Academic journal article Folklore

Anti-Housewives and Ogres' Housekeepers: The Roles of Bluebeard's Female Helper. (Research Article: Focus on Women)

Academic journal article Folklore

Anti-Housewives and Ogres' Housekeepers: The Roles of Bluebeard's Female Helper. (Research Article: Focus on Women)

Article excerpt


In 1997, Daniela Hempen published a short research paper in Folklore (108:45-8) about a somewhat unexpected character in some Bluebeard stories. Hempen calls her "Bluebeard's female helper." An old woman employed in Bluebeard's home in two tales in the first edition of the Grimms' Kinder- und Hausmarchen (1812), she is found by the newlywed or newly betrothed heroine already at her grisly work: in "The Castle of Murder" (Das Mordschloss) (no. 73) scrubbing the intestines of a former victim; in "The Robber Bridegroom" (Der Rauberbrautigam) (no. 40) with water on to boil, ready to cook the chopped-up corpse of the heroine. To discover the meanings of this odd character, help cannot be sought from the scholarship of the past for, as Hempen remarks, the female helper has "been constantly overlooked in `Bluebeard' criticism." The present essay seeks to rectify this neglect.


According to Daniela Hempen, the "female helper" found in Bluebeard's castle in some versions of the story is an ambiguous figure. The servant and ally of robbers, murderers, even cannibals, living with them in "an intimacy almost beyond words" (Hempen 1997, 46), the helper appears to be a loyal assistant to the robbers, although the reader may suspect that she is also their victim or prisoner. Yet she becomes, at least in part, the heroine's saviour. Information from Bluebeard's female helper, as well as the heroine's own curiosity and enterprise, will prove to be essential to the heroine's escape and thus to the happy resolution of the tale.

Hempen is right to find the presence of this additional female character in Bluebeard's house a thought-provoking one. As the Grimms ejected Das Mordschloss from later editions of the Kinder- und Hausmarchen, and Der Rauberbrautigam has never been a children's favourite, the female helper has not been very prominent in the popular image of the tale. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, "Bluebeard" as reproduced in print in fairytale collections has mainly followed Perrault, who tends to concentrate attention on the figures of the male and female protagonist. Yet although her existence has not been much noticed, an extra female character is often found in Bluebeard's house, for instance, even in Perrault's version, in the form of Sister Anne. Sister Anne is mysteriously necessary to the final effect of the tale, given that she is quite unnecessary to the story and unmentioned for much of it. Her survival against odds--that is, despite the very superfluity of the character--might therefore point to her and other female helpers' having greater importance in tales of type AT311 ("Rescue by the Sister"), AT312 ("Bluebeard"), and AT955 ("The Robber Bridegroom") than has been generally recognised [1]. Clearly Sister Anne's role requires investigation, for Perrault's La Barbe-Bleue (1697), a far from well-made tale [2], retains its authoritative status as both the eponymous, and the first, published version of the tale type.

Sister Anne's first function is as a warning. During the opening courtship sequence, the older sister's repugnance to Bluebeard as husband tells us that her younger sister is acting unwisely in marrying him. As "Bluebeard" is a thriller of a tale, "un des drames les plus palpitants qu'on ait ecrits" [3] (Charles Deulin, quoted by Velay-Vallantin 1992, 45), such portents and threatening or mysterious circumstances abound in the early stages of many versions: in oral and traditional versions, a creature at the Bluebeard's house may utter a warning to the heroine, a female helper may offer a warning, the heroine may feel doubts or uneasiness, or the situation and appearance of the bridegroom's house may be sinister [4]. The common motif of following a trail of stones, peas, or ashes for fear of getting lost in the forest is another contributor to a general sense of unease in the audience. …

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