Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Corpse Hoarding: Control and the Female Body in "Bluebeard," "Schalken the Painter," and Villette

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Corpse Hoarding: Control and the Female Body in "Bluebeard," "Schalken the Painter," and Villette

Article excerpt

M. Paul superintended my repast, and ahnost forced upon me more than I could swallow.

"A la bonne heure," he cried, when I signilied that I really could take no more, and, with uplifted hands, implored to be spared the additional roll on which his hand just spread butter. "You will set me down as a species of tyrant and Bluebeard, starving women in a garret; whereas, after all, I am no such thing." (1)

--Charlotte Bronte, Villette (1)

In the above quotation from Charlotte Bronte's Villette (1853), pensionnat instructor Paul Emanuel resists association with the fairy tale wife-murderer Bluebeard, but his allusion compels attention. Ordering fellow-teacher and Villette narrator Lucy Snowe to memorize lines for a school play that evening, Paul drags Lucy to the pensionnat's attic and locks her in alone, secretly listening to her rehearse. When he finally unlocks the door and Lucy explains she is hungry, Paul pulls her "down-down-down to the very kitchen. I thought I should have gone to the cellar," where he overcompensates for starving Lucy by force-feeding her (1:190). However, Bluebeard's wife is never physically starved in Charles Perrault's 1697 fairy tale "Bluebeard," the earliest known text to specifically use the name "Bluebeard." (2) Instead, she lives decadently in a luxurious castle, and it is her curiosity that requires satiation rather than her body. Though Bluebeard warns his wife against opening a locked chamber door, she does so once Bluebeard leaves home (145). This forbidden chamber harbors Bluebeard's previous overly-curious wives' corpses arranged like a gruesome tableau symbolizing Bluebeard's past secrets (murders and corpse hoarding) and present ones (desire for repetitive discovery of the corpses, his current wife's horror, and his uxoricide) (146-47).

Lucy does not seek entrance either to the play or into the attic, but the treatment she receives from Paul in the above passage presents her as more like Bluebeard's wives than she may acknowledge. Additionally, while Bluebeard prevents future defiance from his wives through murder and control of their corpses, Paul is neither husband nor killer. Still, he does possess a dead fiancee that Lucy is not aware of for much of the novel, and he attempts to control Lucy's body, locking her away and personally regulating what she takes into herself figuratively and literally--the play's words, limited sights and sounds in the dark attic, and food.

Paul exposes himself to comparisons with Bluebeard through the mere contention that he is not like the fairy tale character. However, Villette's more fascinating and less apparent link to "Bluebeard" is the manner in which Lucy inverts circumstances with those who would control, observe, and confine her in some key scenes, making her not just like Bluebeard's wives but like Bluebeard himself. To explore this concept, I first relate a brief history of Perrault's "Bluebeard" and then interpret Bronte-admired Irish author Joseph Sheridan LeFanu's short story "Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter" (1839) as a literary descendant of "Bluebeard" that further develops the figurative demonstrations of control and corpse hoarding seen in the fairy tale. I then contend that Villette can be viewed as influenced by both tales, asserting that Bronte's novel appropriates tropes of control, observation, and confinement of the female body as they appear in "Bluebeard" and "Schalken." By examining Villette through the contexts of these two tales, we can gain insight into the physically and mentally violent history of patriarchal control Bronte's text manipulates to explore female reactive resistance against domination and regulation by patriarchy and the male gaze. Lucy's anxieties over personal freedom and her partial control over how others observe her-along with how she in a sense hoards mental versions of her two loves Dr. John Graham Bretton and Paul--flout the gender dynamics that appear in Perrault's and LeFanu's tales; her story depicts a woman symbolically hoarding and suspending men in an existence between life and death. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.