"Bluebeard" (French: Barbe bleue) is a French folktale, the most famous surviving version of which was written by Charles Perrault and first published by Barbin in Paris in 1697 in Histoires ou contes du temps passé. The tale tells the story of a wealthy violent man in the habit of murdering his wives and the attempts of one wife to avoid the fate of her predecessors. "The White Dove", "The Robber Bridegroom" and "Fitcher's Bird" (also called "Fowler's Fowl") are tales similar to "Bluebeard".
Bluebeard is a wealthy and powerful, yet frighteningly ugly, nobleman who has been married several times to beautiful women who have all mysteriously vanished. When Bluebeard visits his neighbor, and asks to marry one of his daughters, the girls are terrified. After hosting a wonderful banquet, he chooses the youngest daughter to be his wife - against her will - and she goes to live with him in his rich and luxurious palace in the countryside, away from her family.
Bluebeard announces that he must leave for the country and gives the keys of the château to his wife. She is able to open any door in the house with them, which each contain his riches, except for an underground chamber that he strictly forbids her to enter lest she suffer his wrath. He then goes away and leaves the house and the keys in her hands. She invites her sister, Anne, and her friends and cousins over for a party. However, she is eventually overcome with the desire to see what the forbidden room holds; and she sneaks away from the party and ventures into the room.
She immediately discovers the room is filled with blood and the murdered corpses of Bluebeard's former wives hung on hooks from the walls. Horrified, she drops the key in the blood and flees the room. She tries to wash the blood from the key, but the key is magical and the blood cannot be removed. Fearing for her life, she reveals her husband's secret to her visiting sister, and they plan to both flee the next morning, but Bluebeard unexpectedly comes back and finds the bloody key. In a blind rage, he threatens to kill her on the spot, but she asks for one last prayer with her sister Anne. At the last moment, as Bluebeard is about to deliver the fatal blow, the brothers of the wife and her sister Anne arrive and kill Bluebeard. The wife inherits his fortune and castle, and has the dead wives buried. She uses the fortune to have her other siblings married, and eventually remarries herself, to a man she loves, and moves on from her horrible experience with Bluebeard.
Although best known as a folktale, the character of Bluebeard appears to derive from legends related to historical individuals in Brittany. One source is believed to have been the 15th-century Breton nobleman and later confessed serial killer Gilles de Rais. However, Gilles de Rais did not kill his wife, nor were any bodies found on his property, and the crimes for which he was convicted involved the sexually-driven, brutal murder of children and not a punishment for perceived betrayal.
Another possible source stems from the story of the early Breton king Conomor the Accursed and his wife Tryphine. This is recorded in a biography of St. Gildas, written five centuries after his death in the sixth century. It describes how after Conomor married Tryphine, she was warned by the ghosts of his previous wives that he murders them when they become pregnant. Pregnant, she flees; he catches and beheads her, but St. Gildas miraculously restores her to life, and when he brings her to Conomor, the walls of his castle collapse and kill him. Conomor is a historical figure, known locally as a werewolf, and various local churches are dedicated to Saint Tryphine and her son, Saint Tremeur.
The character's blue beard is regarded as a symbol of his otherworldly origins.
For Iona and Peter Opie, the tale reads as a legend imperfectly recollected. For example, a gap occurs in the narrative between the wife's entrance into the forbidden chamber and Bluebeard's unexpected return, a time when her house guests vanish without explanation, and Bluebeard's willingness to wait a quarter of an hour before slaying his wife is out of character and poorly excused. Although no earlier retelling of the story has been discovered, it may be assumed one existed.
The fatal effects of feminine curiosity have long been the subject of story and legend. Lot's wife, Pandora, and Psyche are all examples of mythic stories where women's curiosity is punished by dire consequences. In an illustrated account of the Bluebeard story by Walter Crane, when the wife is shown making her way towards the forbidden room, there is behind her a tapestry of the serpent enticing Eve into eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.
