“I think the reason why you love Beauty and the Beast so much is because it has such a strong redemption narrative.”
My best friend was right of course. I love stories of redemption. To borrow from another saying, these stories have power, not because they tell us that there are monsters in the world, nor because they tell us that we can be monsters. But rather, because they tell us that – even in our most wretched and unlovable state – we can be saved from being monsters. We can become children of light.
In fairness, the appeal of Disney’s film when I was growing up probably also had much to do with the fact that I could identify with the heroine who didn’t quite fit in. Plus I admired her beauty, ability and courage. And then there were the songs.
The plot (major spoiler alert!) is about a young prince who selfishly refuses to offer shelter to a vulnerable old woman one stormy night. Except she’s actually an enchantress who sees he has ‘no love in his heart.’ She therefore punishes him by turning him into a beast and all the servants of his castle into animate objects. (And all the castle decorations into gargoyles. And all the surrounding country into a barren wasteland. In case the message wasn’t obvious enough.) She gives him an enchanted rose which will bloom until his 21st birthday, saying that the spell will be broken if he has learned to love – and earned the love of another in return – by the time the last petal falls.
Cue nine and a half years later when the beautiful young woman Belle is looking for adventure.
When we left the cinema, my parents said they liked how the film hadn’t focused on the spell but on the relationship that gradually grew between Belle and Beast. At the time, I took their comment to mean they liked it better than The Little Mermaid – which was Disney’s previous offering. But thinking about their comment now, there is much to be said for it.
Of course Beauty and the Beast acknowledges the enchantment. The undercurrent is there as Beast speaks ashamedly of his appearance, eats ungracefully, and is comforted when Belle touches his paw but doesn’t shudder. The castle servants are a constant reminder in and of themselves – and that’s not to mention their timely comments that the enchanted rose is wilting.
But these are all side-shows, backdrop.
The narrative of Beauty and the Beast focuses on Beast learning to control his temper, becoming genteel and learning self-sacrifice.
It could have been different.
It could have been one long complaint about how Beast was only young when the enchantress came, how he was punished far more than he deserved, how he abhors his appearance and hates himself on account of what he has become. Beast could have repeatedly told Belle how much he needed her to save him and burdened her with responsibility for his state (when the cause of his enchantment had nothing to do with her whatsoever). Belle could have repeatedly bemoaned the loss of her freedom and how hard it was for her to live with the ill-tempered Beast.
It could have been a story about Beast’s suffering.
It could have been a story about Belle’s suffering.
But then it couldn’t have been a redemption story.
It might have been a tragedy.
Or it might have been a story where the light at the end was contrived.
In order to explain what I mean by this idea of a contrived ending, I’ll borrow from the idea of ‘proper rewards’ that C.S. Lewis wrote about in his sermon The Weight of Glory.
A harvest is the proper reward of sowing, tending and reaping. A performance is the proper reward of study, learning and practice. But a harvest and a performance are also the culmination and completion of their labours. They are the consummation of the preceding work.
In a similar way, I believe redemption is the consummation of a previous work.
This means a story can’t be called a redemption story just because it has a lost soul who is saved in the end. In Beauty and the Beast, if the spell had been lifted, not because Belle and Beast learned to love each other, but because the enchantress (or another) came along and lifted it, that would not be a true redemption story. Beast might have been ‘saved’ in some sense, but it would have been a false or unfitting ending.
A story that speaks of redemption will culminate in a saving moment. That moment is itself the result, reward and completion of the work that has gone before it.
And what is that work?
Answer: Fearless, compassionate, sacrificial love.
Beast’s redemption is the culmination of Belle’s sacrificial love for her father (she exchanges her freedom for his) and Beast’s sacrificial love for Belle (he lets her go even though it will doom him to remain a beast).
But suffering is not sacrificial love!
Suffering may be a consequence of sacrificial love and may be evidence to support the existence of sacrificial love – but suffering is not to be admired in and of itself.
This is important because it means a story that focuses on suffering in and of itself it is not a redemption narrative.
Now, I’m not saying there isn’t a place for stories about suffering – there certainly is – and they can be powerful protests against suffering. The problem with a redemption narrative that focuses on suffering (rather than what is accomplished) is that it can lead you to believe that the redeeming person’s suffering is what brings about the redemption, rather than their sacrificial love.
And that’s a big problem.
Because it means the narrative becomes too focused on the present, not forward-looking to what is hoped for.
Because it implies that if the redeeming person is suffering, they’re succeeding in their saving love.
Because it implies that forgiveness should always be given, even without safeguards against future injury.
Because it allows the characters – and even the reader – to wallow in suffering and self-denial.
And if you hadn’t already guessed where I was going with all of this, that’s exactly what we have in the Fifty Shades trilogy.
In the next series of posts, I’m going to show why Beauty and the Beast is worthy of being called a redemption story and Fifty Shades of Grey isn’t.
If all goes well, I’ll then do the same with the Hallmark production of Arabian Nights.
Edited to add:
I just wanted to write a story about a broken man who’s redeemed by the love of a good, smart woman.
— EL James, 29 June 2015