The key of knowledge
(2021) Text (Australia), 25 (Special Issue 61)
Keys are used to gain access, knowledge, and power but what happens when these everyday items are transformed into supernatural objects? Do they, in turn, become a source of knowledge and power? Charles Perrault played with this concept by portraying a key as a magical lie detector in his infamous ‘Bluebeard’ fairy tale (1695). In this story, the husband is portrayed as a serial killer who uses the lure of forbidden knowledge to manipulate his wife and instigate a series of events to justify her murder. This structuring of crime and punishment within the framework of marriage makes this fairy tale unique. The scholarship attached to Bluebeard’s key includes an examination of this object as a metaphor for female sexual curiosity and infidelity (Bettelheim, 1991, p. 301), and a means of accessing feminine consciousness (Estes, 2017, p. 40).
In his 1796 English translation of the French text, R.S. Gent writes that the ‘key was a Fairy’ (p. 28). Gent’s words stirred my imagination; What if the key had been a woman, magically entrapped as a key? Would she tell a different story? This creative interrogation explores the gendered violence and power structures in Perrault’s ‘Bluebeard’ narrative. ‘The key of knowledge’ uses a socio-historical, Foucauldian framework and creative writing research methodology to examine Perrault’s ‘Bluebeard’ as a discourse of disciplinary punishment. Due to her curiosity and disobedience to patriarchal law, Bluebeard’s wife has been linked to Eve and Pandora (Tatar, 2004, p. 3). This creative interrogation explores the personal cost of female autonomy in relation to the accruement of knowledge in ‘The Fall’ (the biblical story of Adam and Eve), and Perrault’s ‘Bluebeard’. It does this by using creative fiction to deconstruct Eve’s story in relation to the ‘Bluebeard’ narrative and subvert the constructions of negative femininity portrayed in these pre-existing stories.
The comparative narrative structuring invites readers to question the dominant gender ideologies that have evolved over time in relation to Eve and Bluebeard’s wife. Through the writing process, Eve’s voice emerged and she became the key of knowledge. A literary/poetic-prose style is used throughout the Eve narrative. The use of first-person narration creates a strong, mature feminine voice. This styling creates a foil for Bluebeard’s young wife, Genevieve, and the historical romance conventions embedded in the Bluebeard scenes. These sections were written using a hybrid literary/historical romance/fairy tale writing style. Genevieve is portrayed as a victim of domestic abuse through third person, multi-character focalisation. Her vulnerability, and transition from besotted bride to disillusioned wife, challenges the ‘happily ever after’ fairy tale trope traditionally constructed in historical romance fiction and fairy tale retellings.
Collectively, these narrative techniques highlight the fragility of feminine power and autonomy within patriarchal societies. ‘The key of knowledge’ offers an alternative socio-historical, Foucauldian interpretation of the ‘Bluebeard’ fairy tale. This story adds to ‘Bluebeard’ scholarship and to our understanding of how creative writing facilitates the research process. It further contributes to feminist scholarship related to fairy tale revisioning. ‘The key of knowledge’ is an extract from Silence the Key, the creative component of my Creative Writing PhD thesis. This greater body of work uses a socio-historical, Foucauldian lens to examine Perrault’s 1695 fairy tales as discourses of disciplinary punishment and adds to the emerging genre of Australian literary fairy tales. © 2021, Australasian Association of Writing Programs. All rights reserved.
Bluebeard; disciplinary punishment; fairy tale reversions; Foucault; Perrault