In addition, hidden or forbidden chambers were not unknown in pre-Perrault literature. In Basile's Pentamerone, the tale "The Three Crowns" tells of a Princess Marchetta entering a room after being forbidden by an ogress, and in The Arabian Nights Prince Agib is given a hundred keys to a hundred doors but forbidden to enter the golden door, which he does, with terrible consequences. In the story of Prince Agib, the motive is clear: the forbidden door is a test. However, in "Bluebeard", the motive is less clear. It is not explained why Bluebeard would give a key to his wife that will reveal his horrific marital past. In an Indian story, an ogress looks after a prince while disguised as a beautiful woman and tells him not to enter the tower, pit or kitchen, which will reveal her. In the tower, an old man who has been tied up by her reveals who she is, in the pit are the bones of her victims, and the kitchen contains three magical balls which the prince uses to escape the ogress, with the final one a fire is caused which the Ogress runs into and in which she burns to death.
According to the Aarne–Thompson system of classifying folktale plots, the tale of Bluebeard is type 312. Another such tale is The White Dove, an oral French variant. The type is closely related to Aarne–Thompson type 311, the heroine rescues herself and her sisters, in such tales as Fitcher's Bird, The Old Dame and Her Hen, and How the Devil Married Three Sisters. The tales where the youngest daughter rescues herself and the other sisters from the villain is in fact far more common in oral traditions than this type, where the heroine's brother rescues her. Other such tales do exist, however; the brother is sometimes aided in the rescue by marvelous dogs or wild animals.
Some European variants of the ballad Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight, Child ballad 4, closely resemble this tale. This is particularly noteworthy among some German variants, where the heroine calls for help, much like the calls to Sister Anne in Bluebeard, and is rescued by her brother.
It is not explained why Bluebeard murdered his first bride; she could not have entered the forbidden room and found a dead wife.
In the 1812 version published in Grimms' Fairy Tales, Wilhelm Grimm, on p. XLI of the annotations, makes the following handwritten comment: "It seems in all Märchen [fairy tales] of Blubeard, wherein his Blutrunst [flowing of blood] has not rightly explained, the idea to be the basis of himself through bathing in blood to cure of the blue beard; as the lepers. That is also why it is written that the blood is collected in basins."
Maurice Maeterlinck wrote extensively on Bluebeard and in his plays names at least six former wives: Sélysette from .'Aglavaine et Sélysette (1896), Alladine from Alladine et Palomides (1894), both Ygraine and Bellangère from La mort de Tintagiles (1894), Mélisande from Pelléas et Mélisande, and Ariane from Ariane et Barbe-bleue (1907).
In Jacques Offenbach's opera (1866), the five previous wives are Héloïse, Eléonore, Isaure, Rosalinde and Blanche, with the sixth and final wife being a peasant girl, Boulotte, who finally reveals his secret when he attempts to have her killed so that he can marry Princess Hermia.
Béla Bartók's opera A Kékszakállú herceg vára (1911), with the libretto by Béla Balázs, names "Judith", which places her as wife number four, whereas Ariane would be wife number six, but fails to take Judith into account. Bartók's version does not name any of the wives that appear in it. Rather than retelling the original story, the libretto only uses the main characters and setting, and transforms them into a symbolist story.
Anatole France's short story "The Seven Wives of Bluebeard" names Jeanne as the last wife before Bluebeard's death.
Alfred Savoir wrote in the 1920s a play La huitième femme de Barbe-Bleue (Bluebeard's eighth wife) from which Sam Wood and Ernst Lubitsch produced two films, other than starting from the point of being a plus one wife of Bluebeard and that it considers Anatole France's count of his wives, this play or the films share nothing with a description or numbering of the duke's wives.
In Edward Dmytryk's film Bluebeard (1972), Baron von Sepper (Richard Burton) is an Austrian aristocrat known as Bluebeard for his blue-toned beard, and his appetite for beautiful wives. This film names an American beauty named Anne, who discovers a vault in his castle filled with the frozen bodies of his previous wives.