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Murders in Charles Perrault’s “La Barbe Bleue”: Crime or Justice?

 Murders in Charles Perrault’s “La Barbe Bleue”: Crime or Justice?

Rritwika Roychowdhury

Postgraduate Student

Department of English

Presidency University

Kolkata, West Bengal, India


Folk tales are more than just “happily ever after” stories. They can be gruesome and depict death and suffering in a variety of forms. Death in such a narrative, while deployed to build tension and mystery, also serves to increase the story’s focus on the justice sought. Folk tales are extensively read to and by children, despite the fact that it is debatable whether they are meant for young readers. Due to the modern notion of childhood in which children are expected to absorb a “sanitized” form of fairy tales, it is more important than ever for the texts aimed at young readers to do justice to the victim, in order to convey a moral lesson. Children are influenced by traditional beliefs that criminalize the deaths of “good” characters, while justifying that of the “bad” ones. The author of this research work argues that the distinction between crime and justice in folk tales and fairy tales is rather ill-defined, using the case of the centuries-old tale, “La Barbe Bleue”or“Bluebeard”, whose most prominent surviving version was penned down by Charles Perrault in 1697. The paper also looks at other stories based on the tale of Bluebeard, including Grimm Brothers’ “Fitcher’s Bird,” and Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” in order to examine how murder, the most heinous of all crimes, is justified for children in folk tales through social biases and rationales.


Keywords: Bluebeard; Folktales; Justice; Murder; Social prejudice

Folktales are regional stories that are passed down orally through generations and play an important role in familiarizing people with their culture. Despite the fact that it is debatable whether folk tales are meant for young readers, they are extensively read to children as bedtime stories and are among the first stories children learn to read on their own (Dorsey 1). Elizabeth Tucker claims, “children are both conservative and creative; once they learn traditional texts, they will pass them along to others, adding some creative changes of their own” (4). As a result of the early integration into people’s culture, these narratives have a considerable impact on the formation of ethical, social, and aesthetic values of the regional community at large.

Folk tales, according to Ruth Bottigheimer, are reflections of the lifestyle and belief systems of their intended audience, therefore the characters are heavily inspired from the everyday world, and the plots are based on real-world issues (211).Hikmat Dahal and Balaram Bhatta expresses themselves to the same effect where they observe these tales to be “powerful tools for teaching children about diverse cultures” (32). Children’s societal ideas and cultural attitudes can be shaped through their exposure to folk stories from around the world (Smith and Wiese 69), which enriches them with the knowledge of various traditions. Hence, folk tales form an essential component of the genre of Children’s Literature. Folk tales paint a simplified image of the world and convey a lesson that virtuous people deserve a happy ending to their stories, but there are more to those “happily-ever-after” finales. These tales can be gruesome and depict death and suffering in a variety of forms. Death resulting from a criminal act in such a narrative, while deployed to build tension and mystery, also serves to increase the story’s focus on the justice sought. In most folk narratives, there are “good” and “evil” characters, and it is commonly observed that justice for the former includes violence against the latter. The violence committed against “evil” characters is rarely considered inappropriate, and it is instead excused by the social prejudices that have already been ingrained in the minds of the readers. The purpose of this paper is to question this violence — the crimes that are committed in order to provide social justice for the “good” characters. In doing so, it analyzes the centuries-old tale,“La Barbe Bleue”or “Blue Beard” (1697) by Charles Perrault. The paper also looks at other stories based on the tale of Blue Beard, including Grimm Brothers’ “Fitcher’s Bird,” and Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” in order to examine how murder, the most heinous of all crimes, is justified for children in folktales through social biases and rationales.

Classified into various subgenres, folktales include myths, legends, tall tales, fables, trickster tales, fairy tales and so on. Myths are traditional stories, with religious overtones. They account for superhuman beings engaged in superhuman activities. Legends are orally transmitted stories that are believed to be based on real, larger-than-life people, who strived to resist a powerful negative force, hence glorifying their way of life. Tall tales are fictional stories that exaggerate unrealistic events. Fables commonly include animals with human qualities in them, and convey a moral lesson, either directly or indirectly. Trickster tales also feature anthropomorphized animals as protagonists, who exhibit attributes such as intellect, deception, and boastfulness while playing harmless pranks on others, and serve as a folkloric target onto whom the insecurities and flaws of the source culture are projected. Fairy tales are fantastical stories usually intended for children. These stories often include magic, specifically stresses on the triumph of good over evil, and finally lead to a happy ending.

