Comparing Marriage in Fitcher's Bird by the Brothers Grimm and Margaret Atwood's Bluebeard's Egg
Fitcher’s Bird, by the Brothers Grimm, and Margaret Atwood’s Bluebeard’s Egg present the theme of a woman’s identity through her marriage in different ways: while the woman in Fitcher’s Bird retains her identity through finding out the truth about her husband and fleeing from him and from the marriage, Sally in Bluebeard’s Egg defines herself only in relation to her husband and their marriage, although she clearly has other options.
This can be seen from the first paragraphs of the stories: while the three sisters have to go with the sorcerer against their wishes, because his magical powers make them jump into his basket (Brothers Grimm 148), Sally, the protagonist of Atwood’s Bluebeard’s Egg, marries Edward--a cardiologist--because she chooses him from many other options: “Why did she choose him (or, to be precise, as she tries to be with herself and sometimes is even out loud, hunt him down), when it’s clear to everyone she had other options?” (Atwood 158). Sally did even more than choose Edward for a husband, she “hunted him down,” which implies she was the initiator of this marriage, unlike the girls in the Brothers Grimm’s story, who have no word to say in their marriage to the sorcerer.
The couples communicate in very different patterns, which reveal the fears of the women and explain their subsequent behavior. The sorcerer in Fitcher’s Bird showers his brides with “everything your heart desires” (Brothers Grimm 148) but bars them from entering the bloody chamber and gives them an egg to carry wherever they go (Brothers Grimm 149). He also gives them the key to the chamber he does not want them to enter (Brothers Grimm 149) and this is a clear indication that he hands them the temptation and expects them to follow it. Sally’s situation is quite different, although she, too, gets “everything”:
However, this “everything” is unstable in Sally’s eyes, because she is terribly afraid of losing Ed. She wants him shielded from the “sink-holes” and “quagmires,” as she refers to his two previous wives (Atwood 158), although she would like to know what happened to those two marriages: “if he doesn’t know what happened with the other two, maybe the same thing could be happening with her” (Atwood 158). She watches his every move (Atwood 156) and she is afraid of all the women lurking around Ed, patients pretended patients: “makes her uneasy, now that she’s seen her own performance repeated so many times, including the hand placed lightly on the heart, to call attention of course to the breasts” and she feels so much hatred towards them that “she feels the Aztec rise within her. Trouble with your heart? Get it removed, she thinks” (Atwood 161). Further more, even though she has a job (and is very good at it), she constantly changes it, so that she can work only part-time and be at home as much as possible (Atwood 161), and when she travels “in connection with her job,” she is always afraid Ed would have an affair (Atwood 162). She also takes night courses(and she excels in all of them), to fill the time when her husband is not home (Atwood 170) and “in the belief that this would make her more interesting to Ed” (Atwood 163). Nonetheless, she “was also intending to belittle the course […] so that Ed wouldn’t get the idea there was anything in her life that was even as remotely as important as he was” (Atwood 171). Sally’s whole life revolves around Ed, to the point of pathology: “She knows she thinks about Ed too much. She knows she should stop” (Atwood 169), and in doing so her only identity is the one constructed through her marriage. Her definition of herself is “Edward’s wife,” though she does not say it aloud. Thus, for her, losing Ed means losing herself.
Consequently, while the sisters in “Fithcer’s Bird” try to find out what the wizard hides from them, Sally will try as much as possible to never “fit the last piece of the puzzle in,” and never find out the real truth about Ed, repeating to herself that he is stupid and innocent. Indeed, it is in the sisters’ interest to find the bloody chamber and try to escape it. The sight is terrifying: “in the middle of the room there was a large, bloody basin filled with dead people who had been chopped to pieces” (Brothers Grimm149), and the two elder sisters drop the egg and stain it with blood so that the sorcerer finds out about their treason and kills them. Nonetheless, the third sister does not lose her temper and gathers her sister’s limbs, puts them together (Brothers Grimm 149), thus restoring them back to life (Brothers Grimm 150). The sorcerer’s bloody chamber means death and/or the loss of a woman’s identity in marriage, since all women that go in there are chopped up and thus never get to leave that dangerous place (Brothers Grimm 149). In contrast, Edward does not have a bloody chamber. His room is a hospital room, impersonal, safe, even positive as it is associated with healing: “it was in a cramped, darkened room with an examining table in it. The thing itself looked like a television screen hooked up to some complicated hardware” (Atwood 165). Edward is even excited to show Sally how everything works: “He was fascinated by the thing himself, and he wanted to show it off” (Atwood 165).
The similarities between this hospital room and the bloody chamber are that they both engulf the women entering them: the latter against the women’s wishes and to their “death”, the former by the women’s voluntary decision: “this whole room was sexual in a way she didn’t quite understand; it was clearly a dangerous place. […]. Put a batch of women in there with Ed and they would never want to come out” (Atwood 166). In this case the women choose their own fate, Ed being not only rich and intelligent but also attractive, through his authority as a doctor over his female patients. Thus, the women who enter the rooms stay in there, although for quite different reasons. In the case of the bloody chamber, it is an imperative for the bride to save her sisters and herself, while in the case of Sally, the chamber is dangerous only to her-to her psychological stability-since she fears any competition.
