There are many versions of “Bluebeard’s Wife,” a folktale that dates back at least as far as 1697, when it was first put into print. I believe the story persists because it contains some basic truths about the potentially destructive path some men and women mistakenly call “love.” Aside from its gothic allure, modern women will appreciate its surprisingly empowering celebration of female curiosity, intuition, and rebellion.
The simplest version of the story goes like this:
Bluebeard the Pirate, widely known to be a vicious and murderous man, is searching for a wife. He courts a young, inexperienced woman, who is flattered by his attentions and impressed with his charm, his display of wealth, and his status. (Her older sisters are more skeptical of his intent and immediately reject his advances.) Against her family’s wishes, the youngest sister runs off with Bluebeard and becomes his wife. They live peacefully together for months until Bluebeard sets off for a trip. He tells his wife that she is free to do what she likes while he is away, but there is one room in the house which she must never enter. He leaves her with a key but does not tell her which door it opens.
The young wife is trusting and inclined to follow Bluebeard’s instructions. (In fact, she might have remained married to Bluebeard for years if she were willing to ignore this forbidden area of his life.) However, her older female relations push her to examine every door in the house until she is finally able to unlock her husband’s secret. Of course, inside this room, she discovers the remains of all of Bluebeard’s previous wives — the fate that he assumes will shortly be hers as well.
For our purposes, the wisest retelling of this story comes from Clarissa Pinkola Estés in Women Who Run with The Wolves.
Her interpretation includes three points that I like to share with clients who may identify with that young bride and her willingness to saying Yes to a potentially dangerous situation.
(Even if those episodes are ancient history in a woman’s life, the memories may block her from making healthy choices in the present.)
It is a normal part of our social development to be drawn to danger.
This curiosity is natural and in itself is not dangerous or wrong. It is not helpful to shame others or ourselves for feeling an impulse that is normal. Of course, as we mature, we must develop controls and boundaries that prevent us from actually acting on these impulses.
It is normal to want to trust others.
There is nothing more delightful than someone with an open, trusting nature and an ability to assume good intentions in others. It is a beautiful characteristic, to be sure. But one of life’s lessons regarding trust is that it is something precious that must be earned. Sweet words and romantic gestures are wonderful… but meaningless if not backed by strong values and character. Skepticism has its place, even in romance.
Embrace the “Wild Woman” inside you.
This is Dr. Estés’ term, and I’ll break it down further, but in essence, the Wild Woman is what we sometimes call “feminine intuition.” Others may try to talk you out of what you feel to be true in your heart. Instead, practice listening to your inner voice. You may have to resist the urge to go along with what others’ want.
In Dr. Estés’ works, a woman fully enjoys love and romance only when she also engages her mind. The way we walk the tightrope between being receptive to love vs. losing ourselves in love is by listening to the Wild Woman that inhabits each of us.
It is her voice that is:
The ancient push and pull between men and women centers on knowledge and who controls it. In a healthy relationship, we seek to share it equitably and peacefully.