Dudes in Distress: The Weakening of the Patriarch

iceking I have spent the last few weeks looking at the female characters in Madame d’Aulnoy’s fairytales. This week, I have been examining her treatment of the male characters, nearly all of whom take on roles traditionally associated with male power (kings, princes, fathers, husbands, suitors, etc…). These figures are ubiquitous in folklore and often appear as the wise old king or the classic Prince Charming, but the men of the 17th century conte des fées are much more complex. Most of them are flawed, having tendencies that are either rash and overbearing or weak and incompetent. That said, d’Aulnoy does not discredit the male gender in her fairytales; she merely portrays traditionally heroic, all-knowing characters as more human. Her work is not so much a critique of men as it is of the godlike male characters seen over and over again in popular folklore as well as political literature.

The character of the wise, infallible monarch is especially subject to scrutiny in Madame d’Aulnoy’s writing. Her critiques were especially relevant considering that she lived her entire life in the court of Louis XIV, who gave himself absolute power as well as the godlike title “The Sun King.” At time when royal authority was at its peak, d’Aulnoy’s kings and princes are notably unfit for the power and responsibility granted to them. They usually fit one of two character types: the tyrannical, capricious monarch who abuses his power or the timid, inexperienced monarch who fails to exercise any authority. The incompetence of the latter is often paired with his deference to a matriarch, usually the queen. It is with these “bad king” characters especially Madame d’Aulnoy upsets the patriarchal royal ad familial order.

We see an overwhelming overlap between royal and paternal authority in Madame d’Aulnoy’s fairytales. The bad kings in her stories are almost always bad fathers as well, as if a man’s role as a father were merely an extension of his role as ruler. The king controls his subjects just as father controls the family unit. These two identities reinforce and interact with each other, the stability of the royal family being directly linked to that of the government. Likewise, just as king’s people are subject to his will, a king’s wife and daughter must obey the pater familias. For this reason, the union of royal and paternal power under the patriarchy was quite a relevant topic for contemporary feminists such as the conteuses.

The royal and familial spheres converge most notably through the institution of marriage, specifically arranged royal marriage. At the time, arranged royal marriages served to maintain a family’s wealth and purity of blood, which would benefit the family as a unit as well and as rulers. As I discussed in last week’s post, Madame d’Aulnoy’s tales feature many a princess subject to an undesirable arranged marriage. These stories not only contain an overbearing king and father but a prince that is violent, unintelligent, or simply unhygienic. The princess usually ends up rebelling and marrying another prince whom she loves, but even these princes hardly fit the description of Prince Charming. They rarely rescue their lovers but are rather quite passive and, like in the case of Aimé and Aimée, are sometimes rescued by their female counterparts. D’Aulnoy repeatedly refers to these princes as “young boys,” and uses more understated adjectives to describe them. Her princes are “kind,” “honest,” and, “polite,” rather than gallant and heroic. They are good-natured without necessarily being chivalrous.

Meanwhile, some of d’Aulnoy’s kings are downright incompetent. In the story “Finette Cendron,” (Cunning Cinders), Finette’s father loses his kingdom after managing his affairs unwisely, sending his whole family into poverty. The king’s failure to support both his people and his family can be attributed to a more general impotence and inability to uphold the authority granted to him as a male. Once his power is compromised, he also demonstrates a degree of subservience to his queen, who decides that the couple’s three daughters must be sent out into the woods because they can no longer afford to care for them. D’Aulnoy writes, “Le roi commença de pleurer quand il vit qu’il fallait se séparer de ses enfants. Il était bon père mais la reine était la maîtresse. Il demeura donc d’accord de tout ce qu’elle voulait..” (The king started to cry when he saw that he would have to be separated from his children. He was a good father, but the queen was mistress. He thus remained in compliance with whatever she wished.)

Clearly, the queens in these stories can also be tyrannical or cruel, and many tales feature evil fairies who bestow horrible curses on people. But unlike their male counterparts, they never subject them to male dominance through the institution of marriage or otherwise. In many cases, they remove children from the custody of a man or prevent princes from marrying their daughters. It is these evil queens and good-natured princes that blur the lines of any political interpretations of Madame d’Aulnoy’s work. Despite her habitual reversal of gender roles, she does not appear to advocate for women’s dominance of men, and she certainly does not make any absolutist claims about either gender. She simply portrays both men and women as human. But in a time when kings such as Louis XIV were often treated as more-than-human and women less-than-human, leveling the playfield was quite radical and even subversive.

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