An Analysis of the Adult Themes in Charles Perrault's Fairy Tales

Categories: Fairy Tale

Fairy tales were imported from France to Britain at the beginning of the eighteenth century. 'Literary' folk-tales were fashionable among the aristocracy of Louis XIV. During this period, Charles Perrault published the collection of fairy tales, which was also popular, under the title Tales of Olden Times, or Mother Goose Tales (Contes du temps passé, ou Contes de ma mère l'Oye) in 1697.1 The controversial issue of whether fairy tales are children's literature existed since they appeared in print, and there is no concrete evidence to support assertions that fairy tales are just for children.

The present essay is going to investigate the adult themes in Perrault's fairy tales. Four stories selected from his fairy tales: Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Blue Beard and Cinderella will be analysed in this essay. Overall, the essay will focus on teasing out the hidden adult themes in the texts. Charles Perrault was born in a cultured middle-class family which provides Louis XIV with his most valuable servants of State.

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His tales were virtually written for the aristocrats of the court in France though a lot of people wrongly regarded them as a collection of popular oral stories. Perrault's tales, with morals appended to each, are distinct from the ones we are familiar with, and instead of supporting the external plots of the story, some of the morals virtually overthrow the superficial meaning we may get from the stories.

It is necessary to analyse the tales with the concerns of who is the real audience for this book and the courtly world of seventeenth-century France.

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Little red riding hood was first written and published by Perrault, tells a story of a young girl who is deceived by a wolf on her way to grandmother's house and eaten by him in the end. The tale's brevity makes it seem like a simple didactic story to children for warning them to be aware of the strangers, nevertheless, if we focus on the details of the text itself, we may find that the implications and the moral of the tale become more subtle and complex than they appear at first, moreover, Perrault's 'Moral' makes the meanings and the implications of the text sophisticated. In the 'Moral', Perrault suggests that children, especially young girls, should be aware of the dangerous wolves, particularly the wolves who disguised themselves to be tame, pleasant and gentle.

And in the last two lines, he points out the wolves are "who follow young ladies into their homes, all the way to their bedrooms". It is clear that the wolves as predators, both sexual and otherwise, here are used metaphorically as well as the little red riding hood herself. If we keep this in mind when rereading the tale, we may find that the whole story is utterly a metaphorical sexual seduction about the wolf lured little red riding hood out of her clothes and into bed. Perrault makes the seduction as explicit as possible, compared to the version we are familiar with, at the beginning of the story, the warning of little red riding hood's mother does not exist. It places emphasis the young girl's naive and the lacking of social experience, which lead to her tragic ending of being seduced by the wolf.

Additionally, in his version, the wolf does not dress up as grandmother like in the other versions, but simply lies down in her bed, when little red riding hood was asked to undress herself and get into bed, she was shocked to see her grandmother is naked. The dialogues between them are also sexually explicit, for example, he tells her that his strong arms are for embraced her better, the words undoubtedly full of sexually suggestive information. 6 Ironically, little red riding hood does not escape or fight with the wolf though the seduction is very obvious and direct. If she is willing to be seduced, her character is changed from an innocent young girl to a fallen woman ,whose fate as Perrault written in the story, to be eaten by the wolf. If we consider this sexual seduction in the context of seventeenth-century France, the theme of this tale and Perrault's purpose are more standing out.

Art of courtesy was highly required and praised at that time, it was regarded as a skill to be learned and cultivated. This set of courtly skills is associated in the moral with the wolf. As his tales were written for the aristocrats, to be more specific, the young ladies of the aristocracy, the forest can be regarded as the metaphor of the French court. According to this, the tale is not simply talking about a tragic girl who was eaten by the wolf or a general warning not to trust in strangers easily. Perrault tries to warn those young ladies in court of the dangers surrounding them, moreover, the death of little red riding hood at the end of the tale implies the unavoidability of the dangers of getting in bed with the courtly "wolf" in the form of politically expedient marriages. R Interpreting in this way, the tale is talking about the sexuality and marriage, as Perrault implied at the end of the story, being devoured is the fate of young ladies; they will be possessed by sexual predators no matter they are willing to or not.

