Patricia Qualheim

For Better or Worse… As Long as You’re Good Looking

-Ambiguous Moralities in Perrault’s Riquet à la Houppe

“Riquet à la Houppe” (Riquet with the Tuft) is perhaps not one of Perrault’s better known tales in the English-speaking world, but one could argue that it is one of Perrault’s most ambiguous tales and therefore one of the most potentially interesting. Since he wrote the tales a lot of feminist arguments have come against Perrault and what he “teaches” in his stories. He is often criticized for creating weak female characters and promoting morals that degrade women in society. However, a closer look at Perrault’s works makes things a little less clear-cut. When one really studies the 1697 texts, it becomes difficult to really define what  Perrault was trying to promote in the first place. This is especially true in “Riquet à la Houppe” where several different and contradicting morals coexist. Furthermore, the role of women in this tale may seem limiting after a superficial reading of the story,  but if we really look at the power dynamics in the relationship between the princess and Riquet, it’s surprising how much power the princess actually had, especially considering the time period in which these texts were written.

And the Moral of the Story is….

So what is the moral of the story here anyway? There are of course the two morals proposed at the end of the story, set apart on a separate page, and clearly labeled as such. They read as follows:


What we find with this tale

(Ce que l’on voit dans cet écrit)

Is less of a fable, but rather the truth.

(Est moins un conte en l’air que la verité même.)

All is beautiful in those whom we love

(Tout est beau dans ce que l’on aime)

And those whom we love are witty and intelligent.

(Tout ce qu’on aime a de l’esprit.)

2nd moral : (Autre moralité)

In an object where nature

(Dans un objet où la nature)

Paints bright and beautiful features

(Aura mis de beaux traits et la vive peinture)

Of such a complexion that art could never accomplish,

(D’un teint où jamais l’art ne sçauroit arriver,)

All these gifts will do less to make a heart keen

(Tous ces dons pourront moins pour rendre un coeur sensible)

Then a single hidden charm

(Qu’un seul agrément invisible)

That love will find.*

(Que l’amour y fera trouver.)

The morals seem direct and straightforward. Obviously, it seems, these final statements represent the message that Perrault is trying to get across. But if one carefully reads the story the prescribed morals at the end don’t match up with what actually happens. If indeed Perrault’s message was “All is beautiful in those whom we love/And those whom we love are witty and intelligent,” then the Princess would have married Riquet in spite of his ugliness, and he would have married her despite her stupidity. But they both had to change to really make that love possible. Just before she agreed to marry him, the princess said, “I wish with all my heart that you would become the most handsome prince in the world and the most lovable” (“Je souhaite de tout mon coeur que vous deveniez le prince du monde le plus beau et le plus aimable”). Therefore, for Riquet to really be lovable, according the princess, he also needed to become handsome – a moral that doesn’t quite line up with the statements that Perrault makes at the end.

In fact this tale has multiple morals, both explicit (such as the two labeled as such in the text) and implicit. At the beginning of the story, it’s the ugly sister who is the most successful. The beautiful sister attracts people at first, but it is ultimately the wit and intelligence of her ugly twin that wins them over.  So, one could argue the moral is teaching that beauty is important, but intelligence is more important. However, at the end of the story, it’s the pretty sister who ends up with the prince, and it’s because of her good looks. “It was the young prince Riquet à la houppe, who had fallen in love with her after see her portraits which were spread throughout the world” (“C’était le jeune prince Riquet à la houppe, qui étant devenu amoureux d’elle d’après ses portraits qui circulaient par tout le monde”). He loved her without knowing her, before even talking to her. It was her beauty that charmed him. All of these judgments suggest that perhaps it’s best not to take the first or most obvious prescription that we read in this story as the definitive statement. It’s necessary to look a little harder and really question what one’s reading. Here we see two morals that completely contradict each other- what are we supposed to make of them? With judgments that don’t line up, it’s difficult to argue that Perrault was trying to tell people to act a certain way or follow a certain prescription. Rather, he may have just been trying to get them to think, and ask questions.

