Re-reading Fairytales — Beauty and the Beast
There’s nothing private about Belle’s opinion of Gaston: he’s the real beast in the story. But how far is he from the Castle Beast? Not very far, I’m afraid.
Reading and caring have always walked hand in hand. In the Beauty and the Beast 1991 Walt Disney movie, Belle is initially presented as a reader and a carer. She reads and re-reads books, which she borrows from the local bookshop, run by a man who is bemused by the girl’s eccentric reading habits. At home, she cares for her elderly father, a socially clumsy creative who enjoys experimenting in the privacy of their living room.
At first sight, Belle is not far from the late eighteenth-century, early nineteenth century trend, according to which reading — especially private reading about love and marriage, how to become a good wife, daughter, and sister — was considered a worthwhile activity for females.
In fact, we are not told which books Belle reads. But we can guess. No matter what genre they might belong to, these are likely narratives that foster a romantic sensibility, about women and their feelings, about love and life. In other words, books written by men for their (future) wives.
What swelled my hopes was the fact that there is nothing private about Belle’s reading. She reads chunky books in public spaces, such as the local fountain, and even as she walks down the street. If reading privately highlights the socially correct awareness that reading is a tricky business for women, given the perceived dangers of particular reading habits and books (think Flaubert’s Emma Bovary), reading publicly brings out into the open the romantic idealism of the books women ought to be quietly reading at home.
This is one reason why Belle is not initially blinded by the (probably romantic) books she carries around. Contrary to the three other young female characters, who move in unison, look the same, and act from the point of view of Oedipus (that is, of masculine desire) when it comes to Gaston, the local Don Juan, she successfully keeps the suitor at arms’ length. Reading in the public sphere could be said to impart knowledge about a more realistic view on life and love.