Symbols and Meanings in the Story of Bluebeard

by Tolovaj

Do you wonder about meanings and symbols in fairy tales? Classic stories like Bluebeard are loaded with them and here is a selection of some popular ones.

Fairy tales are known by their rich symbolism and the story of Bluebeard can be used as a great example. It's an old story about a cruel mass murderer which is now considered as inappropriate for children below the 5th grade. On the other hand knowing it's aiming at older audience these kids find it even more attractive.

In this article we'll focus on symbolism of The Bluebeard, first written by Charles Perrault, but known in numerous variations at least several hundred years before his time and still inspiring artists all over the world. It definitely owes part of popularity to connections with some of the most notorious mass murderers in human history, but we'll focus on one aspect only.

(intro image by Harry Clarke, all used images are in public domain)

Top 10 symbols in Bluebeard, the fairy tale about the cruel murderer

Meanings behind color blue, beard, keys and other symbols

1. Blue

Color blue is coldest of all colors and relatively rare in living nature. It is color of water or sky, both really being transparent or translucent, somehow out of this world. Man with blue beard doesn't give feeling of a human being. Role of mass murderer suits him well. Blue is also color of authority, often used as the color of police uniforms and similar representatives.

It is color of trust and loyalty, both being tested as the focus of the story. When the trust is betrayed, it is hurt, what can explain Bluebeard's reactions. On the negative side, blue can also represent coldness and lack of emotions, both characteristics of the Bluebeard.

Image of Bluebeard by Gustave Dore2. Beard

Beard is traditional sign of age, maturity and wisdom. On the other hand it is related to barbarism, magic and weirdness. Bluebeard posses all of these characteristics and more, all further emphasized with unnatural color. A beard can reveal one's status, but also hide his identity, again all true in this case. One of the primal functions of the beard in human culture is to distinguish men from women and if we think a bit, the story of Bluebeard is actually a very polarized contrast between both genders.

All hair is associated with magical powers, what is seen in literature as well. Typical examples are Rapunzel in fairy tales and Samson in Bible. In our case the beard is used only at the beginning, when the title character is introduced, but not later, when his facial hair could probably play more important role. However illustrators used it to full potential.

3. Keys

A key is one of the strongest symbols in literature. It can represent many things. Power is only one of them. Key is definitely important tool and sign of maturity. Kids don't have keys. They don't have property to protect either. And they don't have secrets which need to be locked up!

Keys to the city are handed only to the most people with very special status. Actually every single key can contribute to display of one's status. More keys you have, more important you probably are. There are keys to mysteries and if we are lucky enough (key in several cultures symbolizes good luck as well), we can have a key to one's heart.

Bluebeard used his keys as ultimate test of his wife. Can he trust her? Of course not, in environments with high levels of trust there is no need to lock the doors anyways!

We can't neglect Freud's view on keys either. To him a key is obvious phallic symbol. It represents knowledge by which a girl is distinguished from a woman. Can she handle it? According to Bluebeard, obviously not.

How many well-known symbols can you find on this illustration by Walter Crane?

Walter Crane - Bluebeard and its symbols
Walter Crane - Bluebeard and its symbols

The image above clearly shows how illustrators enjoyed at portraying scenes from this fairy tale, always finding additional meanings behind the words, including the allusions to original sin. This example is made by maybe the most popular illustrator of his time in his prime - Walter Crane.

4. Mirrors

A mirror often represents truth, imagination and transition (think about Snow White, Alice in the Looking Glass or Myth of Narcissus). In this case mirrors show how rich was a Bluebeard. In times when this tale was formed, mirrors were rare and very expensive. Knowing somebody has many many large mirrors, we have a ground he is very wealthy.

5. Blood

Blood is a symbol of life and death. It' also represents passion and rage, both being present in huge quantities in this fairy tale. With its lively red color makes strong contrast to cold blue.

Many rituals involve blood. Old testament is full of sacrifices and even today Christianity has strong relations with symbolic blood. It's very important to note how blood should not be spilled in any ritual and we find out Bluebeard collected it in a tub. Wilhelm Grimm had a theory (written as a footnote in first edition of Household Tales) it was used as kind of cure for the blue beard. We can find several examples of blood being used to prolong youth and life, from Elizabeth Bathory to legends of vampires.

Another usage of blood in this story is as a proof of disobedience of women in general. Bluebeard is an old school - unreliable wife should die. Perrault doesn't approve disobedience too, but clearly shows disagreement with so brutal punishment. Bluebeard, not his wife, is killed at the end.

Bluebeard, his wife and bloody key
Bluebeard, his wife and bloody key

6. Castle

Castles are very often in fairy tales and folktales. In many of them even a relatively modest house, if it's built of stone, is called a castle. Bluebeard's castle is impressive building, but while he is very rich, Perrault makes clear he is not a noble man, because he has 'some business to do', what is not part of nobility's life.

It should not be a surprise to find out that castles in dreams are connected with security, strength and resistance, all characteristics of the Bluebeard. In tarot a castle means a goal. And in the end it really is a goal achieved by the last wife, which inherits a fortune.

Bela Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle

One of many masterpieces inspired by the story of Bluebeard

7. Number 7

There are many versions of this fairy tale and number of Bluebeard's wives varies between three and seven (or simply several or many), but it seems number seven was the most attractive to writers. So let's look at symbolism of number seven.
It's very common in different cultures. There are seven ancient wonders of the world, they knew seven planets and there were seven gods by which seven days of the weeks were named (Sun, Moon, Tiw, and so on). In the story of Bluebeard seven can be connected by its numerological associations: spirituality, independence, knowledge and above all - completion. After all it's a sum of material four and spiritual three (the most popular fairy tale number). Discovery of the seventh wife ends the mystery.

