Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Sleeping Beauty Must Die: The Plots of Perrault's "La Belle Au Bois Dormant"

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Sleeping Beauty Must Die: The Plots of Perrault's "La Belle Au Bois Dormant"

Article excerpt

The cannibalism storyline in Charles Perrault's "La belle au bois dormant" ("The Sleeping Beauty in the Woods") is both disturbing and fascinating, eliciting a wide range of critical response, even as the entire plot has been dropped from most children's editions and many subsequent adaptations.1 Readers of Perrault's 1697 tale know that after her long sleep the princess is threatened by her ogress mother-in-law, who wants to eat her and her two children. Thanks to the intervention of the ogress's steward, Sleeping Beauty and her children manage to avoid being eaten; however, when the ogress discovers them all alive, she prepares to throw the whole lot - grandchildren, daughter-in-law, steward, and his family - into a vat of snakes, vipers, and toads. At that moment, Sleeping Beauty's husband, now king, returns from war. Rather than face her angry son, the ogress throws herself into the vat and is devoured by her own creatures. Thus a story about sleep ends as a tale of forbidden appetite, prompting Marc Soriano to assert that "La belle au bois dormant" is not one tale but two (125).

Indeed, the cannibalism plot raises many questions about the narrative coherence and structure of the tale. The prince hides his family from his mother for two years, because he fears her appetite for young flesh. Why, then, does he place the whole family under her protection when he becomes king? Furthermore, as the son of an ogress, would the prince not also be subject to ogrelike tendencies?2 Why did Perrault include the cannibalism plot when his own moral alludes only to the sleep plot? Many critics account for the ogress story line through source study, noting the similarities between the character and the spurned wife in Giambattista Basile's "Sole, Luna, e Talia" ("Sun, Moon, and Talia").3 Jeanne Morgan maintains that the narrative incongruities in the tale result from Perrault's twin desire to remain true to his source and to adhere to the literary rules of bienséances (85-86). Psychoanalytic treatments of "La belle au bois dormant" often read the ogress as a necessary foil for Sleeping Beauty4 Two recent sociocultural analyses of the tale treat the ogress plot as integral to the text's overarching themes: Jean-Pierre van Elslande suggests that the ambivalent behavior of the prince/king toward his mother betrays a kind of powerlessness, which reflects Perrault's own ambivalence toward "les Grands" (453-54). In his study of food, visual spectacle, and the processes of acculturation in "La belle au bois dormant," Philip Lewis reads the cannibalism plot as central to Perrault's exploration of the tensions between the civilizing process and nature (133). Moreover, Lewis argues that the tale achieves symmetry through repetition: in each story line the princess is threatened by death and saved by her Prince Charming (150).

Although the narrative structure of the tale does seem guided by repetition or what Tzvetan Todorov calls the ideological organization, where different adventures are linked through the application of a higher, abstract rule (42) the two plots diverge in their treatment of Sleeping Beauty's would-be assassins. Although the ogress, who serves as the agent of evil in the cannibalism plot, meets a horrible death, the old fairy who curses the baby princess with death in the sleep plot goes unpunished and fades from the story. For Bruno Bettelheim, this missing punishment is reason enough for the story line of the ogress, whose gruesome death ensures that "fairy-story justice" is accomplished (23O).5 The purpose of the cannibalism plot, then, would be to punish the ogress in the place of the old fairy, substituting one woman, one death, for another. This suggests that the relationship between the two plots is more complicated, and that they are bound together by more than repetition. Reading Bettelheim's comment back through Lewis's observation about the repetitive structure of the tale opens up a slightly different question about this dualplot tale. …

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