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Bluebeard gives his wife the keys to his castle, art by Gustave Doré (1862).
Folk tale
Also known asBarbebleue
Aarne–Thompson groupingATU 312 (The Bluebeard, The Maiden-Killer)
Published inHistoires ou contes du temps passé, by Charles Perrault
RelatedThe Robber Bridegroom; How the Devil Married Three Sisters; Fitcher's Bird

"Bluebeard" (French: Barbe bleue, [baʁb(ə) blø]) is a French folktale, the most famous surviving version of which was written by Charles Perrault and first published by Barbin in Paris in 1697 in Histoires ou contes du temps passé.[1][2] The tale tells the story of a wealthy man in the habit of murdering his wives and the attempts of the present one to avoid the fate of her predecessors. "The White Dove", "The Robber Bridegroom", and "Fitcher's Bird" (also called "Fowler's Fowl") are tales similar to "Bluebeard".[3][4] The notoriety of the tale is such that Merriam-Webster gives the word Bluebeard the definition of "a man who marries and kills one wife after another". The verb bluebearding has even appeared as a way to describe the crime of either killing a series of women, or seducing and abandoning a series of women.[5]


Bluebeard, his wife, and the key in a 1921 illustration by W. Heath Robinson

In one version of the story, Bluebeard is a wealthy and powerful nobleman who has been married six times to beautiful women who have all mysteriously vanished. When he visits his neighbor and asks to marry one of his daughters, they are terrified. After hosting a wonderful banquet, the youngest decides to be his wife and goes to live with him in his rich and luxurious palace in the countryside, away from her family.

Bluebeard announces that he must leave for the country and gives the palace keys to his wife. She is able to open any room with them, each of which contain some of his riches, except for an underground chamber that he strictly forbids her to enter lest she suffer his wrath. He then goes away, leaving the palace and the keys in her hands. She invites her sister, Anne, and her friends and cousins over for a party. However, she is eventually overcome with the desire to see what the secret room holds, and she sneaks away from the party and ventures into it.

She immediately discovers that the room is flooded with blood and the murdered corpses of Bluebeard's previous six wives hanging on hooks from the walls. Horrified, she drops the key in the blood and flees the room. She tries to wipe the blood stain off the key, but the key is magic and the stain cannot be removed from it.

Bluebeard unexpectedly returns and finds the bloody key. In a blind rage, he threatens to kill his wife on the spot, but she asks for one last prayer with Anne. Then, as Bluebeard is about to deliver the fatal blow, Anne and the wife's brothers arrive and kill him. The wife inherits his fortune and castle, and has his six dead wives laid to rest. She uses the fortune to have her siblings married then remarries herself, finally moving on from the horror of her time with Bluebeard.[6]



Although best known as a folktale, the character of Bluebeard appears to derive from legends related to historical individuals in Brittany. One source is believed to have been the 15th-century convicted serial killer Gilles de Rais, a nobleman who fought alongside Joan of Arc and became both Marshal of France and her official protector, then was hanged and burned as a murderous witch.[7] However, Gilles de Rais did not kill his wife, nor were any bodies found on his property, and the crimes for which he was convicted involved the sexually driven, brutal murder of children rather than women.[8]

Another possible source stems from the story of the early Breton king Conomor the Accursed and his wife Tryphine. This is recorded in a biography of St. Gildas, written five centuries after his death in the sixth century. It describes how after Conomor married Tryphine, she was warned by the ghosts of his previous wives that he murders them when they become pregnant. Pregnant, she flees; he catches and beheads her, but St. Gildas miraculously restores her to life, and when he brings her to Conomor, the walls of his castle collapse and kill him. Conomor is a historical figure, known locally as a werewolf, and various local churches are dedicated to Saint Tryphine and her son, Saint Tremeur.[9]


The Wife is given the keys of the house. Illustration by Walter Crane
Bluebeard is slain in a woodcut by Walter Crane

The fatal effects of female curiosity have long been the subject of story and legend. Pandora and Psyche are examples of women in mythic stories whose curiosity have dire consequences. In giving his wife the keys to his castle, Bluebeard is acting the part of the serpent of the biblical Paradise, and therefore of the devil, and his wife the part of the victim held by the serpent's gaze.[10]

While some scholars interpret the Bluebeard story as a fable preaching obedience to wives (as Perrault's moral suggests), folklorist Maria Tatar has suggested that the tale encourages women not to unquestioningly follow patriarchal rules. Women breaking men's rules in the fairy-tale can be seen as a metaphor for women breaking society's rules and being punished for their transgression.[11] The key can be seen as a sign of disobedience or transgression; it can also be seen as a sign that one should not trust their husband.[12]

