I have been writing for the past few weeks about the feminist narratives of 17th century salonnière Madame d’Aulnoy’s fairytales and the use of storytelling for female empowerment. At the intersection of fairytales and feminism we inevitably fall upon the issue of marriage. In 17th century France, the institution of marriage constituted a reference point in the formation of a model for female behavior. Consequently, marriage was often at the center of popular folklore, used as a means of closure and the key to every ‘happily ever after.” It is therefore imperative to our study of the feminist fairytale to examine the conteuses’ position on love and marriage.
At the time of the conteuses, marriage was essentially the fixed destiny of every woman. It marched the transfer of ownership over a woman from one patriarchal figure to another. At any given point in her life, a woman was defined by her membership in one of three groups: the virgin, the spouse, or the widow. Marriages were usually arranged according to a girl’s father, although some fathers allowed their daughters to choose whom they would marry.
The conteuses, especially Mme. d’Aulnoy, regularly contested the conventions of marriage in their tales. Many of their heroines refused the partnerships that their parents had arranged for them, and the stories often revolved around the escape from these undesirable marriages. Mme. d’Aulnoy’s most reoccurring plotline involves a female protagonist whose resistance to an arranged marriage launches her into series of magical adventures at the end of which she marries the person she truly loves. By marrying for love, the heroine asserts her own will and claims a mastery of her own destiny. For this reason, marriage became a critical point of resistance to patriarchal social conventions.
In feminist circles, the concept of arranged marriage was often associated with violence and lack of freedom. In the story “Carpillon,” (Little carp) Princess Carpillon refers to herself as a ”belle victime que l’on va égorger,” (A beautiful victim to slaughter) and prays for the means to either escape or kill herself on the day of her arranged wedding. The fact that she would rather take her own life than to marry a man she does not like indicates a feeling of meaninglessness under the ownership of man, a sentiment that comes in direct conflict with the contemporary attitudes that asserted that a woman’s life was meaningless without the authority and guidance of a man. In “’l’Oranger et l’Abeille,” (The Bee and the Orange Tree) Aimée must marry the hideous son of her adoptive ogre parents. In this story, d’Aulnoy makes Aimée’s prospective husband a literal monster, and the true villain in the story seems to be her own fate. The use of ogres to represent the orchestrators of arranged marriage has lead some fairytale scholars to believe that this tale is a criticism of the French court system.
Aimée uses her courage and intellect to escape her monstrous fate, saving herself and her beloved, whom she marries at the end of the tale, but some of d’Aulnoy’s heroines reject marriage altogether. In the story, “Le Nain Jaune,” (The Yellow Dwarf, the princess declares that she is “heureuse que je demeure dans une tranquille indifférence…heureuse de rester fille toute ma vie.” (happy that I remain in a state of calm indifference…happy to stay a girl all my life) The princess Linda in “l’Oranger et l’Abeille” does not trust men and makes a proactive choice to never marry, and refuses to let anyone but women and old men into her palace. An even more extreme example is the story “Le Prince Lutin,” (The Imp Prince) much of which is situated on an island of Amazons. In Greek mythology, from which s’Aulnoy borrows frequently, the Amazons were warrior women who comprised an all-female nation. In Mme d’Aulnoy’s tale, the island was founded by an old fairy queen who had grown tired of being deceived by men. In addition to the female protagonists who choose to remain single, fairies almost never marry in d’Aulnoy’s fairy tales. Fairies are by far the most powerful female characters in the contes des fées, but they appear to operate outside of the patriarchal system that dominated court life in 17th century France, and they vary rarely had any sort of romantic attachment.
This is not to say that the women of Mme. d’Aulnoy’s fairytales opposed the institution of marriage itself—after all, many of her heroines do end up getting married at the end of their adventures—they merely reject the patriarchal social conventions that often go along with it. They are opposed to arranged marriages that strip women of their autonomy and subject to the will of male authority. If all of d’Aulnoy’s heroines have one thing in common, it is an insuppressible desire to be masters of their own fate, especially when it comes to love.
In the tragic fairytale “Marcassin,” the fairy queen warns Prince Marcassin that, “Si tu épouse une femme qui ne t’aime pas tu seras fort malheureux et tu feras son supplice. Si tu pouvais comprendre ce qu’on souffre dans ces unions forcées, tu ne voudrais point en courir le risqué,” (If you marry a woman who does not love you, it will be toture for her. If you could understand how one suffers in these forced unions, you would not want to run the risk at all) but he does not heed her advice. One woman whom he forces to marry him commits suicide along with her lover. He tries to marry her sister, but she tries to kill him on their wedding night. He ends up killing her in self-defense and fleeing into the forest. Feeling guilty and heartbroken, he ultimately comes to a conclusion that seems to embody the spirit of the feminist conte de fée: “Rien au monde ne doit être plus libre que le cœur.” (Nothing in this world should be more free than the heart)