Friday, February 08, 2008

Beauty and the Beast: Transformation vs. Restoration

There is an idea many women secretly entertain that has to do with the reformation of a scoundrel or evil character. There's something fascinating about remaking someone over and turning them into a good person, transforming them so that their evil falls away for love of you. This is the theme of many romance novels and most people entertain themselves with the possibility of its being true. At a time, I mistakenly thought it possible as well, but that had to do with my own lack of understanding of the distinction between transformation and restoration.

It was upon seeing an intriguingly titled book that read Saving Beauty from the Beast: How to Protect Your Daughter from an Unhealthy Relationship that I began to think this over. I have always thought myself to be Belle, and I have never seen Belle and the Beast as reflecting an unhealthy relationship. And yet, the author of the book appears to suggest that this very image, so engrained within our culture, reflects the idea of an abusive relationship. The Beast, as suggested here, is abusive to Belle and yet Belle remains with him, and more importantly, reforms him. The message seems to be that if you only love someone enough, eventually he will learn to stop verbally/ physically abusing you. Hence the theory that if people treat you badly, hurt you or otherwise take advantage of you, one should not give up on them. Stick around, and it is possible that your influence can change the person for the better.

In the French version of "Beauty and the Beast," this idea is hardly accurate. This is because the Beast never hurts Belle. He is sad and pained and smoke rises from his clawed hands as he walks the castle at night, but his every action is kindness. He brings her jewelery. He gives her pearls. He allows her every freedom that she could possibly desire. And every night, at dinner, he proposes marriage to her. Every night, at dinner, she refuses him. He does not react angrily. He simply accepts that this is her desire and returns to his chambers. There is no abuse. No anger. Nothing but giving and the desire to marry her- but the understanding that it is her choice. And when she desires to return to her family, he allows her to do so. She understands that he will die if she does not return, but it is her choice to do so or to allow him to die. The movie is exquisite.

The Disney version is more ambiguous. This Beast is told that he must learn to control his temper; it is something with which he has difficulty. When Belle enters the West Wing, because of her curiosity, he loses control and shouts, "Do you realize what you could have done?!" then roars "Get out!" Belle runs down the stairs, terrified, whips her cloak around her and says "Promise or no promise, I can't stay here." Lumiere and Cogsworth try to stop her, to no avail. She has not only left the West Wing, but the castle in its entirety. She takes Phillipe and rides through the biting winds and the snow, encountering a pack of wolves who seek to destroy her. She is utterly lost and the Beast arrives, her protector. This is the most powerful scene in the whole movie. The Beast is angry with her. He himself ordered her from his room. Yet for all that, he cannot see her die. He puts himself in a situation where he saves her, he himself is hurt (cut and bitten by the wolves) and she has every opportunity to escape if she so chooses. She thinks about that for a minute, then proceeds to put the Beast on Phillipe, lay her cloak across him, and take him back to the castle. What he has shown is that he does, and he can care- he has a momentary lapse of temper, but it is not his personality through and through.

Here is the distinction between transformation and restoration. The final scene, in which the Beast becomes human once again, is often referred to as The Transformation Scene. However, it is very important to note that the Beast always was human. He had this capacity and ability within him; he had been human at the beginning. He had been selfish, yes, and it was his task to learn to be able to love, but he had those qualities. Also, although his manner had been gruff, his anger was turned toward him and his own hideousness- he would never hurt Belle. The Beast's love for Belle restores him to his former state; he becomes human once again. But it does not transform him. It does not create a wholly new creature of him.

Hence it occurs to me that when it comes to building or believing in healthy relationships, one cannot think that one has the ability to transform another person. This is not even to be wished, as people must be accepted for who they are, for their grand accomplishments and their flaws. We can work from there to better ourselves, but that main person must be understood to exist. No matter how much love one has for another human being, he will be unable to transform them- he will only be able to restore them. If they possessed these qualities in the first place; if they had the capacity to be good, giving, kind, loving and so forth, and for some reason these qualities were lost or not taught, then the potential to restore people to this state, where they have or retain these qualities, is there. But to transform them utterly? Someone who is truly abusive and hurtful cannot be taught not to be abusive or hurtful. There are men who hit their wives and who apologize bitterly afterwards. And perhaps people think, he really does love me. Just one more time. (I assume this would be earlier on in the relationship, before they are so drained and emotionally tired that they dismiss the words of comfort before they are said.) But one cannot transform other people, no matter how much one wishes to do so.

And this hurts. Not because you want to change people, to make them into something that they are not. But because sometimes you want to help people. You think, if only I stick around them, if only I stand by them, if I stay there, it will help them; they'll learn to see how what they are doing is hurtful or harmful for me. And then they'll see. Because how can they not see? They'll feel the wealth of emotion flowing from me, and they will realize the impact their actions are, and since I know they want to be a good person, they will accordingly take more care with their words or statements or the way in which they interact with others. But sometimes cannot see regardless. And that hurts, because you want to give, and you do want to transform people- for their own benefit, because you see how much happier such an understanding will make them- and that lies beyond your power.

Beauty did not transform the Beast; she merely restored him to his former state. But he understood all along that to hurt her was unforgivable, and, depending on which version you follow, never did so at all, only giving her gifts and allowing her her own free will, or did so and truly, honestly repented for it, it having been a momentary lapse rather than a consistent mode and method of behavior.


Anonymous said...

A well thought-through post with good insights as usual.
I enjoyed!

Anonymous said...

There are men who hit their wives and who apologize bitterly afterwards. And perhaps people think, he really does love me. Just one more time. (I assume this would be earlier on in the relationship, before they are so drained and emotionally tired that they dismiss the words of comfort before they are said.)

Actually, no. Some people stay in emotionally or even physically abusive relationships for years with "Just one more time" attitude. They usually have deep-seated problems of their own, e.g. they were abused in some way as children, which makes them expected to be abused in their adult relationships, or even think that they deserve to be abused.

But you are right, you can't go through life trying to change people, the most you can do is help them to actualise their existing potential. It is wrong to attempt to impose your own worldview on someone else, whether in a romantic, family, social, religious or political setting, and ultimately trying to do so will fail, as you relate to your fantasy, not to the real person.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Chana. I enjoyed that.

Anonymous said...

I've heard much discussion in this regard-the threat with fairytales of various versions and cultures in which the woman 'tames' the beastly man. It certainly can be interpreted and often has been ,as a woman trying to change the abuser due to the goodness of her heart. On this vein,if you look at Jane Eyre,it carries this theme. The 'hero' in the book is certainly a beast,and yet Jane 'tames' him and the story is often taken as a pure romance. There is a good book out there called "Labyrinths of desire" which deals with these issues-you might enjoy reading it.
Chana, this is an excellent and athough-provoking post!Well done!

Anonymous said...

I don't think that the authors of the book you mention meant to imply that the Beast from the classic "Beauty and the beast" story was abusive or unhealthy. I think that they just thought of it as a title that would sell books.

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Steph (what is left) said...

Hey, thanks for a great informative and insightful post :)

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