Tatar, however, does go on to speak of Bluebeard as something of a "Beauty and the Beast" narrative. The original Beauty and the Beast tale by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont is said to be a story created to condition young women into the possibility of not only marriage, but marrying young, and to placate their fears of the implications of an older husband.[13] It shows the beast as secretly compassionate, and someone meant to curb the intense sexual fear that young women have of marriage. Though "Beauty and the Beast" holds several similarities in Gothic imagery to "Bluebeard" (such as is shared with Cupid and Psyche as well, in the case of a mysterious captor, a looming castle, and a young, beautiful heroine), Tatar goes on to state that the latter tale lives on the entire opposite side of the spectrum: one in which, instead of female placation, the tale simply aggravates women's apprehension, confirming one's "worst fears about sex".[14]

Jungian psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés refers to the key as "the key of knowing" which gives the wife consciousness. She can choose to not open the door and live as a naive young woman. Instead, she has chosen to open the door of truth.[15]

For psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, Bluebeard can only be considered a fairy-tale because of the magical bleeding key; otherwise, it would just be a monstrous horror story. Bettelheim sees the key as associated with the male sexual organ, "particularly the first intercourse when the hymen is broken and blood gets on it". For Bettelheim, the blood on the key is a symbol of the wife's indiscretion.[16]

For scholar Philip Lewis, the key offered to the wife by Bluebeard represents his superiority, since he knows something she does not. The blood on the key indicates that she now has knowledge. She has erased the difference between them, and in order to return her to her previous state, he must kill her.[17][18]

Aarne–Thompson classification


According to the Aarne–Thompson system of classifying folktale plots, the tale of Bluebeard is type 312.[19] Another such tale is The White Dove, an oral French variant.[20] The type is closely related to Aarne–Thompson type 311 in which the heroine rescues herself and her sisters, in such tales as Fitcher's Bird, The Old Dame and Her Hen, and How the Devil Married Three Sisters. The tales where the youngest daughter rescues herself and the other sisters from the villain are in fact far more common in oral traditions than this type, where the heroine's brother rescues her. Other such tales do exist, however; the brother is sometimes aided in the rescue by marvelous dogs or wild animals.[21]

Some European variants of the ballad Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, Child ballad 4, closely resemble this tale. This is particularly noteworthy among some German variants, where the heroine calls for help much like Sister Anne calls for help to her brothers in Perrault's Bluebeard.[22]

Bluebeard's wives


It is not explained why Bluebeard murdered his first bride; she could not have entered the forbidden room and found a dead wife. Some scholars have theorized that he was testing his wife's obedience, and that she was killed not for what she discovered there, but because she disobeyed his orders.[23]

In the 1812 version published in Grimm's Fairy-Tales, Wilhelm Grimm, on p. XLI of the annotations, makes the following handwritten comment: "It seems in all Märchen [fairy-tales] of Bluebeard, wherein his Blutrunst [lust for blood] has not rightly explained, the idea to be the basis of himself through bathing in blood to cure of the blue beard; as the lepers. That is also why it is written that the blood is collected in basins."

Maurice Maeterlinck wrote extensively on Bluebeard and his plays name at least six former wives: Sélysette from Aglavaine et Sélysette (1896), Alladine from Alladine et Palomides (1894), both Ygraine and Bellangère from La mort de Tintagiles (1894), Mélisande from Pelléas et Mélisande, and Ariane from Ariane et Barbe-bleue (1907).

In Jacques Offenbach's opera Barbe-bleue (1866), the five previous wives are Héloïse, Eléonore, Isaure, Rosalinde and Blanche, with the sixth and final wife being a peasant girl, Boulotte, who finally reveals his secret when he attempts to have her killed so that he can marry Princess Hermia.

Béla Bartók's opera Bluebeard's Castle (1911), with a libretto by Béla Balázs, names "Judith" as wife number four.

Anatole France's short story "The Seven Wives of Bluebeard" names Jeanne de Lespoisse as the last wife before Bluebeard's death. The other wives were Collette Passage, Jeanne de la Cloche, Gigonne, Blanche de Gibeaumex, Angèle de la Garandine, and Alix de Pontalcin.

In Edward Dmytryk's film Bluebeard (1972), Baron von Sepper (Richard J. Burton) is an Austrian aristocrat known as Bluebeard for his blue-toned beard and his appetite for beautiful wives, and his wife is an American named Anne.

