Beauty and the Beast is a fairy tale embedded within many world cultures and the human imagination. It’s first know origins are within Lucius Apuleius’ ‘Cupid and the Psyche’ written in the second century AD. The tale first took the title ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in 1740 in a French novella by Madame Gabrielle de Villeneuve. This version was then shortened 16 years later by Madame Le Prince de Beaumont, becoming the well-loved basis for all future interpretations. The Aarne-Thompson system, which catalogues plots generations all over the world have used to build the fairy tales we know today, classifies the tale under ‘Supernatural or Enchanted Relatives’ in the ‘Husband’ section. Despite the tales place in this system being defined by the male character, Beaumont’s concentration on Beauty’s virtue within her tale produces a clear moral. This is laid bare by Beauty when she says to the Beast “I am well pleased with your kind heart; when I think of that you no longer seem so ugly to me.” Beauty sees past the Beast’s outward appearance, bringing the feminist rejection of objectification to the fore. Yet, Beaumont’s portrayal of Beauty as a submissive, obedient daughter to her father and servant to the Beast is anything but feminist. Beaumont’s Beauty conforms to the “cute but essentially helpless” female stereotype highlighted by Bertens. However, since the 18th century both ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ideas about women and power have been developed, taking many different forms and adaptations. Duffy re-works the tale ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to explore her thoughts about feminism and feminist ideals.
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‘Mrs Beast’ is a poem from Carol Ann Duffy’s collection ‘The World’s Wife’. Within this collection Duffy gives a voice to female Biblical, historical, mythical and fictional figures, whose voices have previously not been heard. Simone de Beauvoir, the feminist author of ‘The Second Sex’ once said that “Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth”. Mrs Beast upholds the feminist literary tradition of re-writing literature to include these missing female perspectives, with Duffy’s clear intention encapsulated in the line “These myths going round, / I’ll put them straight”.
However, the poem takes the form of a dramatic monologue, and in doing so reveals more about the speaker than perhaps they would intend. As ‘Mrs Beast’s’ true character is exposed Duffy’s poem becomes a critique, not only of patriarchal oppression of the female voice, but also of self-serving feminists who cannot, as bell hooks stated, distinguish “between power as domination and control over others and power that is creative and life-affirming”. Mrs Beast aims only to dominate the Beast entirely, keeping him on “his knees at the door” as punishment for centuries of female oppression. As the eponymous title would suggest, she is the real ‘Beast’ wishing only to accumulate her “own gold”, “better” sex and a husband to “kiss my glove” whenever she pleases. What would seem to be financial independence, a feminist principle, is in fact emotional black mail; she will leave “at one wrong word, one false move, one dirty look”. The sexual language used by Duffy parodies the original ‘children’s’ tale, the short sentences removing any emotion. “Do this. Harder” is one of a list of instructions – there is no sign of any reciprocal pleasure for the Beast. Duffy subverts the traditional “relationship between sex and power” with the man dominating the woman, yet the cruel language Duffy uses to describe the Beast as “the pig”, “horrid” “hooked” “yellowy” and “mongrel”, suggests that ‘Mrs Beast’ has taken this idea of power meaning dominance too far. Duffy is alluding here to Betty Friedans feminist idea that “Man is not the enemy here, but the fellow victim”.
Her title contains no reference to Beauty, the name of the original girl in the tale, whose appearance and soul where indeed beautiful. Perhaps this is Duffy’s way of disassociating her with the previous incarnation, who answered to every male demand from father or Prince in the traditional tale. This disassociation is continued within the first stanza. At first, the speaker asks the reader to “stare into my face â€¦ gaze into my eyes” to admire the similarity of her appearance with a list of revered, beautiful women. Yet, she ends the sentence with “think again”. These are all women who have suffered from male oppression in the past; Helen’s “face that launched a thousand ships” was used by men to start wars, Garbo was dominated by a male-orientated Hollywood, and Cleopatra and Juliet gave their lives to their beloved. These women are listed by Duffy, and given no voice. Instead, ‘Mrs Beast’ rejects any wish to be associated with them, reflecting Duffy’s rejection of society’s pre-occupation with victimized women and keeping them silenced.
