Book Review Series: Beauty and the Beast

The NCRCL Book Review Series is a monthly series written by a NCRCL student published on the first Wednesday of every month. The aim of this series is to reflect the diverse research areas of NCRCL’s students and open a dialogue about particular texts, themes, and traditions. 

Beauty and the Beast: Why fairy tales persist.

By Kay Hall

Warren (1995) argues that “the vindication of the Beast has become the chief objective [with] the true lovableness of the Beast the main theme” (p. 316) of the Beauty and Beast tale. Within this frame and focusing on Angela Barrett’s illustrations in a traditional retelling by Max Eilenberg (2010), I asked myself ‘Where does the visual narrative position the reader’s sympathy?’ On the surface the answer is with Beast, as Barrett’s meticulous, evocative images paint Beast, initially as aggressive, then, in Beauty’s presence, as a slumped, impotent, desolate figure, his tail once erect and hostile now limp, apologetic. Intensifying his misery, Beast, framed within dark imagery, is contrasted against the lightness of Beauty enjoying the “delight” and “full glory” of his home.   In the climactic scene his motionless body, cushioned by snow, lies tender, vulnerable, lost.

This sympathetic positioning of the reader masks the subjugation of women and obscures allusions of incest – themes addressed in fairy tale criticism of this story and others. Here, I argue, however, that Angela Barrett’s imaging can be read as “double” – encouraging interrogation and resistance to passive reading.

The metafictive device of the father’s direct gaze at us as his daughters are photographed (observed, objectified by other males) disturbs and fractures. Is his look conspiratorial, one of shared knowing? From the onset Barrett encloses the daughters within frames and the juxtaposition of Beauty with a rose, signals their synonymy. Most telling is Barrett’s image of the rose in Mr Fortune’s breast pocket as he approaches home grief stricken after his bargaining with Beast. For it is symbolic not only of his desire for his daughter, as he “snapped…off” (or “plucked” as more classic narratives have it) the rose that is Beauty. But nestled among the dark textured lips, folds, ridges and creases of his “new suit”, the rose, ripe with the fullness of blood, denotes Beauty’s maturation. Her efflorescent sexuality affords Beauty agency and empowerment, and complicates the source of Mr Fortune’s anguish. It also holds the potential for new life, of images of a swollen pregnant body subverting its “antithesis”, the ideal angelic virgin beauty of male discourse, (Shapira, 2010, p. 52), depicted in the restrained tight waist of the desired Beauty.

Yet, ambiguity and fault lines persist. Beauty’s choice is contained, depicted by recurring images of framing, dislocation and displacement. Beast’s abject self is splintered by his voyeurism and pricked ears that belie his slumped posture. Deceit masquerades further in the carnivalesque nature of his home with its magic mirrors, bizarre creatures and false backdrops.

This ‘reading’ visualizes the tale’s abuse and by centralizing sex and sexuality it reveals these as arenas where this abuse is asserted and played out, unmasking them as the mainstays of patriarchy. This perspective envisions defining concepts such as sexuality as constructs, created to legitimize and uphold male dominance. This in turn, as Queer Theory argues, frees us to worry them and to see concepts that define us as existing on continuums, “fluid”, shifting, “never stable”. This undercuts any claim to hierarchy and dominance and the conceptual rigidity of these constructs dissolve, and dichotomies – that privilege and ‘other’ – collapse. This queering of normative frames does not undercut but celebrates difference, eradicating ‘othering’, inviting heterogeneity and alternatives.

Note about Kay Hall:

Name: Kay Hall: BA/DipTchg (ECE), Complete DipChLit in November 2013.
Research area: A broad conceptualization of ‘sisterhood’ in children’s literature, with an intertextual focus on myth and fairy tales.
Path to Roehampton: Children’s Librarian from N.Z. Aotearoa. Born in England, came home to continue journey with M.A. in Children’s Literature at Roehampton.
Favourite re-read: Red Shift by Alan Garner
Unsung Picture Book: Pirates by C. Drew Lamm
Unsung Young Adult Novel: The Silver Child by Cliff McNish

Series edited by Erica Gillingham

References

Byatt, A.S. The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. U.S.:Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2009.

Eilenberg, M. Beauty and the Beast. Illus. Angela Barrett. London: Walker Books, 2010.

Shapira, Y. Hairball Speaks: Margaret Atwood and the Narrative Legacy of the Femail Grotesque. Narrative, Vol. 18, No 1, 2010, pp. 51-72, DOI:10.1353/nar.0.0035.

Warner, M. From the Beast to the Blonde: on fairy tales and their tellers. London: Vintage, 1995.

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About Erica Gillingham

Academic, Writer, Craft. LGBT Children's Literature. London, UK, via California · www.ericagillingham.com

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