Benjamin Farr

To be or not to be dogmatic , that is the question…

Given the publishing history and wide diffusion of [“Griselda”], it clearly was being used as a pedagogical instrument to inculcate women of all classes with the notion that patiently obeying even cruel husbands can eventually lead to happiness, thus reaffirming the unconditional authority of the husband in the home.” Jane Garry and Hasan M. El-Shamy, Archetypes and Motifs In Folklore And Literature: A Handbook (M.E. Sharpe, 2005) 415.

For those who are familiar with Perrault’s version of “Griselda,” the passage above would at first glance seem to be a rather appropriate summary of his motivations in producing such a tale. Yet, as Perrault states in this very text, “nothing in this world is more deceiving than appearance (Rien au monde…N’est plus trompeur que l’Apparence)” (46). Thus, it seems requisite that this famous tale be given a second chance, in which an analysis, based on a different approach, may provide further insight into its possible meanings. Given that Perrault’s version of “Griselda” contains an extensive and rich vocabulary with complex rhyming patterns, it is an ideal work for undertaking such an analysis. The goal of this essay will be to shed new light on what is contained in the pages of this celebrated version of Griselda, which will hopefully give the reader a new and fresher way to approach it.

A little background if you will.

Before we begin our journey into the enchanting world of fairytale wonder, it will help the reader to understand what was happening around Perrault in the “real world,” during the period this work was conceived. At this time Perrault was in the midst of a widespread literary and artistic conflict known as the “Quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns.” This is important in that as a Modern, one of the things Perrault defended was the status of women in society, against the misogyny of partisans of the Ancients like Nicolas Boileau, whom he appears to condemn. This attitude comes through various treatises Perrault had written, such as “L’Apologie des Femmes.” Then in the preface of “Griselda,” a dedication to “Mademoiselle,” he appears to soundly contradict his own statements about women. As it is commonly read, the dedication is said to condemn Parisians, who would find Griselda’s lessons “antiquated” (antiques leçons), and not only would they be “disregarded” (peu prisée), but they would literally be a “laughing stock” (matière de risée) (12). Yet, the woman to whom he dedicates the story, as her name implies, would count among the fashionable women who would not be able to believe in Griselda. So, could there be a hint of irony in this statement that suggests we not take Griselda as a model? This is a small, yet compelling example and indicator of how slippery Perrault’s language can be, and it suggests that as readers we attempt a more nuanced approach to the tale.

Griselda as a model to be followed….or not?

Let us consider the preface just a bit longer before delving into the text of the actual tale. In the very first paragraph of the preface where Perrault is addressing Mademoiselle, he speaks of “this model of patience (Ce modèle de patience)” that will be set forth in the tale. He ostensibly states that “I never deceived myself into thinking that you would, in every way, imitate it; in truth that would be too much” (Je ne me suis jamais flatté Que par vous de tout point il serait imité; C’en serait trop en conscience) (11). Therein, Perrault portrays Griselda not as a model to follow, but rather as a paragon of virtue and patience that is not meant to be taken prescriptively, for it would simply be too much.

It now seems appropriate to expand this notion of Griselda as a paragon of virtue and patience. Speaking hypothetically, Perrault writes that if one were to find a woman possessing the Griseldian characteristics put forth in the text, she would be a “prodigy” (prodige) (11). This appellation is compelling in that it depicts Griselda as being more of a marvelous, fantastical character, rather than one who might be found among humans. Furthermore, it is interesting to consider how Perrault describes the situation in which she must live. He uses language like “unendurable” (insupportables) (32), “torment” (tourmenter) (33), “unsavoury” (triste) (35) and “cruel (cruelle),” (35) to describe the treatment she undergoes, in a situation where there are “so many wretched things (tant de malhereuses)” (33), that the Prince “lets them verge upon the brink of disaster” (les laisse aller au bord du précipice). (33) Thus, what the reader is able to see is an unlikely, if not impossible character, thriving with constancy (33, 40) in a situation so terrible and unendurable that it doesn’t seem real. In establishing the setting and character as such, Perrault seems to highlight the unreal quality of such a situation occurring in the world. Thus, Griselda attains a surreal, fairy-like status, which would simply be impossible for others to emulate.

Has the dead horse been sufficiently beaten?

Yes, the Prince does treat Griselda a lot worse than one would a stray dog, but in fixating on this detail, Perrault reveals something about the Prince. Although he seems to be portrayed as maintaining a superior position in the tale, Perrault subtly questions his status through his choice of vocabulary and by critiquing his actions in divergent ways, which seem to detract from his superiority. For example, after having taken the child from Griselda, the Prince is described as “embarrassed” (embarrassé) (36), “scared” (il craignait) (36), “regretful” (regret) (36), and “shameful” (honte) (36). These words are in no way representative of someone superior, in fact, they contrarily connote confusion and inferiority.

