|Submitted by Kendra O'Neal Patterson|
(Mar 23, 2003)
In her charming novel Beauty, Sheri S. Tepper takes many of the typical conventions of fantasy and fairy tales, and turns them on their heads. Her tale will be familiar to readers, as it is presented in the much-loved format of the ubiquitous fairy tale. However, she throws in a few interesting and innovative spins--such as centering the story upon a strong female protagonist. She presents complex moral themes, unlike well-known fairy tales, which usually center upon a single, simplistic one. Finally, her use of language and presentation of the story make for very interesting reading and her witticisms engage the attention of the reader from almost the first page.
Beauty tells the story of Beauty, the daughter of the Duke of Westfaire, and begins in 14th Century England. However, this is an England of an alternate universe, as magic abounds here, and we find out that Beauty is half faerie. Because of a social slight, one of her faerie aunts laid a curse upon her, stating that upon her sixteenth birthday, the daughter of the Duke of Westfaire would prick her finger upon a spindle and die. This sounds like the typical version of Sleeping Beauty that we all heard our parents read to us as children, right? Wrong. Beauty has an illegitimate half-sister who--technically--is also the daughter of the Duke of Westfaire, and was born on the same day as Beauty. The curse comes to fruition, with Beauty's sister, Beloved, pricking her finger and falling into a deep sleep, as do the rest of the occupants of the castle keep.
In a departure from the typical fairy tale or fantasy tale, Beauty herself bravely sets out to attempt to right this wrong. She vows to find her mother in order to learn how to break the enchantment. She courageously escapes from the castle just before a thorny hedge materializes to block the path of those who try to reach the castle of Westfaire. She then falls into the clutches of a group of time travelers from the twenty-second century who are filming a documentary on the disappearance of magic from England. They capture her, and take her to their nightmarish landscape of hunger, oppression and ghastly sterility--which is their world.
From this point on, Beauty bravely and steadfastly faces many challenges--in contrast with the submissive and weak female archetypes of fairy tales and fantasy tales. She faces hardships that are both physical and mental: she copes with the emotional anguish of rape, the difficulties of motherhood and with the physical pains of old age. She deals with the deaths of family members and friends, while she must live on, in expectation of some future duty that she must fulfill. Tepper portrays Beauty as eloquent, intelligent and brave. Beauty has many views that challenge the status quo of her era--an era that demanded the silence, chastity and obedience of its women. Tepper breaks all of these historical and literary conventions in this well-told tale.
In addition to adding innovative twists to a well-known format, Tepper cleverly intersperses her moral and thematic concerns within the tale. These themes are quite complex when contrasted with fairy tales in general. Tepper poignantly rails against the destruction of the environment--giving us a glimpse of where we could be headed--when she describes the hideous world of the twenty-second century and its hunger, poverty and ominous "Fidipur". She warns against the desensitizing nature of witnessing violence, and the resultant apathy that clings to those who revel in the sight of senseless slaughter--whether real or portrayed in movies and in books. Above all, though, she speaks out against the greedy and avaricious nature of humanity, with its consumer-driven materialism and hunger to attain whatever is desired, despite the human and ecological costs. Tepper eloquently sums up this theme when she discusses the "gobble-god" that modern society has created and worships, and his ten commandments:
[M]e first (let me live as I please), humans first (let all other things die for my benefit), sperm first (no birth control), birth first (no abortions), males first (no women's rights), my culture/tribe/language/religion first (separatism [and] terrorism), my race first (no human rights), my politics first (lousy liberals/rotten reactionaries), my country first (wave the flag, the flag, the flag), and, above all, profit first.
Tepper's cunning adaptation of the well-known fairy tale and her thought-provoking themes are set against the backdrop of a high mastery of language; she employs wonderfully vivid descriptions, as well as clever witticisms. These technical aspects, together with her novel diary-like framing device, make Beauty a delight to read. Her eloquent and enjoyable prose makes the tale flow smoothly, and the diary format in which the tale is told makes for quick reading.
The author provides vivid descriptions of the locales and characters presented in the novel, making them come to life for the reader. She describes her home, Castle Westfaire, as having a chapel, the inside of which is shaped like "a lovely shiny melon, pressing toward the sky, round windows set about it like gems in a ring, poking up in the center to make the high lantern visitors say they can see from miles away as they approach on the north road." Her love interest, Giles, is described as, "slender though well-made in the hip and leg . . . [of] a frank and open countenance and much soft brown hair which falls over his forehead at odd times . . ." Such descriptions make it possible for the reader to form a picture in his or her mind's eye while reading.
Her gift for language not only encompasses the full range of sensory descriptions, but also contains a strong talent for witticism and humor. In one example, Beauty's cat is discovered by her soon-to-be stepmother, who apparently does not like cats. She raises an awful fuss, exclaiming, "A cat!" in a horrified voice. Beauty's opinion on this behavior is comically reflected in her journal entry: "I should have thought the matter self evident. There is nothing uncatly about Grumpkin . . . He is indeed a cat, and the matter does not usually occasion remark." After Beauty travels to the twentieth century, she comments on "born again" Christians: "[T]here are people coming to my door all the time trying to get me to change my religion and be born again . . . Wouldn't being born again imply I didn't trust God to have done it right the first time?" Her cleverly-placed witty epigrams make the story charming to read, though Tepper can be quite sardonic in her humor at times.
Although Sheri S. Tepper eschews many of the conventional means for telling a fantasy tale, and presents important, complex themes within a masterful use of language, there are some weaknesses to Beauty. A few of the characters are stereotypical archetypes, such as her Father, who is always off on pilgrimage to Holy Shrines, eagerly feasting his eyes on decayed pieces of Saints' corpses; her steadfast and eternally-faithful love interest, who pines away in sorrow when Beauty is snatched from his life; and Carabosse, Beauty's fairy godmother-like protectress. The tale also has its moments of predictability, as when a character thought to have been dead was not actually killed.
Despite the use of these few traditional fairy-tale conventions, Tepper does a fine job of telling an interesting tale from a feminist standpoint--although a few of her readers could see her messages as overly didactic. In a major departure from old standbys such as The Hobbit, Dune and traditional fairy tales such as "Sleeping Beauty" and "Hansel and Gretel", no one lives happily ever after. Tepper leaves her reader with a clear feeling of ambivalence, which serves to provoke thought upon the themes that she has so cleverly interspersed. Taken altogether, Beauty is a beauty to read, and could very well be the first fairy tale to deal poignantly with the modern human condition.