AskDefine | Define bluebeard

Dictionary Definition

Bluebeard n : (fairytale) a monstrous villain who marries seven women; he kills the first six for disobedience

Extensive Definition

'Bluebeard is the title character in a famous fairy tale about a violent nobleman and his over-curious wife. It was written by Charles Perrault and first published in 1698.


Bluebeard was a wealthy aristocrat, feared because of his "frightfully ugly" blue beard. He had been married three times, but no one knew what had become of his wives. He was therefore avoided by the local girls. When Bluebeard visited one of his neighbours and asked to marry one of her daughters, they were terrified, and each tried to pass him on to the other. Eventually he persuaded the younger daughter to marry him, and after the ceremony she went to live with him in his château.
Very shortly after, however, Bluebeard announced that he had to leave the country for a while; he gave over all the keys of the chateau to his new wife, including the key to one small room that she was forbidden to enter. He then went away and left the house in her hands. Almost immediately she was overcome with the desire to see what the forbidden room held, and finally her visiting sister convinced her to satisfy her curiosity and open the room.
However, the wife immediately discovered the room's horrible secret: Its floor reeked of blood, and the dead bodies of her husband's former wives hung on the walls. Horrified, she locked the door, but blood had come onto the key which would not wash off. Bluebeard returned unexpectedly and immediately knew what his wife had done. In a blind rage he threatened to behead her on the spot, and so she locked herself in the highest tower with her sister. While Bluebeard, sword in hand, tried to break down the door, the sisters waited for their two brothers to arrive. At the last moment, as Bluebeard was about to deliver the fatal blow, the brothers broke into the castle, and as he attempted to flee, they killed him. He left no heirs but his wife, who inherited all his great fortune. She used part of it for a dowry to marry her sister to the one that loved her, another part for her brothers' captains commissions, and the rest to marry a worthy gentleman who made her forget her ill treatment by Bluebeard.


Although best known as a fairy tale, the character of Bluebeard is believed to have been based on the 15th-century Breton nobleman and later self-confessed serial killer, Gilles de Rais.
Another possible source stems from the Life of St. Gildas, written five centuries after his death in the sixth century. It describes a nobleman, Cunmar the Accursed, marrying a noblewoman, Triphine. She is warned by the ghosts of his dead wives that he murders his wives 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 Cunmar, the walls of his castle fall down. Cunmar is a historical figure, known locally as a werewolf, and various local churches are dedicated to Saint Triphine and her son, Saint Tremeur.
Others regard both origins as unlikely and point to the blue beard as a symbol of his other worldly origins.
In no version of the tale is it made clear why the first wife was killed; she could not have entered the door and seen a wife he murdered.
According to the Aarne-Thompson system of classifying fairy tale plots, the tale of Bluebeard is type 312. Another such tale is The White Dove, an oral French variant. The type is closely related to Aarne-Thompson type 311, 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 is 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.
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 the calls to Sister Anne in Bluebeard, and is rescued by her brother.


The part when, while waiting for her brothers to save her, the wife asks repeatedly if they are coming has been reused and even parodied in film. The following all refer to adaptations of the full plot.


  • The character of Florian de Puysange in James Branch Cabell's novel The High Place is based on Bluebeard.
  • In 1979, Angela Carter published an updated version of the Bluebeard story, the eponymous story in her collection, The Bloody Chamber. Carter sets the story sometime between the World Wars, and writes a first person narrative from the perspective of the young wife. Her revision has feminist undertones that bring out the story's latent themes of domestic violence and predatory sexuality, and rescues its heroine from bland fairy-tale passivity. Other feminist interpretations are given by Suniti Namjoshi in her short story "A Room of His Own", and by the German author Karin Struck in her work Blaubarts Schatten (1991).
  • Francesca Lia Block writes of a modern Bluebeard, in her fairy-tale anthology, Rose and The Beast, in this version however, the girl goes because of an invitation to a party rather than being invited to live with Bluebeard (here: a young, handsome, and successful photographer), the story is also modernised however, and along with many other subtle changes the heroine is openly shown the forbidden closet. Also, Block establishes quickly that the girl must find her own escape; no sister or brothers are present to help her. Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype ISBN 0-345-40987-6
  • Kurt Vonnegut's novel Bluebeard'' (1988), is named Bluebeard, because the main character (Rabo Karabekian) owns a potato barn on the outskirts of his property which he nailed shut when his wife died. Throughout the entire book, while Rabo tells his life story, Circe Berman continually tries to find out what is in the Potato Barn. Rabo compares the potato barn to Bluebeard, and tells the basic plot of the children's story Bluebeard. Rabo was offer 3 million dollars for what was in the Barn sight unseen, because an article leaked out claiming that he was holding a piece of art in the barn to make it more valuable when he died, and it was released. (Rabo claims this is untrue).
  • In L. M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle, the heroine is told, before marrying the hero, that she must not go into a room in his house. She calls it "Bluebeard's Chamber" thereafter, although assuring him that she doesn't care if there are dead wives in there, as long as they are really dead.
  • Several popular Victorian era burlesques and pantomimes were based on the Bluebeard story.
  • In Charlotte Brontë's Victorian novel Jane Eyre, Jane comments in Chapter 11 that the third floor of Thornfield is "looking, with its two rows of small black doors all shut, like a corridor in some Bluebeard's castle."
  • Margaret Atwood uses the tale as the basis of a short story in the collection entitled Bluebeard's Egg.
  • Alice Hoffman's novel Blue Diary is a variant of the Bluebeard story.
  • Joyce Carol Oates' short story "Blue-Bearded Lover" tells the story of a woman who is supposedly Bluebeard's bride following the bride from the famous story. Unlike the typical heroine of the fairytale, this young woman remains naïve and obedient, and ends up mothering Bluebeard's children.
  • In Seamus Heaney's poem "Blackberry-Picking" the poet likens the experience of blood from the thorns of blackberry bushes to Bluebeard's fairytale, stating 'Our hands were peppered / With thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard's.'
  • Beauty and the Beast (1991 film) A similar story (an ugly man and beautiful woman in 'love') but entirely different plot. In this film version the beast allows her free roam of the castle (after some imprisonment), but specifically forbids Belle (beauty) from entering the west wing. Curiosity gets the better of her and she investigates. The beast catches her and flies into a rage.
  • Robert Coover's short story 'The Last One', available in the volume A Child Again (2005), presents a version of Bluebeard's story from Bluebeard's point of view.
  • John Ringo's novel Ghost contains a scene where the main character Mike tells two women he is dating not to enter a room on his boat where he keeps various illegal weapons.

Movies and Television

Bluebeard (1972 film) is loosely based on the legend. It takes place in the 30's, where Bluebeard is a sort of Nazi official who is sexually frustrated by beautiful women. Richard Burton takes the title role, with Joey Heatherton and Raquel Welch as two of the beauties he romances, though Heatherton survives.
bluebeard in Bulgarian: Синята брада
bluebeard in Catalan: Barbablava
bluebeard in German: Blaubart
bluebeard in Spanish: Barba Azul
bluebeard in Esperanto: Blubarbo
bluebeard in French: La Barbe bleue
bluebeard in Korean: 푸른 수염
bluebeard in Italian: Barbablù (fiaba)
bluebeard in Hebrew: כחול הזקן
bluebeard in Dutch: Blauwbaard
bluebeard in Japanese: 青ひげ
bluebeard in Polish: Sinobrody
bluebeard in Finnish: Ritari Siniparta
bluebeard in Chinese: 藍鬍子
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