8. Sabre

Bluebeard tries to kill his wife with a sabre, curved sword, which always symbolizes justice and is strongly connected with death.

It is also a phallic symbol according to Freud and means different kinds of transitions in different cultures.

It is interesting to note how often is Bluebeard's sword portrayed as sabre, typical for Turks, which were present danger for many Europeans in times when first versions of this tale were written.

Bluebeard prepared to kill his wife
Bluebeard prepared to kill his wife

9. Egg

Egg is not a part of Perrault's Bluebeard, but brothers Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm included one of the variants in their Household Tales as well. It's called Fitcher's Bird and the main character is a sorcerer, who kidnaps girls. The test is the same, but girls get keys AND an egg to carry with them. When the forbidden chamber is opened, egg becomes falls into blood, and stains give away girls' disobedience.

Egg is undoubtedly symbol of fertility and rebirth (think about Easter, the biggest Christian holiday with deep pagan roots), what is even easier to accept in connection with the keys. Blood stained egg is sign of unfaithfulness and by sorcerers standards the punishment can only be death. Blood can be only washed by blood. Well, the last one was clever enough to put egg away before she opened the doors and egg stayed clean - can this be understood as kind of birth control?

10. Doors

Doors can mean many things in literature. In this particular case they clearly represent secrets and by opening the forbidden door Bluebeard's wife enters into different world. Dark secrets in the room with remains of previous wives can be understood as secrets of real world.

When she finds the dead bodies, she enters the world of grown ups. The innocence is gone. All mentioned blood is often explained by loosing her virginity.

Curios wife is opening the forbbidden doors
Curios wife is opening the forbbidden...

We have similar situation in story of the Sleeping Beauty, where the girls also opens the door in the tower only to prick herself (blood again) and symbolically dies.

So you want to read more about The Bluebeard?

It's heck of the story!

Here is complete background with summary and speculations about not one but several real Bluebeards. More than enough to sparkle your curiosity:


Updated: 03/06/2015, Tolovaj
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?

Would you like to add another symbol or hidden meaning from the story of Bluebeard?

Tolovaj on 08/01/2015

When we realize the power of symbols, a literature opens completely new view on life. Thanks for stopping by, WriterArtist!

WriterArtist on 07/28/2015

Though I don't recall coming across Bluebeard in fairy tales, the symbols of hidden doors, mirrors and keys occur repeatedly in many fairy tales. It is interesting to note that all these objects awaken curiosity. I also liked anecdotes that contain riddles, it was fun reading stories where Prince Charming would unlock the puzzles with the help of symbols or clues. In nutshell - the interpretation of blue and beard symbols is quite interesting, it makes the story thrilling.

Tolovaj on 03/06/2015

@frankbeswick: About the glass slippers ... There is kind of myth about wrong translation: 'pantoufle de vair' (fur slipper, if I remember correctly - squirrel fur) was misunderstood as 'pantoufle de verre' (glass slipper). While it is clear Perrault wrote 'verre' (glass) in his first edition, many still believe there was an error (he wrote wrongly - hard to believe, he was a master of words, or at later versions - meaning there should be at least one version which is at the moment not known to the public). There is ground for their belief in older versions, where Cinderella's slippers were really made of fur and of course in reality, where we obviously use more fur than glass in footwear industry. I hope we didn't stray too far from the subject (Bluebeard). By the way, I have an article about Cinderella, too:)

frankbeswick on 03/06/2015

I could not find any reference to glass slippers, but you are right that there may be a translation issue, as the Gaelic word glas can mean green.

Tolovaj on 03/06/2015

You are right, Thamisgith, Bluebeard is not very common on the shelves anymore. But less than hundred years ago it was actually sold as kind of good night literature! Different times, huh?
Thanks for stopping by!

Tolovaj on 03/06/2015

Thanks, frankbeswick for your thoughts on color blue. There may be pretty solid ground for this, although I can't say for sure when this color of the beard appeared for the first time. Before Perrault wrote the tale down, it was already known in Italy and few parts of Scandinavia.
If he was the first with blue color, this may be because of older story in Gaelic language, but I would still be very cautious. Explanations behind 'his' glass slippers which should be made of fur, proved there may be more than translation behind a specific word.
Thanks again, I appreciate it!

Thamisgith on 03/06/2015

Interesting article. You don't hear this one very much these days.

frankbeswick on 03/06/2015

You have stirred some thoughts in me about the age of the tale and the language in it. I suspect that the colour blue is not only about coldness, but hints at a more ancient language in which the tale was once told.As we have it, the tale is French, but it is a peculiarity of one or two Celtic languages, that they use the word blue to denote black when speaking of human complexion. Gaelic, for example, a Celtic tongue, calls a black man "fear gorm" [blue man] rather than "fear dubh" dubh being the word for black [pronounced far gorum and far doov.] Note that before French was spoken in France there was Gallic, a Celtic language related to Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish. Oppenheimer, who has researched relationships between Western European peoples, suggests that Gallic was akin to Gaelic [the language of Ireland], though he cannot be sure. Thus in ancient Gallic blue might have denoted black when hair and skin were spoken of, and this usage might have lingered in the fairy tale.

WriterArtist on 03/05/2015

Loved the illustrations of the symbols, its significance and why they are used. Your articles on fairy tales are very interesting.

Digby_Adams on 03/05/2015

I will definitely have to move on to the companion Wizzle. Very interesting about the symbols. I have never really thought of a fairy tale in these ways.

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