Duffy employs yet more inter-textuality in ‘Mrs Beast’s’ narration of another classic fairy-tale: The Little Mermaid. The language used in ‘slit her shining silver tail’ is full of sharp monosyllabic words, hard ‘t’s’ and sibilance all suggesting a hint of bitterness from ‘Mrs Beast’. Duffy’s allusions to fairy tale characters throughout the poem, others include Goldilocks with “her eyes glued to the pot as though porridge bubbled there” and “Rapunzel slashing wildly at her hair”, are combined with a mocking tone. They all seem to wish to escape their confined and restricted roles; Goldilocks from domestic drudgery, Rapunzel from her association with her physical appearance and The Little Mermaid from the “agony â€¦ as she smiled, waltzed” in order to be accepted by her “Prince, a pretty boy”. Duffy rejects Donald Haase’s idea that “Folk narratives in particular delineate women’s roles and problems” in stereotypical ways by alluding to these fairy-tale characters, showing how they have broken away from their traditional roles which were not leading to a ‘happy-ever-after’.
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However, the tone changes when ‘Mrs Beast’ acknowledges that “look, love, I should know”. The use of commas puts emphasis on the word ‘love’ suggesting softness in the speaker’s voice at this point. One interpretation is that ‘Mrs Beast’ has faced similar heartbreak to The Little Mermaid, which would explain her feeling that men are “bastards” but not excuse her behavior. Carol Ann Duffy once stated that “it’s a hugely sad poem–“Mrs Beast”. A grievance for a previous wrongdoing would certainly explain the sudden change in tone at the end of the poem, beginning with the reference to “a line of ghosts / unable to win” including “Bluebeard’s wives”, whom Angela Carter wrote about in her feminist re-working of the fairy-tale Bluebeard, The Bloody Chamber. Duffy also includes a more modern reference to “Diana, Princess of Wales”, who died after escaping what Duffy saw as a difficult, controlling marriage, just before “Mrs Beast” was written. Duffy is showing readers that oppression of women takes place in many forms and cultures, just as fairy-tales originate all over the world, in oral tradition, poetry and prose. The strange group of similarly-minded women ‘Mrs Beast’ surrounds herself with, she describes as being “a hard school”, their “tough as fuck” attitude reminiscent of Duffy’s earlier poem ‘The Kray Sisters’. Although they resemble Sanday’s ideal of “Female solidarity groups devoted to female political or economic interests”, Duffy separates their “Poker nights” from the final stanza in order to make her final point.
The structure of ‘Mrs Beast’, with seven separate stanzas, allows for different interpretations and view points to develop within each section. The final stanza sees Duffy take a completely contrasting tone, with the romantic image of Mrs Beast “standing alone on the balcony” at night. Duffy employs metaphors such as “The moon was a hand-mirror breathed on by a Queen” to give a sense of beauty to the speaker, even if only her thoughts at this moment are beautiful. The poem becomes an elegy, mourning those women “less fortunate than we” the “captive beautiful” suffering at the hands of patriarchal oppression. ‘Mrs Beast’ seems overwhelmed by a sense of the sublime, the natural beauty of “the stars”, the “pearls” and “The moon”, which by association gives reverence to those women worthy of “a prayer”. Duffy reveals a softer side to ‘Mrs Beast’, a side which perhaps realizes the futility of dominance as a means of power. Once inside, the sharp demands commence once more as she orders “Bring me the Beast for the night”. Yet, the last line “Let the less-loving one be me” echoes Auden’s poem in which he says the opposite: “Let the more loving one be me”. Duffy’s allusion to Auden’s ‘The more loving one’ encapsulates the message she is putting across to modern feminists, the “girls” ‘Mrs Beast’ addresses directly earlier on in the poem. Betty Friedan once said that “It is better for a woman to compete impersonally in society, as men do, than to compete for dominance in her own home”. By keeping the Beast with “tears in his bloodshot eyes” ‘Mrs Beast isn’t saving the “tragic girls”, merely mirroring the gender inequality they face by inflicting it upon her “blessed” husband. Duffy leaves us without a happy-ever-after, Bertens’ “unequal power relations between men and women” remaining unresolved.
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