In Alex Garland's film Ex Machina (2014), Nathan is an internet mogul who designs robots with a human female body inside his home. Each time he starts a new iteration of the robot, he eliminates the AI of the previous one and puts the robot body inside a cupboard in his vault. Nathan's company is called Blue Book and a key plays a central role in the movie.

"Bluebeard" and Orientalism

Edmund Dulac illustration, 1910
Arthur Rackham illustration, 1933

Several scholars have noted the presence of Orientalism in illustrations of the tale, particularly those from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, although the trend has been dated as far back as 1805. Artists such as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Harry Clarke, Jennie Harbour, and others portrayed Bluebeard with an Oriental appearance, wearing clothing such as a turban, a vibrantly colored silk robe, and pointed slippers, carrying a scimitar.[24][25][26] These motifs often extended to depictions of his castle (which has been likened to "a harem") and the attire of the wife, who usually retained her "European features".[24][27] Dulac in particular was known for incorporating such themes into his work,[28] and his lavish illustrations of the tale are often cited as prime examples of the trend, with Anna Guiterrez calling them "[an] Oriental [fantasy]". Dulac also notably illustrated a version of Beauty and the Beast with similar overtones.[29]

Folklorist Maria Tatar has claimed the popularity of Sir Richard Francis Burton's 1888 ten-volume translation of the Middle eastern story collection One Thousand and One Nights influenced such depictions, with Victorian and Edwardian artists perhaps seeing a link between Bluebeard and the frame story's Persian king Shahryār, who similarly had a succession of wives whom he killed before the current one, when the story begins.[30] Another recognized influence is the 1798 opera The Grand Dramatic Romance Blue-Beard, or Female Curiosity by George Colman the Younger, composed by Michael Kelly. Pantomime versions of the tale were staged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London as early as 1798, and continued until at least 1901.[31] Often, these productions set the story in the Ottoman Empire or Persia with elaborate Eastern-inspired costumes and sets. On a psychological level, Marina Warner has noted the similarities between the French words for "beard" and "barbarian" (barbe and barbare, respectively), which she theorized lead to artists such as Rackham portraying the king as "a Turk in pantaloons and turban, who rides an elephant, and grasps his wife by the hair when he prepares to behead her with his scimitar."[32]

Tatar further theorized in a later article that the apparent mismatch between Orientalist illustrations and the story's European origin stemmed from the violent plot clashing with the prim morals of society at the time, writing "After all, it’s much more comforting for the French reader to think of such marital discord and violence as having taken place long ago and far away, rather than at home in today’s France."[33] Kelly Faircloth also noted this discrepancy, citing the illustrations as "pushing the whole disquieting tale into the geographic and cultural distance".[34]

More uncommonly, these Orientalist themes sometimes extended to the text itself, with rewrites moving the setting from the French countryside to a Middle Eastern city such as Baghdad and giving the wife the Arabic name "Fatima", though Bluebeard and the wife's sister Anne often contradictorily retained their European names. New retellings of the story contained Orientalist themes as late as 1933.[24][35][36]

Though criticism of this phenomenon did not widely come about until the 21st century, an early detractor was Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang, selector and editor of the popular children's series Lang's Fairy Books. Lang was displeased with the Orientalist themes in then-current illustration, seeing it as a deliberate masking of the story's European origins, and commented in the introduction to the first volume of the series, 1889's The Blue Fairy Book: “Monsieur de la Barbe Bleue was not a Turk!...They were all French folk and Christians; had he been a Turk, Blue Beard need not have wedded to but one wife at a time.”[37] Despite Lang's grievances, the illustrations for the tale in the volume by G.P. Jacomb-Hood portray Bluebeard, his wife, and the castle with a Middle Eastern motif.

Orientalist themes gradually disappeared from retellings in the latter half of the 20th century and beyond, which were increasingly aimed at recontextualizing the morals and themes of the tale (such as Angela Carter's 1979 short story "The Bloody Chamber", which explicitly sets the tale in France).[38]

Real life accounts


Henri Désiré Landru was a French serial killer during the First World War and nicknamed the "Bluebeard of Gambais". His story was lampooned in the Charlie Chaplin black comedy film Monsieur Verdoux (1947).

An eponymous dramatic film, Landru, was released in France in 1963.



Versions and reworkings



"Blue Beard" by Harry Clarke.

