’ in order to court Christine both openly (in front of an audience) and secretly (behind a mask so everyone thinks he is another person). She is obviously attracted to him, but at the last moment unmasks him and he forces her to accompany him to “the dungeon of his black despair.” She must make a choice, but each one holds danger and possibly death. Does she choose the handsome suitor, Raoul, and become a wife and mother or does she choose the dark and brooding Phantom, the fountain of her creativity? In the end, she shows that she can touch the Phantom without fear, touch him as another person without his mask. Thus transformed, the Phantom lets her and Raoul go, showing his kinder side, having known the love of another for once in his life.


In both Beauty and the Beast and Phantom, the heroine must leave behind a father-figure, an essential part of becoming an individual. Each heroine is courted by a dark lover, a shadowy figure that appeals to other parts of her personality, creativity, and sexuality. Ultimately each heroine must awaken to the true nature of the darkness, redeeming him with her acceptance. Her marriage (or kiss) unites her with her shadow and animus – the masculine, dark embodiment of her unconscious, and she ultimately awakens a more complete person.  In the words of Jung, “- for a woman to feel right about herself, life is best realized by a process of awakening.”


The themes of Beauty and the Beast are such an integral part of our cultures and our psychological development, any writing on the subject will necessarily fall short. The story echoes throughout our mythologies, our literature, and our films because it is indeed, as told in the Disney adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, “a tale as old as time.” As long as humans exist, I doubt it will ever stop being told.
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