Elli Legerski

Sleepin’ Beauty: Sassy, Spunky, and Kickass[1]

The necklace that I wear today proclaims the following: “She’s sugar and spice and everything kickass.” As I analyze the famous fairy tale “La Belle au Bois Dormant,” I realize that within the version of this story by Perrault, the character of la Princesse is a lot more than a pretty face. She’s a spirited, interesting, exuberant, sometimes defiant woman bursting with vitality, even in a coma. Perrault is all about the details in his writing, but one juicy description he gives of la Princesse happens to be a particularly vague statement: “The most beautiful person in the world” (102). (“la plus belle personne du monde.”)[2] Perrault’s choice to use the word “personne” is saying a whole lot here: la Princesse is not just a beautiful woman, but a beautiful person. That subtle difference encourages us to read her a human being whose personality and traits go beyond classically feminine beauty and accumulate into a kind of transcendent human beauty, one-of-a-kind, that only she can possess. Since the title of this story characterizes her as beauty, we might ask why. I set out to deconstruct her identity and, more importantly, really find out what defines her beauty.

Sleeping Princess

Comatose? Dead?

Next-level prettiness: Perrault’s ability to make a fast-asleep woman not look like a corpse

The Disney version of Sleeping Beauty has the Princess portrayed as a common beauty—one that late 20th-Century America would expect to see: long, flowing blonde hair, blue eyes, pale skin, lean frame, and delicate features. Perrault, however, never actually says these things, never paints his version of La Princesse in a physical description. He does talk about her beauty a lot, but the specific features don’t matter—a sign that her beauty is more than her hair, her eyes, et cetera. It’s almost as if Perrault cannot describe her because she her persona looks so beautiful that it’s almost otherworldly. She’s not just pretty like the long-haired, small-nosed cheerleader Aurora in the Disney version could be modeled after. La Princesse is pretty on an entire new level, enough to make the Prince tremble in admiration when he sees her for the first time (imagine!). Perrault describes this scene as a kind of hypnosis: “the most exquisite vision he had ever seen: a princess that was probably about fifteen or sixteen years old, so radiantly beautiful that she had a divine glow. Trembling and in awe he dropped to his knees before her” (108 and 109). (“…le plus belle spectacle qu’il eut jamais vue : une Princesse qui paraissait avoir quinze ou seize and et dont éclat resplendissait avait quelque chose de lumineux et divin. Il s’approcha en tremblant et en admirant et se mit à genoux auprès d’elle.”) It’s not la Princesse’s looks that captivate the Prince; it’s her entire being that shines with something “bright and divine.” Mind you, this is while she’s still asleep. She’s described to be glowing, she still mesmerizes the prince in an ostensibly passive state in this passage, indicating that she’s still very much alive and only temporarily immobilized (that pesky curse!). It’s only a matter of time before she’s ready to be up and going again, displaying again the traits of a very active character.

The images above demonstrate the contrast I’m drawing between Perrault and Disney. The left illustration, from Perrault’s era, doesn’t have much to show for the physical traits of la Princesse, but it shows a pool of light emanating from her and falling onto the kneeling prince. She sits almost upright, hand extended overhead, and almost towers over le Prince. Aurora, however, has been decked out like a corpse in her picture. She is pretty, no doubt, but she is still as still can be, heavily made up, has a dull, gray overcast to her coloring, and a rose rests on her chest beneath her folded hands. She has the visual allure of the dead. To say that she waits for the Prince passively is an understatement. And to boot she doesn’t have the same vitality/glow captured from the text in the seventeenth-century illustration. Perrault’s Princess does not simply emanate a natural glow, she actually radiates a lively kind of beauty in color. He describes the shades of her features vividly, underlining the idea that even though she is asleep, she is still vital: “You would have taken her for an angel, she looked so beautiful. Fainting had not drained her face of its warm color. She had rosy cheeks and lips like coral. She did have her eyes shut, but her gentle audible breathing proved she was not dead” (104-105, emphasis mine). (“…on eut dit d’un Ange, tant elle était belle; car son évanouissement n’avait pas ôté les couleurs vives de son teint: ses joues étaient incarnates, et ses lèvres comme du corail: elle avait seulement les yeux fermez, mais on l’entendait respire doucement, ce qui faisait voir qu’elle n’était pas morte.”) Only five out of the story’s fourteen pages feature la Princesse asleep, which further implies that her persona in the story far exceeds her identity as a sleeping beauty.