Other versions of Bluebeard include:[43][44]

In Charles Dickens' short story "Captain Murderer", the title character is described as "an offshoot of the Bluebeard family", and is far more bloodthirsty than most Bluebeards: he cannibalises each wife a month after marriage. He meets his demise after his sister-in-law, in revenge for the death of her sister, marries him and consumes a deadly poison just before he devours her.[55]

In Anatole France's The Seven Wives of Bluebeard, Bluebeard is the victim of the tale, and his wives the perpetrators. Bluebeard is a generous, kind-hearted, wealthy nobleman called Bertrand de Montragoux who marries a succession of grotesque, adulterous, difficult, or simple-minded wives. His first six wives all die, flee, or are sent away under unfortunate circumstances, none of which are his fault. His seventh wife deceives him with another lover and murders him for his wealth.[56]

In Angela Carter's "The Bloody Chamber", Bluebeard is a 1920s decadent with a collection of erotic drawings, and Bluebeard's wife is rescued by her mother, who rides in on a horse and shoots Bluebeard between the eyes, rather than by her brothers as in the original fairy-tale.[47]

In Joyce Carol Oates' short story, "Blue-Bearded Lover", the most recent wife is well aware of Bluebeard's murdered wives: she does not unlock the door to the forbidden room, and therefore avoids death herself. She remains with Bluebeard despite knowing he is a murderer, and gives birth to Bluebeard's children. The book has been interpreted as a feminist struggle for sexual power.[57]

In Helen Oyeyemi's Mr. Fox, Mr. Fox is a writer of slasher novels, with a muse named Mary. Mary questions Mr. Fox about why he writes about killing women who have transgressed patriarchal laws, making him aware of how his words normalize domestic violence. One of the stories in the book is about a girl named Mary who has a fear of serial killers because her father raised her on stories about men who killed women who did not obey them and then killed her mother.[58]

Kurt Vonnegut's Bluebeard features a painter who calls himself Bluebeard, and who considers his art studio to be a forbidden chamber where his girlfriend Circe Berman is not allowed to go.[59]

In Donald Barthelme's Bluebeard, the wife believes that the carcasses of Bluebeard's previous six wives are behind the door. She loses the key and her lover hides the three duplicates. One afternoon Bluebeard insists that she open the door, so she borrows his key. Inside, she finds the decaying carcasses of six zebras dressed in Coco Chanel gowns.[60]

In theatre


In music


In film

Barbe-bleue (1901), directed by Georges Méliès
Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine in Rebecca (1940)

In poetry

  • "Bluebeard's Closet" (1888), a poem by Rose Terry Cooke[67]
  • "Der Ritter Blaubart" ("The Knight Bluebeard") (1911), a poem by Reinhard Koester
  • "I Seek Another Place" (1917), a sonnet by Edna St. Vincent Millay[68]
  • "Bluebeard", a poem by Sylvia Plath[69]
  • The story is alluded to in Seamus Heaney's 1966 poem "Blackberry Picking":[70] "Our hands were peppered/With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's."

References in literature

  • In Charlotte Brontë's 1847 novel Jane Eyre, the narrator describes a hallway in her employer's mansion as "like a corridor in some Bluebeard's castle."[71]
  • In The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, the story of Bluebeard is referred to in Chapter 18, with Sir Percy's bedroom being compared to Bluebeard's chamber, and Marguerite to Bluebeard's wife.[72]
  • In William Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, the character Benedick exclaims, "Like the old tale, my lord: It is not so nor 'twas not so but, indeed, God forbid it should be so." Here, Benedick is quoting a phrase from an English variant of Bluebeard, Mr. Fox,[73] referring to it as "the old tale".
  • In Machado de Assis’s story "The Looking Glass" the main character, Jacobina, dreams she is trying to escape Bluebeard.
  • In The Blue Castle, a 1926 novel by Lucy Maude Montgomery, Valancy's mysterious new husband forbids her to open one door in his house, a room they both term "Bluebeard's Chamber".
  • In Vladimir Nabokov's novel Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, the main character Van and his father Demon are both referred to as Bluebeards.
  • In Stephen King's The Shining, the character Jack Torrance reads the story of Bluebeard to his three-year-old son Danny, to his wife's disapproval. The Shining also directly references the Bluebeard tale in that there is a secret hotel room which conceals a suicide, a remote 'castle' (The Overlook Hotel), and a husband (Jack) who attempts to kill his wife.
  • In Javier Marías’ 1992 novel, A Heart So White, the narrator’s father is called "worse than Bluebeard" for having lost three wives in succession.[74]
  • In Fifty Shades of Grey, by E. L. James, Mr. Grey has a bloody S & M chamber where he tortures Anastasia, and she refers to him at least once as Bluebeard.[75]
  • "Bones", a short story by Francesca Lia Block, recasts Bluebeard as a sinister L.A. promoter.[76]
  • The short story Trenzas (Braids) by Chilean writer María Luisa Bombal has some paragraphs where the narrator comments on Bluebeard's last wife having long and thick braids that would get tangled in Bluebeard's fingers, and as he struggled to undo them before killing her, he was caught and killed by the woman's protective brothers.[77]
  • In Carmen Maria Machado's In the Dream House, the author uses the story of Bluebeard to illustrate tolerance in domestic abuse situations.