They would better to understand the unavoidable dangers, even more, to accept the politically expedient marriage. Blue Beard is a tale about sexuality and marriage as well. It contains perhaps the most deeply disturbing explicit adult material in all of Perrault's fairy tales. At the beginning of the tale, blue beard asked his neighbour to marry one of his daughters to him, but none of them were willing to, however, after they visited blue beard's house, witnessing his wealth, one of the daughters married him. This simple plot proves their marriage was not built on love but the basis of profits, thus it can be seen as a politically expedient marriage, and women's vanity is also being manifested by Perrault in an ironic way. Before blue beard left home, he gave his wife the keys to all the rooms, and told her not to enter one room which can be opened by a little key.

This seems to be unreasonable to tell someone not to enter one room while give her the key. In this way, we may assume that Blue beard is testing his wife of her trustworthiness, and there leaves us some space to imagine what the trustworthiness is about. After he left, his wife's neighbours "who would not visit the young wife while the husband was around because his blue beard scared them" came to visit. As is well- known, beard is universally regarded as masculinity, associated with sex, virility, male readiness and desire." According to this, the neighbours' fear of his beard can be seen as the fear of his masculinity.

Therefore it is not difficult to infer that only the wife's lover is the one who is feared of husband's masculinity and visits the wife during her husband's absence. After Blue Beard came back from countryside, he found his wife entered the forbidden room, and then he was furious with her betrayal and going to kill her. If we consider these in seventeenth-century context, we may find that a kind of infidelity can cause the punishment of death, which is the sexual infidelity.13 Based on the analysis of the points above, we may assume that the wife's curiosity to the "secret office" symbolises her sexual curiosity. Moreover, her incapability of resisting her sexual curiosity, which shows in the texts as her behaviour to enter the forbidden room, underlying this is a tale about sexual temptation of the other men in a marriage.

As Bruno Bettelheim suggests in his essay: "The key that opens the door to the forbidden room suggests associations to the male sexual organ, particularly in first intercourse when the hymen is broken and blood gets on it. If this is one of the hidden meanings, then it makes sense that the blood cannot be washed away: defloration is an irreversible event." In this view, the blood on the key is the evidence of the wife's sexual infidelity, and the dead women in the forbidden room are the evidence of their surrenders of resisting in front of the temptation of sex. As the same fate in the little red riding hood, women died after been seduced by men in blue beard. On consideration of these, and the gruesome scenes in the tale, Blue Beard seems to be a cautionary tale rather than a fairy tale. In the 'Moral', Perrault warns women not to give in to their sexual curiosity, and suggests men that do not let themselves to be lost in their anger when being betrayed. However, this is not only a cautionary tale, but also a story about fighting with arranged marriage.

The story ends up with the death of Blue Beard, since he does have any heirs; his wife retained possessions of his entire fortune, and finally married herself to a courtly gentle man who gave her the real happiness.14 From the wife's happy ending, we may assumed that Perrault was on the side of Blue Beard's wife and her sister, and in his tale, he encouraged them to against the arranged marriages of that time, with their hard-nosed ambitiousness for social position and wealth and their disregard for personal inclination.15 He also voiced his support for the right of women to administer their own property; as Blue Beard's widow would not have been in the position to endow her sister or buy her brothers commissions if he has relatives, he met the requirements in his tale to let the wife inherit the money. Another hidden theme in Blue Beard is the materialism.

