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Who is Bluebeard?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 15 September 2016
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Bluebeard is the title character in a story in Charles Perrault's 1697 Histoires ou Contes du Temps passé. He forbids his new wife from entering a room in his castle, which is revealed to contain the corpses of his former wives, whom he murdered. Many serial killers and wife murderers have been referred to as Bluebeard since the publication of the tale.

Perrault's story tells of a young woman who marries a wealthy but menacing nobleman with an unearthly blue beard. Shortly after she moves into her castle, Bluebeard announces that he is going on a trip and gives her the keys to every room. He tells her she may explore at her will, but one particular room is forbidden to her.

Soon after Bluebeard leaves, his young wife's curiosity gets the better of her and she opens the door to discover Bluebeard's horrible secret. In her horror, she drops the key on the floor and it becomes stained with blood. It is bewitched and she cannot wash it clean. When Bluebeard returns, he asks to see the keys and discovers that his wife has disobeyed him. He tells her that it is her turn to die at his hands.

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Bluebeard's wife begs him to allow her time alone in her room to say her final prayers, and he agrees. While she is in the highest tower, her sister, who had been visiting her, keeps watch from the roof and finally sees their brothers approaching. They break in just as Bluebeard is about to behead his wife and kill Bluebeard instead.

It has been speculated that Bluebeard is based on a real person from history, usually either Gilles de Rais, a mass murderer of children active in the 15th century, or Conomor the Cursed, a 6th century ruler of Brittany noted for his cruelty. However, "Bluebeard" is very similar to stories from varied cultures, many of which predate Gilles de Rais. Some possibly related stories, such as the Greek myths about Pandora's Box and Cupid and Psyche, or the Biblical story of Eve and the Tree of Knowledge, even predate Conomor. It is more likely that the link between Perrault's character and any historical figures is a folk explanation.

"Bluebeard" is rich with symbolism, though it is often ambiguous. A common interpretation holds that the story is a metaphor for sexual curiosity and loss of innocence. The forbidden chamber, the key, and the indelible blood stain all seem to have sexual undertones. In the past, death could quite literally be the consequence of indulging sexual curiosity, as death in childbirth was much more common before the advent of modern medicine. The story may also warn against marrying a stranger simply because he is wealthy or titled.

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