In television

  • Bluebeard is featured in an episode of Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics as part of its "Grimm Masterpiece Theater" season. The character design for Bluebeard strongly resembles the English King Henry VIII.
  • A 1976 episode of Manga Sekai Mukashi Banashi titled in Japanese "Aohige" depicts the Bluebeard fairytale.
  • Bluebeard is featured in Sandra the Fairytale Detective as the villain in the episode "The Forbidden Room".
  • Bluebeard is featured in Scary Tales, produced by the Discovery Channel, Sony and IMAX, episode one, in 2011. (This series is not related to the Disney collection of the same name.)
  • Bluebeard was the subject of the pilot episode of an aborted television series, Famous Tales (1951), created by and starring Burl Ives with music by Albert Hague.
  • A Korean stage play of the Bluebeard story serves as the backstory and inspiration for the antagonist, a serial kidnapper, in the South Korean television show, Strong Woman Do Bong-soon (2017).
  • In Hannibal, season 3 episode 12 "The Number of the Beast is 666", Bedelia Du Maurier compares herself and the protagonist Will Graham to Bluebeard's brides, referring to their relationships with Hannibal Lecter.
  • You, season 1 episode 10 is called "Bluebeard's Castle", and the heroine Guinevere Beck compares the character Joe Goldberg to Bluebeard and his glass box to Bluebeard's castle.[78]
  • It's Okay to Not Be Okay is a South Korean Drama in which this tale is narrated in episode 6.
  • The TV series Grimm, episode 4, season 1, "Lonely Hearts", is based on Bluebeard. The antagonist is a serial rapist who keeps all of his, still alive, victims in a secret basement room.
  • Succession, season 2, episode 9 when Rhea called Logan 'bluebeard' because she thinks he is trying to kill her by putting her up for the CEO position and takes the fall for the cruise ship coverup.

In other media



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Further reading

  • Apostolidès, Jean-Marie (1991). "Des Choses cachées dans le château de Barbe bleue" [Hidden Things in Bluebeard's Castle]. Merveilles & Contes (in French). 5 (2): 179–199. JSTOR 41390294.
  • Barzilai, Shuli (2009). Tales of Bluebeard and His Wives from Late Antiquity to Postmodern Times (Print). London: Routledge.
  • da Silva, Francisco Vaz (2010). "Review of Tales of Bluebeard and His Wives from Late Antiquity to Postmodern Times". Marvels & Tales. 24 (2): 358–360. JSTOR 41388968.
  • Estés, Clarissa P. (1992). Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Random House, Inc.
  • Hermansson, Casie E. (2009). Bluebeard: A Reader's Guide to the English Tradition. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi.
  • Loo, Oliver (2014). The Original 1812 Grimm Fairy Tales Kinder- und Hausmärchen Children's and Household Tales.
  • Lovell-Smith, Rose (2002). "Anti-Housewives and Ogres' Housekeepers: The Roles of Bluebeard's Female Helper". Folklore. 113 (2): 197–214. doi:10.1080/0015587022000015329. JSTOR 1260676. S2CID 162367867.
  • Lurie, Alison (2005). "One Bad Husband: What the 'Bluebeard' story tells us about marriage". The American Scholar. 74 (1): 129–132. JSTOR 41221385.
  • Ruddick, Nicholas (2004). "'Not So Very Blue, after All': Resisting the Temptation to Correct Charles Perrault's 'Bluebeard'". Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. 15 (4 (60)): 346–357. JSTOR 43308720.
  • Sumpter, Caroline (2012). "Tales of Bluebeard and his Wives from Late Antiquity to Postmodern Times, by Shuli Barzilai". Victorian Studies. 55 (1): 160–162. doi:10.2979/victorianstudies.55.1.160. JSTOR 10.2979/victorianstudies.55.1.160. S2CID 144301925.
  • Tatar, Maria (2004). Secrets Beyond the Door: The Story of Bluebeard and His Wives. Princeton / Oxford: Princeton University Press.
  • Vizetelly, Ernest Alfred (1902). Bluebeard: An Account of Comorre the Cursed and Gilles de Rais, with Summaries of Various Tales and Traditions. Westminster, England: Chatto & Windus.

See Also