I recently read through The Great Books Foundation’s translation of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s Beauty and the Beast, which was abridged by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Villeneuve was was an 18th century Parisian who pulled together her story from a variety of folklore sources to craft her story. The original book was published in 1740.
Of course, the original French folktale contains some significant departures from Disney’s cartoon film version. In it, we encounter a wealthy merchant who tragically falls into poverty. His children live in a cottage at the edge of a dark wood, but one of his daughters remains cheerful and hopeful: “Belle” (or translated as “Beauty”). One day, the father goes into town and offers to bring anything in the world to Belle. After initially asking that he merely return home safely, Belle asks for a rose. However, her father’s business ventures fail while he is away for many months, and he gets lost amidst a snowstorm in the woods. Eventually, he finds his way to a massive castle that is empty, with deep silences reigning everywhere. While wandering the castle he finds a rose garden and picks one for Belle, but then he is suddenly confronted by angry Beast.
When the merchant apologizes and explains his situation, the Beast demands one of his daughters in return. So the merchant returns home and convinces his daughter Belle to visit the castle with him. She agrees, though she fears the result of their trip. Upon arrival, Belle is meant to live with the Beast and the merchant must leave. Day after day, Belle is brought many amusements and gifts at the castle, and each night the Beast asks her to marry him. Each time she refuses, but as time goes by she grows to love the Beast, and eventually she consents to his request by agreeing to marry him. Suddenly, he magically transforms from a Beast into a Prince (as Belle had dreamed) and they are married in a ceremony with Belle’s whole family, including her brothers.
In order for a folktale or a fairy tale to be successful, the characters must be distant, and one-dimensional, and by these standards Beauty and the Beast is successful. In particular, Belle is a sympathetic character precisely because of her extreme naiveté. Her endless optimism is matched only by Voltaire’s satirical account of Dr. Pangloss (i.e. “all is best in the best of all possible worlds” in mockery of Leibniz), however unlike Pangloss Belle is rewarded for her innocence in Beauty and the Beast.