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Beauty and the Beast; or,
the Ethics of a Fairy Tale
An Aesthetic Realism Essay
by Lynette Abel


 I learned from Aesthetic Realism the reason fairy tales have been loved throughout the centuries by children and adults alike is because they deal with ethical questions that affect people every day. And some of these stories belong to the great literature of the world because of how richly they put together opposites, such as, good and evil, the strange and the ordinary, surface and depth, appearance and reality--opposites which we want to make sense of in our own lives. "All beauty," Eli Siegel explained, "is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves."

     I will comment on an 18th century version of a French fairy tale which I love, and which, is important in terms of ethics, and can teach us about what makes for happiness.  Beauty and the Beast is about a subject which has made for wonder and excitement in people over and over--what appears to be on the surface is not what actually is in reality.  This story is critical of a woman's desire to think that what is on the surface is all there is. It shows powerfully, that the deeper you go and the more you want to know, the more meaning and value you will find.

     There is uncertainty as to its original author.  The story I will quote from is by Madame Leprince De Beaumont, written around 1740, and translated by Ronald Duncan.  Beauty and the Beast is about a rich merchant, his three daughters and three sons. The two older daughters are outwardly beautiful, but they are vain and selfish. The youngest daughter, who is called Beauty (la Belle) is beautiful outwardly, but also inwardly--she is kind and wants to have a good effect on others. When her father's fortune falls on hard times, Beauty has good will.  She rises at 4 in the morning to begin cooking and cleaning for the family. Madame De Beaumont writes:

"When her work was finished, she would read, play the harpsichord or sing at the spinning wheel.  But her sisters were bored to death; they rose at ten in the morning....and passed their time bemoaning the loss of their beautiful clothes.... "Look at our younger sister," they said to each other; 'she is so vulgar and stupid that she is satisfied with her unhappy position.' "
     What Beauty stands for throughout this fairytale is described by Eli Siegel in the international journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, issue 274:  
"The most beautiful thing a person can do is to be interested in justice so much that his care is a deep cause of his happiness."
     On learning that one of his ships had recently come into port safely, the merchant sets out to claim it.  The older daughters beseech him to "bring them back dresses, fur tippets, headdresses and baubles of every kind."  Beauty, not wanting anything except the safe return of her father, but also not wanting to offend her sisters by not asking for anything, asks for a rose.

     At the harbor the merchant finds his goods have been taken by his creditors and he begins his return home as poor as before.  Losing his way through a dark, snowy forest, he sees a light which leads him to a great castle.  Upon entering it, he finds a blazing fire and a table set with food and wine.  He eats and falls asleep. The next morning the merchant sets out and on seeing a bower of roses and remembering her request he plucks one off for Beauty.  At that moment the merchant hears a terrible voice and sees a Beast who is so hideous he nearly faints. The Beast says:

"How ungrateful you are....I saved your life by taking you into my castle, and in return...I find you stealing my roses....You must die to expiate this crime....I will forgive you on condition that one of your daughters comes here willingly to die in your place."
     The merchant returns home and after telling of his unhappy adventure, Beauty slips out in the middle of the night and returns to the castle in her father's place.  She meets the Beast for the first time. The story continues:
"When Beauty saw the Beast's hideous face she...tried to control her fear, and when the monster asked her if she had come willingly, she replied tremblingly that that was so. "That is good of you," said the Beast, "and I am much obliged.... Good night, Beauty." "Good night, Beast."
     The next day Beauty decides to explore the castle.  She wants to find things to be pleased by, even as she is afraid that the Beast may kill her.  De Beaumont writes:
"...to her surprise, she saw a door, on which was written Beauty's [Room]...and was dazzled by the elegance within.  But what pleased her most was a huge bookcase, a harpsichord and several volumes of music.  "They don't want me to be bored," she said quietly." 
Beauty is trying to like things around her.  And she feels she is being thought of deeply--her mind is being valued--not just her outward appearance.  Every evening when Beauty has dinner the Beast visits her and she looks forward to their talks.  And she doesn't stop at how the Beast looks??she wants to know him  One evening the Beast says to her: 
"I suppose you find me very ugly, don't you?"  "That is true," said Beauty, "for I cannot lie; but I think that you are very kind....I must confess that your goodness pleases me,...I like you with your face better than those who, beneath a man's face, hide a false, corrupt and ungrateful heart." ...Beauty...hardly feared the monster any more, but she nearly died of fright when he said to her: "Beauty, will you marry me?" She said, trembling, "No, Beast." ...Every evening the Beast came to see her and spoke to her...with much good sense....Each day Beauty discovered fresh signs of the monster's kindness."
In 1979, the late Sheldon Kranz, Aesthetic Realism consultant and teacher of the course "Literature and the Self," discussed Beauty and the Beast which he said was great and explained:
"[Beauty] comes to see that under [the beast's] physical ugliness there is something that is really very beautiful but it takes perception.  It's a way of saying you've got to like the world even if it doesn't look so beautiful [at] first."
     Every evening the Beast asks Beauty if she will marry him.  And she refuses, though it distresses her that he is pained by this. She tells the Beast she will never leave him altogether, but she asks to see her father again, and promises to return in a week.  The Beast agrees to let her go and says she need only lay her ring on a table when she wants to return. If she does not keep her promise, he will die of grief.  The next day she awakes in her father's home.  Her sisters visit and are furiously jealous of her happiness.

     In a class Eli Siegel once said to me:  "The whole purpose of life is to be exact about value....if you aren't exact, you're rooking yourself."  Beauty's sisters in their inexactitude, have rooked themselves.  They have married men for their handsomeness and wit and found them vain and sarcastic, and both women are miserable.  They plot to have Beauty stay past a week with the hope that the Beast, in anger, will kill her.  They feign such sadness at her leaving that Beauty agrees to stay.  Then in a dream she sees the Beast "lying prostrate on the grass about to die."...

"How wicked I am, she said to herself to make a Beast suffer so when he has been so kind to me....It is neither good looks nor wit in a husband which makes his wife content; it is goodness of character, virtue and obligingness, and the Beast has all these good qualities...."
She puts her ring on the table and returns to the Beast's castle.  Beaumont writes:
"She found the poor Beast lying unconscious, and she thought he was dead.  She threw herself on his body, no longer feeling any revulsion at his appearance. Hearing his heart still beating, she took some water from the stream and sprinkled it on his head ....No, my dear Beast, you shall not die, said Beauty, you shall live to marry me; for I now give you my hand and swear that I will be yours alone.....No sooner had Beauty said these words than the whole castle lit up; fireworks, music, everything announced a festive occasion.  To her amazement, the Beast had disappeared and she saw at her feet a prince more beautiful than Love himself, who was thanking her for breaking his spell....[The Prince]married Beauty, who lived with him a very long time in perfect happiness, because their happiness was founded on virtue. "
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