One of the most notable elements of this fairy tale is the relationship between the male and female protagonists. Aimée displays heroic qualities that were unprecedented among female characters at the time. Passages centered around Aimé, are often stunted in favor of those featuring his female counterpart, who plays somewhat of a “Prince Charming” role in respect to Aimé. She rescues him on multiple occasions and often takes the leading role in their exploits; it is by her initiative that the two of them repeatedly outwit the ogres. Although D’Aulnoy often introduces traditional “feminine” themes associated with domesticity, she presents them as “wild” or adventurous pursuits. For example, Aimée provides Aimé with food, just as a housewife might provide for her husband, but she does not exhibit the quiet obedience associated with the role. Instead, she runs off into the forest to hunt game, coming back with grilled parakeets and monkeys for the prince to eat. When she and the prince find themselves stuck as a bee and an orange tree, Aimée recites the following verse: “Prince, ne craignez pas que jamais je vous quitte, / Rien ne peut embranler mon cœur: / Faites que rien ne agite, / Que le doux souvenir d’en être le vainqueur.” (Prince, do not fear that I will ever leave you, / Nothing can weaken my heart / …….) These lines are reminiscent of a wife proclaiming unconditional devotion to her husband, but Aimé does not demonstrate her loyalty by being passive, but rather by ferociously stinging anyone who may cause the orange tree harm. Ultimately, she comports herself much more like a knight defending a princess than an submissive housewife.
Mme. D’Aulnoy further challenges traditional gender roles through the sequence of metamorphoses that the two lovers undergo in order to escape the ogres. In transforming herself into a boatwoman and the prince into a boat, Aimée clearly takes on a more active role than her male counterpart. She then turns herself into a dwarf, thereby adopting a masculine persona, while Aimé becomes a portrait of Melusine, a folkloric female spirit. Finally, Aimée transforms herself into a bee, clearly a more active form than the immobile orange tree that Aimé becomes. Magic itself is used as form of female empowerment throughout the tale. The wand that Aimée uses belongs to Tourmentine, who has magic powers, and Queen Trusio, who returns the lovers to their natural forms, is the head of a council of fairies. It is these three magic-wielding women who drive the plot along. Tourmantine proves herself to be more intelligent and perceptive than her husband, recognizing immediately when he returns from his search for the prince and princess that they must have been in disguise. The final “showdown” occurs between two female characters: Tourmentine and Aiée, while Ravagio sits at home, having failed his mission, and Aimé remains helpless. In the end, it is Trusio and her magic that turn a bittersweet love story into a “happily ever after” scenario. As I mentioned in last week’s post, fairies often served as symbols of female wisdom and power in the salonnières’ tales, and had previously been fairly uncommon in folklore.
In her article, “Nature and Culture in the Fairy Tale of Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy,” Anne E. Duggan examines the characters in “l’Oranger et l’Abeille” in the context of 17th century discourse regarding the “naturel” and the “civilisé,” arguing that d’Aulnoy uses the male and female protagonists’ interactions in an isolated setting to naturalise the equality of the sexes. In 17th century France, the ideas of nature and culture were often used either to emphasize the virtue of the “noble savage” and criticize European society’s alienation from nature, or to legitimate European society as superior to the ways of the “uncivilized savage.” Following the same power dynamic, a discussion of nature and culture often guided debates over “natural” gender relations. Misogynist writers such as Jacques Olivier compared women to animals, using the word bête, which means both “stupid” and “beast.” The cultured woman was seen as dangerous and contrary to the ways of nature. (Duggan, 150)
Duggan contrasts d’Aulnoy’s story with Charles Perrault’s “Griselidis,” an adaption of an Italian tale known in Anglophone circles as “Patient Griselda,” which takes place in a futuristic version of Paris where society is dominated by women. Perrault characterizes these women as undesirable; the protagonist, a prince, is dissatisfied with them and requests “a woman with no will of her own.” The prince’s desires are met when he meets a young woman named Griselda who was raised in the forest, far from civilization. She is patient, obedient, and submissive, and her upbringing implies that such qualities embody the “natural” state of a woman. Meanwhile, the socially active Parisian women are decadent and frivolous, unable to control their desires. Duggan comments that, “Perrault situates his ideal woman in the past.” (151) The prince takes Griselda as a wife on the condition that she will have no will but his own and will do his every bidding and uses this doctrine to domesticate her. Griselda must endure cruel tests of faith from her husband such as the removal of her daughter, and all the while Perrault reveres her for her patience and obedience. (151-152)
Like Griselda, d’Aulnoy’s character Aimée is raised in a “natural” setting and has never experienced contemporary French “civilization.” Unlike Griselda, she is strong willed, adventurous, and self-sufficient. Her tiger skin dress associates her with the wild, undomesticated side of nature. Duggan contrasts her outfit with the donkey skin cloak that the princess must wear in another one of Perrault’s fairytales, “Peau-d’Âne” (Donkey-Skin). This getup subjects her to the mockery and rejection of everyone she meets. Meanwhile Aimée’s tiger skin outfit is used to emphasize her courage and beauty. Despite her somewhat “savage” nature, the princess demonstrates an instinctive sense of nobility; her cave decorations indicate good taste, and her inclination to save stranded sailors from her ogre family indicates an innate moral compass. In this depiction of Aimée, d’Aulnoy distances herself somewhat from the Cartesian philosophy that many salonnières used to promote women’s rights. Cartesianism asserts that the mind and body exist on separate planes and often favors the mind over the body. For many salon women, this philosophy allowed them to separate their intellect from the stigma of their female bodies. On the other hand, d’Aulnoy’s description of Aimée (see the writing sample) uses the mind and the body to create an empowering image of feminity. Endowing her heroine with natural wit and good nature as well as physical beauty and robustness, Mme. d’Aulnoy implies that, without the social constraints of Parisian high society, the “natural” women is strong, intelligent, and independent. (153-154)
For all of Aimée’s assets, d’Aulnoy does not necessarily assert the superiority of women over men. Although Aimée is clearly more active than her male counterpart, she does not dominate him, and many of her heroic acts are done out of devotion for him, which he reciprocates. It is possible that, in a making the princess so much more forceful a presence than the prince, Mme. d’Aulnoy is simply overcompensating for the lack of female initiative in contemporary storytelling. In fact, Princess Linda, who rejects men entirely, is characterized as an antagonist. Duggan suggests that, in attempting to transplant Aimée/ the orange tree, she seeks to dominate him. (157) In the case of the two protagonists, d’Aulnoy does not completely reverse traditional gender roles, but rather blurs the lines and makes them interchangeable. Ultimately, she advocates for men and women as partners in a “natural” setting.