It wasn’t until I was in my third grade that I read my first fairy tale. Beauty and the Beast or La Belle et la Bête, as it was originally called by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, was first published in the year 1740. Different versions of this classic children’s story exist including ones written by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1756) and Andrew Lang (1889). In recent history, the fairy tale has been popularised by Disney as an animated (1991) and later as a live-action film (2017) of the same name. My copy, a Ladybird Favourite Tales’ hardbound, heavily illustrated and unlike Disney’s, was given to me by my school on account of academic excellence (in the third grade!). I cherish the copy and the fairy tale to this age.
Fairy tales, like myth and folklore, have exceptional (magical) power – their dramatic representation of psychological processes and allegorical references to the collective unconscious aid in the transformation and growth of an individual. Psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung calls this process of growth, individuation, a complex process in which the individual self originates out of the unconscious. Marked with numerous conflicts and confusion, individuation is a challenge. One among it is understanding our place in the world – who we are – which is a common and fierce challenge that we face at each distinct stage of growth and development.
For this reason, the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim argues the importance of fairy tales in the development of identity and self. Many children’s fairy tales, including Beauty and the Beast, when analysed reveal immense treasure – meanings, archetypes, and symbols – that help children develop an understanding of their identity and later as an adult, cope with life’s challenges and dilemmas. Hidden in fairy tales are important lessons, morals, and behaviour expectations that surround the reader and help her grasp these concepts.
Bettelheim asks readers to start by look at the opening lines of a fairy tale, which invite the reader to enter a symbolic world, the predicaments presented in the story (such as choosing between metaphorical good and evil, comfort and fear), and the ethical solutions offered. Research indicates that the messages learned from fairy tales continue to remain in an individual’s subconscious readily available when one needs to locate oneself in the world.
A basic structure of each of these stories follows a heroic struggle, the protagonist following her instincts upon unique paths, facing her fears, and then living happily ever after. A Jungian analysis of Beauty and the Beast shows the story of a young woman initiating upon a journey to complete selfhood when she sets out to meet and save the Beast.
Beauty, until she begins this journey, is a dutiful and obedient daughter with little individuality or agency of her own. She stands apart from her sisters and to her father only in her beauty, docility, and domesticity. In Beauty, we recognize our own limited identity until change (in the form of a challenge, illness, accident, or undesirable event) comes to spur our growth. The sudden fall in fortune pushes Beauty and her family to a period of transition – a point where magic can reach her that is when she is forced to take a journey that renounces her old identity and form a new one. In that way, Beauty is only one half of the whole until this point in time, just like many of us, until a challenge leaves us exposed to our inherent powers.
Jungian theory introduces the concepts of anima (feminine part of the soul) and the animus (the masculine part of the soul) in the fairy tale; one can immediately see how Beauty embodies the anima but also subverts it. An individual cannot attain selfhood if she or he lives through only one gender dimension such as Beauty does. One of the earliest opportunities toward selfhood comes to Beauty when she opts to become the Beast’s prisoner. By doing this, Beauty confronts and accepts the repressed feminine within her. This pushes her toward the “union” with her opposite, the animus (as represented by the Beast).
On the other hand, the Beast has his own challenges – shut out from the world, he experiences struggles with his inner human-ness and outer savage nature. The marriage, that is the union of the anima and animus, represents the harmonious balance between feminine and masculine (opposites) in the inner realm releasing a complete individual into the world. The happy ending is this deeper realization of the self (an identity), which could only have developed at the end of the long and arduous journey.
In the context of the modern-day, some of these fairy tales may need revision, removing elements of patriarchy and the medieval period. Yet the importance of the fairy tales, even as they highlight the similarity of struggles, principles, and ethical considerations that one must undertake to become an individual remains. Jungian psychologist Marie-Louise von Franz writes, “To be attracted to or repelled by a fairy tale indicates that the story contains something that resonates with an unconscious process in the reader or listener, for one cannot be attracted or repelled unless one recognizes something that is personally meaningful.” Without these initial journeys that we undertake by reading or listening to fairy tales, where would we be!