Another compelling example is how Perrault illustrates the Prince in a contradictory manner. While speaking to his subjects on why it is that he does not want to get married, the Prince says of women, “As soon as the marriage is complete, the disguise seems obsolete, And since having assured their destiny, there’s no need for formalities, they change their personalities” (Mais sitôt que le mariage Au déguisement a mis fin, Et qu’ayant fixé leur destin Il n’importe plus d’être sage, elles quittent leur personnage) (16). Anyone who knows the story can immediately see that the Prince is critiquing that which he will soon become, for “before the end of the year” (Avant la fin de l’an) (31), the reader notices that Perrault signals a change in the Prince. “Either the Prince’s heart was less inflamed than the beginning days of his passion, or the base part of him was rekindled by his malicious temperament and with its thick smoke obscured his senses and corrupted his heart (Soit que le Prince eût l’âme un peu moins enflammée Qu’aux premiers jours de son ardeur, Soit que de sa maligne humeur La masse se fût rallumée, Et de son épaisse fume Eust obscurci ses sens et corrompu son coeur).” (31) Not long after the wedding, this change of character takes place and he begins to treat Griselda in a manner completely opposite to how he had treated her before the wedding. This is shown as “he follows her, he observes her, he loves to disturb her (Il la suit, il l’observe, il aime à la troubler).” (32) Therein Perrault subtly portrays the Prince as being the perpetrator of his own prejudgments about women, which becomes indicative of his contradictory nature.

“For unto us a child is born”

Given that Griselda is the eponymous character, many perceive her and the Prince to be the primary characters of the fairytale, and as a result direct the majority of their focus and commentary towards them. However, the problem with this outlook is that it marginalizes the roles of other characters in the tale, which inhibits the readers from delving deeper into what Perrault could possibly be trying to tell them. One of these characters is “the young princess [who] grew in spirit, and wisdom. With the gentleness and naivety she received from her amiable mother, she combined the pleasantness and noble pride of her illustrious father; The aggregate of all that pleases in every trait Comprised a perfect beauty” (la jeune princesse Croissait en esprit, en sagesse, À la douceur, à la naïveté Qu’elle tenait de son aimable Mère, Elle joignit de son illustre Père L’agréable et noble fierté; L’amas de ce qui plait dans chaque caractère Fit une parfaite beauté) (38). What’s important to pull from this is how the young Princess is portrayed as this combination of the both her parents’ best traits. If there was a character to emulate in this tale, it would surely be this one!

Having established this new character, what seems most compelling about her is best seen through her relationship with Griselda. Perrault describes the child as the “tender object of her ardent love” (tendre objet de son amour ardent) (34) whom she would “incessantly” (incessamment) (31) watch over. “In her child, in the young Princess She gave all of her affection, (Dans son Enfant, dans la jeune Princesse Elle a mis toute sa tendresse).” (34) As Griselda already appears surreal, it’s interesting to note that Perrault never depicts the young Princess as possessing any characteristics that seem out of the ordinary for a noble young little girl. Although Griselda’s actions and efforts are indicative of the maternal role she assumes of her daughter, it’s almost as if she becomes a modern fairy godmother, who wishes for the well-being of the young girl she is meant to watch over and for whom she is to intervene if necessary.

If it is acceptable to consider the relationship as such, the most compelling instance of intervention takes place as Griselda sees the young Princess for the first time in years. Griselda says to the Prince that this wife to be “could in no way endure the same treatment that she had received from him, without losing her life…Alas! Master, I beseech you to treat her with kindness  (Ne pourra supporter, sans en perdre la vie, Les mêmes traitements que j’ai reçus de vous…Hélas! Seigneur, je vous conjure, De la traiter avec douceur).” (45) If Griselda is not a model to be followed by all women, but rather the magical, motherly character of a fairytale that intervenes for the common Princess, does the latter thus become the model upon which the moral is based? As a representation of the future woman in the story, the young Princess serves as a compelling example of what would really happen, if a woman were to be subjected to such terrible treatment: she would die. Thus the young Princess seems to serve as a representation of women in general and for an alternative moral to the story: women are unable to survive in such strict and despotic circumstances, and that those men who would think to act in such a manner, would be no better than the inferior, contradictory Prince.

Conclusion

In closing, I would like to end on a thought Professor Jones shared: “If Grisélidis, Blue Beard, and other fairytales are truly to be taken prescriptively as a way for women to behave, then we should stop reading them now.” I couldn’t agree more with this notion, and feel confident in saying that there is a good possibility that this was not Perrault’s motivation in creating his tales. Would he, who was an established apologist for women, really have been suggesting that their best role in life was suffering? It is necessary to rethink whether he wrote this tale prescriptively, in order to instruct women in the way they should behave. The aforementioned examples have only been a few instances of how this text could be viewed from a different angle. In considering examples such as the young Princess, it seems at least equally as plausible to imagine that he is bringing to light the pitfalls of a misogynistic society, and calls for people to question this “antiquated” behavior.

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