Finding Archetypes in Beauty and the Beast

An illustrátion by Warwick Goble for Beauty and the Beast, 1913
An illustration by Warwick Goble for “Beauty and the Beast,” 1913

The appeal of the Beauty and the Beast story, with its accent on compassion and the universal message “love conquers all,” transcends the boundaries of age and time. It continues to delight young and old, generation after generation, through its many adaptations.

The long-awaited live-action film Beauty and the Beast, starring Emma Watson of the Harry Potter series as Belle, opens nationally this week. Disney costume designer Jacqueline Durran, comments on this new Beauty for a 21st-century audience: “It's not a massive reinterpretation, [as] she was always bookish, always engaged. But I think that’s moved forward. She's more of an active heroine than she ever was before.”

The national popularity of the story and its characters is well established. The 1991 Disney animated film became an award-winning Hollywood blockbuster—one that eventually grossed lifetime box office proceeds to the tune of $424,967,620 worldwide. Belle regularly comes in among the top five in national polls, and often ranks number one as the nation’s favorite Disney princess. According to the NPR survey of “the most popular high school musicals, by decade,” based on data from Dramatics magazine, Beauty and the Beast tops the list of musicals performed in American high schools in the 2010s.

This longstanding theatrical favorite is also a classic fairy tale. Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve penned the original novel-length text, La Belle et la Bête, in the 16th century; however, it was French writer, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, writing in the 18th century, who configured the story into the form we know it today.

Archetypal variants date back much earlier. Bruno Bettelheim classifies Beauty and the Beast under “animal groom” cycle tales in his study of The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairytales (1976). In this relatively modern fairy tale, Bettelheim hears distinct echoes of the Cupid and Psyche myth that surfaces in the Metamorphoses of Apuleius, written in the 2nd century CE.

Both the classic fairy tale and its modern theatrical interpretations can be instructive and useful to supplement English Language Arts curriculum in support of College and Career Readiness. EDSITEment’s Tale as Old as Time”: Archetypes in Beauty and the Beast” is a guide for students to analyze the story and uncover its archetypal manifestations.

Reading the Tale

Have students work through the 18th-century version of “Beauty of the Beast” by LePrince de Beaumont to uncover the archetypal elements of the classic fairy tale by focusing on identifying and describing the characters and summarizing the quest the heroine undertakes.

Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.2: Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.

Making Comparisons

Encourage students to look for parallels of the Beauty and the Beast archetypes in variant fairy tales from other cultures to determine how significant those differences are to the narrative.

Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.9.: Analyze a case in which two or more texts provide conflicting information on the same topic and identify where the texts disagree on matters of fact or interpretation. 

Compare the original Beauty and the Beast story with the 1991 animated film by Disney by having students analyze the written script and/or clips from film alongside the LePrince de Beaumont version of the tale.

Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.8.7: Analyze the extent to which a filmed or live production of a story or drama stays faithful to or departs from the text or script, evaluating the choices made by the director or actors.

Making Broader Comparisons

The archetypes of the beautiful, good-hearted girl and the wild, monstrous man reappear in a variety of forms in art and entertainment today. Challenge students to examine the new live-action Disney film (2017) and other modern-day foreign and domestic film adaptations. Similar comparative analysis can be made using examples from other artistic mediums—an live musical production and a piece of classic fiction. Students are encouraged to seek out their own examples of the Beauty and the Beast archetype in popular culture representations (i.e., contemporary art, advertisements, television, graphic novels, video games, etc.)

Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.8.7: Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using different mediums (e.g., print or digital text, video, multimedia) to present a particular topic or idea.

Belle as Role Model

In this Time magazine article, “How Beauty and the Beast's Screenwriter Shaped Disney's First Feminist Princess,” Eliza Berman describes how Linda Woolverton fought to formulate a “new kind of Disney heroine.” She believes Woolverton’s Belle was a complete departure from the traditional Disney princesses, who were female idealizations reflecting aspects of women’s roles in early 20th-century America. After reading the full article and looking at film clips and/or the movie script, have students consider if this Belle acts as feminist role model for young women.

Aligns with CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9–10.7: Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment. 

Lights. Camera, Action!

Place the student “in the director’s chair,” in charge of a developing a new production that outlines an update for the Beauty and the Beast story, then, elaborate on this plan by creativity constructing a response in an artistic format.

Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.8.3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.

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