A vibrant, feisty rebel

She isn’t dead. In fact, she is very much alive! And what makes her this way? Her personality, of course. Perrault’s version dares you to look at a female protagonist in a unique way: beautiful, but beautiful in a fresh, exciting way. Firstly, he names her “la Princesse” which calls upon the reader to acknowledge her position as a person of rank. She does not have a proper name to call attention to other aspects of her character (like Beauty in Beauty and the Beast). Perrault is not going to bore us with physical descriptions of her but instead focuses on her inner fire, the “couleurs vives” of her complexion when she’s asleep. He takes pains to remind us of her vibrant and feisty personality. In fact, what set off the curse of falling asleep for one hundred years can be directly attributed to her defiant behavior (and we rarely see a female- let alone a princess- defy someone in a fairy tale). The story reveals that ever since the aged fairy declared the curse of the spindle, la Princesse’s father has forbid the use of spinning wheels in his castle. However, one old woman never actually hears this declaration and still uses a spinning wheel. Even though la Princesse knows she’s not supposed to be anywhere near a spinning wheel, she rebels against the rule when she says, “Wow! That’s really something,” said the princess in response, “How do you do it? Let me try to see if I can do it as well as you” (104). (“Ha! Que cela est joli… comment faites-vous? Donnez-moi que je voye si j’en ferais bien autant.”) And of course she pricks her hand and —just as she’s been forewarned all along—falls into her cursed slumber.

“‘Bout time you showed up!”

The passage in which la Princesse finally wakes up is a perfect showcase of her energetic persona: “the princess woke up. She looked at him with more feeling in her eyes than is really appropriate for a first encounter and said: “Is that you, prince? You certainly took your time” (109). (“…la princesse s’éveilla; et le regardant avec des yeux plus tendres qu’une première vue ne semblait le permettre: Est-ce vous, mon prince ? Lui dit-elle, vous vous êtes bien fait attendre.”) The first words out of her mouth when he arrives are blunt and honest (especially translated into 21st-century vernacular): “It’s about time.” What I also love in this passage is how le Prince responds to her reaction: (“Le prince, charmé de ces paroles, et plus encore de la manière dont elles étaient dites, ne savait comment lui témoigner sa joie et sa reconnaissance.”) The Prince does not go on to say how physically beautiful she is, but instead professes his love to her because she has charmed him. The Prince is mesmerized by her magnetic speech, and then later by her style and eloquence—it is her beauty beneath the surface that first grabs his attention. This is not at all what we’re used to in a classic fairy tale romance. She woos him instead of the other way around. Refreshing!

“La plus belle personne du monde” : She’s got spunk!

Most classic fairy tales end the story here because she’s found her prince. What else could there possibly be left to do? For La Princesse, there’s a whole other chapter to her story. Disney, as well as several other versions, does not choose to expand on what happens to la Princesse and le Prince after they get married. However, there’s an entire side to la Princesse that can only be displayed within her years of motherhood. Later in Perrault’s version, when she and her children are stuck with their evil ogress mother-in-law/grandmother, their lives are threatened by the ogresses’ cannibalistic tendencies. Even though she and her children’s lives are jeopardized, la Princesse still shows her liveliness when she threatens to whip her little boy for misbehaving (114), which shows just how real she is. Mothers are sometimes moved to want to smack their child for misbehaving, and in this way, Perrault connects her to a recognizable social role. She has flaws, emotions, and as Mr. Grant would say from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, she’s got “spunk!” But I don’t hate that about her—in fact, I love it. La Princesse’s beauty is used for so much more than just capturing a husband (as Disney would have us believe). The gift of being “la plus belle personne du monde” does not exempt her from growing into a woman and mother who must learn how to live. She not perfect (almost gets herself eaten by the ogress), but that’s what makes her interesting.

Like my necklace says…she’s sugar and spice and pretty kickass for a seventeenth-century girl.

[1] I am aware this is a college essay, and those generally do not contain the word “kickass,” but, hey, it’s the perfect word to describe La Princesse and you’ll see why.

[2] All translations are taken from Prof. Jones’ manuscript of Mother Goose Revisited.