Some scholars believe that these stories are based on ordinary life and that they teach life lessons (Bottigheimer 211, Dahal and Bhatta 32), but the scope for forming cultural and psychological notions through folk tales independent of social prejudices, is relatively limited. The multiplicity of folk tales and the distinctions within those categorizations, reveal that a distorted reality is projected via them—the seemingly conventional portrayals of humankind through these narratives conceal something more than just an image of the social reality (Fischer 239). Although folk tales serve as a guiding factor for children in learning about the social complexities and developing their belief systems, the ideas cannot be formed without assistance from adults. When adults, such as parents, governesses or teachers, become the interpreter and conveyor of the social or moral message imparted through a folk tale, such interpretations of the narrative may or may not respect the tale’s original aim or purpose (Dahal and Bhatta 33). As a result, the children’s ability of reimagining and generating fresh perspectives, independent of those of adults, is no longer possible. The most prominent outcome of this practice is the pertinence of the good and evil binary. Folk tales recounted to children are assessed for a moral lesson and in essence, viewed through a lens that stresses the dichotomy of good and evil. It is ironic that readers accept a narrow and restrictive understanding of one of the most dynamic literary genres for the sake of tradition, and pose no question. They internalize the tales and their morals as a part of their psyche without questioning their validity (Robbins 102). The central characters in the tales, who are essentially good, become ideals for the readers (Baruah, et al. 3), and they seek social justice for them in the end — the hardships these characters had to go through should now be compensated for, and they should be free to live happily ever after. The antagonists, on the other hand, must be punished for their evil deeds at all costs. The expectations of the readers are fulfilled by these works.

Before authors such as Charles Perrault (regarded as one of the first writers of the fairy tale genre) began to pen them down during the seventeenth century, there was no written record of folk tales, and their evolution and survival over time mostly depended on the oral traditions. Folk tales are structurally very flexible and versatile, since the oral traditions do not allow them to have a rigid structure and storyline. The narratives change significantly over the course of time due to the innumerable retellings and cultural translations they undergo. Perrault’s book, Contes de ma mèrel’oye (French title) or Tales of Mother Goose (1697), contains few of the most popular fairy tales including “Cinderella; or, the Little Glass Slipper,”“The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” “Puss in Boots,”“Little Red Riding-Hood,” and “Blue Beard.” Likewise, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (German title) or Children’s and Household Tales (1812), a collection of folk tales written by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, depict similar stories but with notable differences. In addition to oral storytelling, folk tales and fairy tales have been popularized and notably modified by media companies such as Walt Disney, which produce films based on regional folklores, while tailoring them to suit the interest of their target audience, that is children and their parents, omitting portions in an attempt to make them age-specific, thus pushing the plot even further from the original storyline. The stories are revised time and again to meet the expectations and demands of each time period. The initial edition of Children’s and Household Tales, for example, was not intended for children. There were sexual references abound in stories like “Rapunzel” and “The Little Red Cap,” or what is now known as “Little Red Riding Hood.”The prince impregnated Rapunzel before their marriage, and Gothel discovered the secret when her garments tightened. The wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood, ”dressed as the grandma got into the bed, and persuaded the little girl to join him, projecting the wolf as a man who wishes to entice a little girl into bed. These references were removed from subsequent editions because they were deemed inappropriate for children who were now getting exposed to these texts.

The modern folk tales have been “sanitized” for the children to make them more fanciful. But this process was carried out only to conceal the possible violence perpetrated against the protagonists. The villains, however, are left to suffer the consequences of their actions because they deserve the punishment. Therefore, no matter how unpleasant the images become for them to experience, the children wish for the evil people to be punished in the most horrific manner possible, and the adults find nothing wrong with this. Such a conflict of opinions stems from social prejudice. Exposure to multiple cultures through folk tales cause children to develop prejudices (Santi, et al. 208), that are usually overlooked. Children acquire their opinions toward specific social groups through “direct training” or by imitating their parents’ verbal and nonverbal behavior, possibly because imitative behavior is rewarded (Nesdale 2). It is a common notion in social psychology that parents wish to leave an impression on their children, who also aspire to be like the parents; the social prejudices continue to exist.

Perrault’s “La Barbe Bleue” tells the story of a man who, despite his wealth, was feared by women due to his blue beard. He wished to marry one of the daughters of a widow, but neither of the girls agreed to marry him because his multiple wives had mysteriously disappeared, and no one knew what had happened to them. Blue Beard then invited the two sisters, their mother, and their friends to spend a week in his mansion, which they overtly enjoyed, and at the end of it the youngest of the sisters agreed to marry him. About a month after the wedding, Blue Beard left his wife at the mansion and went for business. Before leaving, he gave her the keys of all the rooms of his mansion. She was allowed to access all rooms except a closet, which was forbidden for her to open. The bride could only think of the forbidden closet since the husband had departed. Unable to contain her curiosity, she eventually opened it, where she discovered the floor laden with clotted blood, and dead bodies of several women littered across it. When Blue Beard returned, he asked for the bunch of keys from his wife, and quickly spotted a small blood stain on the little key. Realizing that his wife had disobeyed him, he threatened to behead her. However, she was saved at the last moment by her brothers, who killed Blue Beard. Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” follows similar storyline, except that it is told from a feminist perspective. Here, the story concludes with Marquis, the villain, being shot by the heroine’s mother. Although “Fitcher’s Bird” by the Grimm Brothers is a bit different from that of “Blue Beard” in terms of plot, it ultimately concludes with the antagonist’s death. The plot revolves around a nefarious wizard and three sisters who fall victim to the wizard’s evil tricks. The youngest sister rescues her elder sisters with great dexterity, and plans to kill the wizard. The heroine’s plan is executed by her brothers, who kill the antagonist by locking him in his house and setting it on fire to burn him alive.

