Inhuman Lovers and Deadly Curiosity

The tale of Bluebeard has been adapted for the stage and the cinema just as often as tales of sleeping beauties and young women who cannot keep track of their shoes. Yet it is not a typical folk/fairy tale. Indeed, it is more akin to a modern horror film than to a Disney cartoon. It is a tale without a hero and, at best, can be seen as a cautionary tale about the dangers inherent in sex (particularly with inhuman lovers), greed, and curiosity. The most recent adaptation, Ex Machina, plays with the typical themes in a Bluebeard-inspired tale and adds its own narrative twist, but creates an even darker version for modern audiences to enjoy.

This is one of my favorite Steampunk depictions of Bluebeard. Fromsteampunkgirls.tumblr.com:image:2478914992

This is one of my favorite Steampunk depictions of Bluebeard. Fromsteampunkgirls.tumblr.com:image:2478914992

Early adaptations of the tales focus on two main characters—Bluebeard and his wife. Charles Perrault recorded the tale in his 1697 collection Tales of Past Times (a collection intended for adult readers). In Perrault’s tale, a man with a hideous blue beard is looking for a new wife. He has been married several times, but no one knows what has happened to his wives. Still, as Jane Austen might say, Bluebeard has his fortune to recommend him and yet another young woman agrees to marry him after seeing the wonders and riches of his estate. *

After they are wed, Bluebeard goes on a long journey. He leaves his new wife behind with all the keys to his house, his strong boxes filled with gold and jewels, and his blessing to spend whatever she likes and to make good cheer. Bluebeard’s wife can do anything she desires . . . except go into one room. He asks for her promise not to enter the locked room and she gives her word freely. Of course, the minute Bluebeard leaves she goes into the forbidden room and finds the murdered corpses of his previous wives.

When he returns she pretends that nothing has happened and they spend a night together filled with conjugal bliss. Afterwards Bluebeard discovers her treachery and decides to kill her and place her body among his other wives. She has failed his test of honesty and loyalty, as did all the other women he took to home and hearth. She asks for time to pray, but in reality she is stalling until her brothers (who she had summoned earlier) could arrive at the estate. Bluebeard grants her request. The brothers arrive, Bluebeard is killed, the siblings split his fortune, and she goes on to marry another “worthy” gentleman.**

Where does the reader’s sympathy lie in this story? With Bluebeard? He is a self-proclaimed mass murderer. With the wife? She lies to her husband, uses sex to delay his discovery of her deceit, convinces her brothers to murder him, divvies up his worldly goods, and then goes cheerfully off to marry another man. Would seducing and then stealing from your murder victim be socially acceptable actions for the hero of the story?

From bluebeard_by_montvalent-d4t8ud7 Deviant Art

From bluebeard_by_montvalent-d4t8ud7 Deviant Art

Through the years the story has evolved from Perrault’s version, adapting and adding elements. In various other tales, Bluebeard is portrayed as the devil in disguise, a treacherous elfin knight, or a false lover with rape on his mind. The wife is always young, foolish, greedy, and too curious for her own good. She conspires with her family/friends to kill Bluebeard and steal his material possessions. These two principle characters, neither one particularly sympathetic, remained the focus of the narratives until the Brothers Grimm added an egg to the story.

In the Grimm’s tale, Bluebeard instructs his wives to carry the egg everywhere they go. If they enter the forbidden room, he reasons, they will be shocked and drop the egg, which will shatter. Thus he will have proof of their treachery and be justified in killing them. The egg remains an inanimate object in the Grimm’s narrative, but in other adaptations it becomes a character with its own thoughts, ideas, and actions. As Margaret Atwood notes in her adaptation, Bluebeard’s Egg, “the egg is alive, and one day it will hatch. But what will come out of it?” Ex Machina, a film by writer/director Alex Garland, takes this idea further by showing viewers exactly what was hidden behind the metaphoric shell of the egg—artificial intelligence. Adding this element as an active character adds another dimension to the story, but does it create a heroic character?

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WARNING–SPOILERS

In Ex Machina, Caleb, a young coder at the world’s largest internet company, Bluebook, wins a competition where the prize is spending a week at a private retreat belonging to the reclusive CEO of the company, Nathan. Caleb has full run of the estate and all its luxuries. Once there he is tasked with conducting an experiment with the world’s first true artificial intelligence, which comes in the form of a beautiful female robot named Ava. Over the course of the week Caleb begins to develop feelings for Ava and questions whether those feelings are reciprocated. Caleb learns that Nathan plans to kill Ava after she passes the Turing Test, so he plots to murder Nathan and help her escape. But things do not go exactly as planned. Another AI (under the influence of Ava) murders Nathan. Ava leaves Caleb locked in the estate, presumably with no way out, while she makes her escape.

The parallels between the characters in Ex Machina and the tales of Bluebeard are evident from the start. The large estate, the rich, bearded, older man (whose company just happens to feature the word “Blue” quite prominently), and the younger person whose honesty and loyalty is tested mirror the events of the earliest versions of the folktale. The twist is the character of Ava.

Like Atwood’s idea of the egg, Ava is a being that needs to emerge from her metaphoric shell. She needs to leave her room, and the estate, in order to become a fully realized entity. She works for this—schemes for this—and is ultimately successful after Nathan’s murder and Caleb’s imprisonment. Her emotional/intellectual emergence could reflect a hero’s journey, but instead relishes in the villainy inherent in her nature. She lies, seduces, plots, and eventually kills to obtain her goals.

Ava’s character is just another villain in a story tradition rife with them, begging the question: can there ever be a true hero in such a tale?

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Reference:

Atwood, M. (1983). Bluebeard’s egg. In J. Zipes (Ed.), Don’t Bet On The Prince. (160-182). NY, NY: Routledge.

*Those who are fans of Jane Austin might recognize a similar scene from Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth Bennet proclaims her esteem for Mr. Darcy after seeing his Pemberley estate. Fortunately for Elizabeth, her bridegroom did not have the same murderous impulses as Bluebeard.

**If he isn’t clean shaven, then heaven help him.

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