Power in the Relationship Dynamic

Another important aspect that people tend to look over when analyzing or critiquing Riquet à la Houppe is the power of the princess in this tale. She hesitates to marry Riquet, telling him on the day that she had promised to marry him ,“Quite frankly, I admit that I haven’t made mind up yet on that decision ( whether to marry him or not) and I believe I’ll never be able to make it up the way you wish” (“Je vous avouerai franchement…que je n’ai pas encore pris ma décision là-dessus, et que je ne crois pas pouvoir jamais la prendre comme vous la souhaitez”), and he has to convince her. It is also the princess who has the power (given to her by the fairy) to make Riquet more handsome. She can choose to love him or not. It is not at all like Catherine Bernard’s 1696 version wherein the princess has no hope and she is obligated to stay with her mean and ugly husband against her wishes. In Perrault’s version one finds in the princess a young woman who ultimately has the power to choose her own fate according to her desires. And she doesn’t just jump right into the arms of her waiting prince either. She is able to think for herself. The story even mentions at the end that it wasn’t really the power of the fairy that “brought it about, but love alone that made this metamorphosis. ” (“Quelques-uns assurent que ce ne furent point les charmes de la fée qui opérèrent, mais que l’amour seul fit cette métamorphose”). However, “love alone” did not complete the act, but rather served to motivate the princess to weigh her options and marry Riquet.  The story does give her credit that. “They say that the princess considered the perseverance of her lover…”  (“Ils disent que la princesse ayant fait réflexion sur la persévérance de son amant…”). So this was a well thought out decision on her part.

When analyzing the power dynamic it is also interesting to look at the motives behind the two main characters here. Riquet gave the princess the gift of intelligence because he was in love. The princess told him, “I would much rather be as ugly as you and be intelligent, than to have the beauty that I have and be as stupid as I am” (“J’aimerais mieux être aussi laide que vous et avoir de l’esprit, que d’avoir de la beauté comme j’en ai, et être bête autant que je le suis”). So the gift from Riquet was a gift she wanted. As mentioned earlier, Riquet fell in love with her because she was beautiful, even before she was intelligent. Therefore, it wasn’t a gift that she really needed to have to be loved by him. But when the princess gave Riquet the gift of beauty, it was because she thought he was ugly and couldn’t love him without it. It wasn’t so much a gift for Riquet as it was a gift for her.

What about the ugly one?

Now as for the ugly sister, she was intelligent and good throughout the whole story and ends up with nothing. Her prince in shining armor never comes. Though her intelligence did attract some attention at the beginning, it’s the pretty sister who gets the prince in the end. So are we supposed to ultimately learn from her role in the story that while intelligence is important, it is ultimately outweighed by beauty? If you read the story as a prescription for behaviorand try to interpret the message that he was trying to teach people, that would be a very logical conclusion. However, wouldn’t that again be contradicting the message that was sent when Perrault made the beautiful sister intolerable because of her stupidity at the beginning? We see later in the story, after the beautiful princess becomes smarter, that “everyone was happy, except for her younger sister, because as she no longer had the advantage of being more intelligent, she seemed to be no more than an extremely unpleasant monkey” (“il n’y eut que sa cadette qui n’en fut pas bien aise, parce que n’ayant plus sur son aînée l’avantage de l’esprit, elle ne paraissait plus auprès d’elle qu’une guenon fort désagréable”). Clearly, being intelligent did not do much for her in the end. But maybe Perrault wasn’t trying to teach anyone how to be or how to act. Perhaps, he was just being honest. Beautiful people tend to attract more positive attention. Rather than using the two sister characters as role models to show what one needs to do or not do to get the prince and live happily ever after, he may have just been pointing out a social habit. What man, when asked to choose between a smart, beautiful woman and a smart, ugly woman, is going to choose the ugly one? It is also worth noting that in no fairy tale does the prince (handsome or otherwise) have to learn to love the ugly princess despite her appearance. It is always the princess who has to learn to love the ugly prince.

In conclusion, Perrault’s version of Riquet à la Houppe isn’t nearly as black and white as it might at first appear. Instead of simple and direct, as morals can seem, the tale is complex and multilayered. Perhaps the point isn’t even to find the “real” moral, the message Perrault was trying to get across in this tale. Maybe the purpose is to make one think and ask questions about the role that the woman takes in her society, rather than serve a prescription for how women should act in society.