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Kindness, Beauty, Virtue, Beauty, Gentility…Beauty…: What Beauty and the Beast Really Teaches

Despite their sometimes primary objective of entertainment (as evidenced by Perrault’s work), nearly all fairy tales contain even the tiniest morsel of a moral or lesson (again, recalling Perrault would be beneficial). This standard has not been lost on the “Beauty and the Beast” cycle of tales, or those in which a virtuous (and beautiful) heroine is thrust into union with a grotesque, yet often kind, beast. The beauty eventually decides to stay with the beast, who, in the end, turns into a handsome prince.The moral of the story?  At first, this seems like a heartwarming tale of how virtue and goodness overcomes adversity and the curse of ugliness–yes, “ugliness” is often synonymous with “curse” in these stories, and herein lies the problem. While the lesson may appear to be that kindness comes behind all sorts of masks, these stories all, however indirectly, manage to reinforce the idea that looks do, in fact, matter.
In Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the Beauty’s kindness, selflessness, and gentility are constantly mentioned…with her beauty in hot pursuit. This may not appear to be big deal, but then it must be factored in that in the Italian retelling of the tale, “The Pig King,” the only daughter to survive was the youngest and most beautiful. Her salvation and ultimate reward cannot be explained by good virtues for, unlike Beauty who married the Beast out of mutual love and care for her family, Meldina marries the king out of material lust and need–traits which obviously do not warrant reward on their own. This reasserts the idea of beauty as a highly prized commodity, an idea which is only strengthened when it is taken into account that both of the aforementioned “beasts” turn into handsome, charming princes at the end of each tale. This can be taken to mean that not only is beauty valued, but it is also treated as a reward of sorts for the beautiful girls’ sacrifice (or, at least, complacency and decency). In Angela Carter’s “the Tiger’s Bride,” a retelling of the classic tale, it appears that the author would shirk such an archaic and barbaric ideal as the importance of beauty. Yet, at the story’s finale, the heroine–a strong-willed, independent, and intelligent individual–is transformed into a beast herself, or the beast’s idea of beauty. If one were to argue against this fact and state that the transformation was a sign of her embracing her inner nature, it would be nearly impossible to disagree: however, it would need to be duly noted that that particular idea, again, places appearance on a pedestal.
Is “Beauty and the Beast” a story of love, acceptance, and kindness? Undeniably, yes. But, is it also a tale of appearances and, unfortunately, their prevalence and importance not only in the past, but also modern day society? Sadly, this, too, may be answered “undeniably” yes.