The widow's sister married the young nobleman after her sister used a lot of money on their marriage, though they had been in love with each other for a long time. In most of Perrault's tales, however, love cannot bring the marriage but the wealth. Money bounds up with romance in some of his fairy tales. This point is also manifested in Cinderella, one of the most popular fairy tales around the world and there are hundreds of different versions. To some extent, those two tales reveal his value and the view of woman's marriage. On the surface, Perrault's Cinderella is also a tale praises Cinderella's virtues and gives the moral of "grace is the real gift given by fairies", however, the real theme underlies the text is utterly different. In the second Moral Perrault writes, “But you they will come to nothing will fail to help you thrive, if you do not have the essential thing-Godparents-that brings them to life."

According to this, godparents are more important than the grace though it is regarded as the real gift given by the fairies in the first moral. With this concept in mind looking back at the text itself, we can find that godmother is a significant role in the whole story. She is the person who helped Cinderella to get the magnificent dresses for the ball. In many of Perrault's fairy tales, existed the concept of an ideal woman being one of "upper-class society, the composite female, is beautiful, polite, graceful, industrious, and properly groomed," and his Cinderella is one of these women. "The logic in Perrault's Cinderella is intriguing; it was not because of Cinderella's perfect virtue of grace made her adorable, but of her gorgeous appearance which was given by her godmother's magic, and the wealth appearance gave her the chance to show her grace.

As in the story, her stepsisters didn't show her the love and kindness until they know that she is the beautiful princess in the ball. When she left the ball hastily on the second day, she was seen by the guards while the magic had already disappeared. Ironically, they told the others that they had not seen anyone leave except a little girl who was "very poorly dressed and looked more like a peasant than a young lady".

The meaning of this plot is akin to what Perrault said in his second moral, inner beauty cannot be found without the magnificent appearance. The whole persona that Cinderella was showed to the Prince is based on a disguise made by magic, and in the whole story Perrault only told that the Prince was fascinated by Cinderella's appearance other than her personality and virtues. Apart from that, one of the significances of Perrault's version is its unique ending of the story; it does not make all that much difference whether one is vile or virtuous. In his story Cinderella suffered more from the stepsisters' abusive treatment, nevertheless at the end of the story Cinderella embraces the stepsisters' who have bullied her, and she tells them she loves then and cares for their loves. Even more, after her marriage to the prince, she "moved her sisters into the palace and married them that very day to two of the court's high ranking nobleman."

This ending cannot be simply regarded as a story of requiting evil with good; it is the most real reflection of Perrault's values and his view of woman's marriage: appearance of wealth, courtly manners, and the possessions and high social status, which will make one more lovable and more desirable, are the important elements to win love. In the text, Perrault particularly detailed the items the stepsisters prepared to wear in the party such as "red velvet ensemble and English lace" and "brocade coat with the golden flowers and diamond festoon". And they were invited to the ball because of their considerable celebrity in town.

These give us the sense that the two sisters are wealth on their appearance, which can be considered as the reason why they achieves their marriages to high ranking noblemen other than meet a miserable fate in the other versions. Thus, it is clear that the theme of Cinderella is stressing on the importance of possessing property, and its relationship with the women's marriage. In those three tales, sexuality and marriage are important themes as well as Perrault's materialism-inclination value and his view of women's marriage. Although they are named fairy tales, in fact they seems more like the media for Perrault to give his morals and suggestions to those audience in the court, which may be helpful during his time.

In these ways, those themes are not suitable for the children. Although the boundaries of children's literature are ambiguous, the sexuality, marriage and the values which may be morally ambiguous are hardly to be regarded as the children's themes. Charles Perrault is actually a realist who clothed his stories of adult themes in fancy dresses. However, the wonderful fictional world and the fantastic magic his fairy tales are greatly attractive to his children readers and even more the simple but intriguing stories are fancied by a lot of children all over the world. His fairy tales worth us rereading and rethinking as both of the adults' and children's literature.

Updated: Apr 19, 2023
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An Analysis of the Adult Themes in Charles Perrault's Fairy Tales. (2022, Dec 13). Retrieved from

An Analysis of the Adult Themes in Charles Perrault's Fairy Tales essay
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