All three versions of the tale meet a similar ending—the villains are murdered by the heroes. Murder, the most heinous of all crimes, is committed by the supposedly “good” and virtuous people. These seemingly simple folk tales about the triumph of good over evil are created upon a terrifying substratum of violence, a method chosen to provide social justice to the protagonists, while also transmitting a moral message. In all three versions of the story, the violence committed by the antagonists are recounted in great detail in order to highlight the evilness of their characters. The readers perceive a gory picture of the forbidden closet in “Blue Beard” when the heroine describes its floor to be “covered with clotted blood, on which the bodies of several dead women were lying” (Perrault 2). In “Fitcher’s Bird,” the wizard “threw [the eldest sister] down, dragged her thither by her hair, cut her head off on the block, and hewed her in pieces so that her blood ran on the ground” (Grimm and Grimm 122). Carter reveals what the nameless heroine sees in the bloody chamber in a two-page long, very elaborate and dramatic exposition:

Each time I struck a match to light those candles round her bed, it seemed a garment of that innocence of mine … fell away from me … The opera singer lay, quite naked, under a thin sheet of very rare and precious linen … my eyes accustomed themselves to the gathering darkness, I at last — oh, horrors! — made out a skull; … With trembling fingers, I prised open the front of the upright coffin, with its sculpted face caught in a rictus of pain … She was pierced, not by one but by a hundred spikes… (32-33)

In contrast to the accounts for the villain’s crimes, the details of what leads to their deaths at the conclusion are minimal. The brothers of the female protagonist murder Blue Beard by “plunging their swords into his body” (Perrault 4). When the wizard and all his wedding guests in “Fitcher’s Bird” had gone into the house, “the brothers and kinsmen of the bride, who had been sent to rescue her … locked all the doors of the house, set fire to it, and the wizard and all his crew had to burn” (Grimm and Grimm 123). In Carter’s story, the heroine’s mother raised her “father’s gun, took aim and put a single, irreproachable bullet through [her] husband’s head” (48). One of the animated adaptations of this tale by Manga Sekai Mukashi Banashi or Manga Fairy Tales of the World, does not show the murder of the antagonist at all, though his wails can be heard off-screen shortly after he is chased by the two brothers of his wife and it is made apparent that he has been killed (11:32).It is almost as if addressing the antagonist’s death as a result of murder committed by the supposed heroes, was not as important as it was to detail his evil deeds. If the climax of each of the stories is examined objectively, without the morality attached to it, the murders of the evil characters would appear just as horrible as any other. In Brothers Grimm’s story, the brothers of the bride murder not only the wicked Wizard, but also his guests who were invited to his house. The act of murder being narrated in only one sentence distracts the readers from an in-depth analysis of it. Such a biased perception of crimes in folk tales is the product of a morally corrupt culture. In a sense, children are taught to rationalize crimes that occur right in front of their eyes in the name of morality.

The distinction between crime and justice in folk tales and fairy tales is rather ill-defined: Perrault’s Blue Beard, Carter’s Marquis, and Grimm Brothers’ Wizard are criminals for murdering their wives, but so are the brothers and the mother of the brides, because they, too, commit the same crimes when they murdered the antagonists. The way a folk tale is told can make a big difference. When young readers are led by the adults’ views, which are based on absolutes, social and moral prejudices continue to have a significant influence on those who are only beginning to be exposed to these stories. Society is a multi-layered, complex structure, which cannot be defined in absolutes such as the good-versus-evil dichotomy. Folk tales, being the mirrors of society (Dahal and Bhatta 37), have the potential to shape the collective worth of all social networks, but it is the process of storytelling that has a great significance, since it determines how the story will be perceived. With social prejudice already embedded in the storytellers’ thoughts, the folk tales get influenced, thus modified, passing on the notion of absolutes. It is easier to convey a moral lesson to young readers by addressing how the evil people get punished in the end, but it is also necessary to address how crimes are defended only to preserve those moral lessons.

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