The third sister in Fitcher’s Bird escapes with her life because she does not listen to the sorcerer’s command, keeping the egg safely and not staining it, while at the same time, entering the forbidden room. But Sally tries to ignore all the signs, although part of it seems to be Edward’s desire to hide the truth from her and keep on with this quiet, routine marriage. He shows his indifference towards Sally on every occasion. When Sally “teases Ed, while she packs, saying she’s going off for a rendezvous with a dashing financier or two. Ed isn’t threatened,” and Sally prefers to think he is “dumb it doesn’t occur to him she might no be joking” (Atwood 162). He is also not interested in the fact that she is taking night courses: “she appears to be neither more nor less interesting to Ed now that she was before” (Atwood 163), nor in the fact that Sally is worried about the women around him (Atwood 167), nor about her desire of him expressing his love to her: “She knows she shouldn’t ask, ‘Do you still love me?’ […]. All it achieves is that Ed shakes his head, as if not understanding why she would ask this” (Atwood 169). Not even their sexual life is satisfying and Ed is indifferent about it, as well:
Edward’s indifference and treatment of Sally is answered by the latter with ambivalence: on the one hand, she is glad she does not have to know anything and prefers to consider him stupid, dumb, innocent, pretending that she is in control of their relatinshiop: “Sally is in love with Ed because of his stupidity, his monumental and energetic stupidity. […] He is just so stupid” (Atwood 157); on the other hand, she does not even realize that Ed’s behavior is destabilizing her even more and making her more and more. With every step she is trying to construct this supposed aloofness and innocence of her husband: when she has to write an assignment about “Bluebeard” for her night course, she thinks of the wizard and the locked room in connection with Edward but then she dismisses the thought as ridiculous: “if it were Ed the room wouldn’t even be locked, and there would be no story” (Atwood 173). Sally is trying to build a wall around her, so that the truth of his indifference and infidelity will not penetrate to her and make her lose her mind. Even when his infidelity is clear, as when she surprises Marylynn, her good friend, and Edward: “Marylynn is bending forward […]. Ed is standing close to her, and as Sally comes up behind them she sees his left arm […] pressed against Marylynn, her shimmering upper thigh […]. Marylynn does not move away” (Atwood 176), he goes on cleaning and washing dishes as usual, pretending nothing has happened (Atwood 177). She is, once again, just Edward’s housewife, because, although she had a job and takes night courses, none of these define her nor interest her in the least-the only thing she cares about is Edward: Edward, his house (cleaning, giving dinners, entertaining), Edward, his friends, Edward his children (Edwards doesn’t have time to raise them, Sally does, although they are not her own children), Edward.
The third sister in Fitcher’s Bird, though, uses her wit and cunningness to concoct a plan to save her sisters and herself (Brothers Grimm 150). She is industrious, as Sally is, but to a different end. Instead of trying to work her own life around Ed’s schedule, as Sally does, the girl tries to get out from the hands of a murderer and save her sisters, as well. She does what she wants, behind his back, against his wishes and keeps her own identity, all the while planning to escape from the most dangerous event of all: their marriage. In other words, the sorcerer has no power over the girl: “He has no longer power over her and had to do her biding” (Brothers Grimm 150), while Edwards is everything for Sally: “Ed on the contrary looms larger and larger, the outlines around him darkening,” although he remains impenetrable and Sally blocks herself from his inner world with her devotion: “Ed is a surface, one she has trouble getting beneath.” Moreover, Edward is not only lacking the stupidity that Sally repeatedly assigns to him, he is actually incredibly smart: after Sally surprises Ed with Marylynn, he “is staring off into space, like a robot which has been parked and switched off. Now she isn’t sure whether she really saw what she though she saw […],” while Marylynn talks to a guest (Atwood 177).
Their epiphanies make the women react in different ways. The third sister puts her sisters in a basket that she makes the sorcerer bring to her house, while she is preparing for the wedding but tells her sisters: “As soon as you get home, send help for me” (Brothers Grimm 150). She also puts a skull decorated as bride in the window and “crawled into a barrel of honey, cut open a featherbed and rolled in the feathers until she looked like a strange bird” (Brothers Grimm 150) and she sends the wedding guests and the sorcerer to the house letting them know that the bride is looking for them through the attic’s window (Brothers Grimm 150-151). Finally “the brother and relatives who had been sent to rescue the bride were already there” and “they set fire” to the house “so that the sorcerer and his crew burned to death” (Brothers Grimm 151).
Sally, though, does not run away from Ed. It would be contrary to everything she has tried to achieve and strived for until this point. Her marriage is like the egg from which point of view she wants to complete her night course assignment: “How does it feel, to be the innocent and passive cause of so much misfortune?” (Atwood 174) The question seems almost rhetorical, but she will obviously ignore the answer and plunge ahead in her plans of being perfect for Edward and having contempt or at least indifference for anything else. When she finally realizes the truth, the image that comes to her mind is that of her heart, projected on the screen of the new machinery that Ed extolled and of Bluebeard’s egg, just that now it appeared “golden pink […], glowing softly as though there is something red and hot inside it. […] There is something the story left out, Sally thinks: the egg is alive, and one day it will hatch. But what will come out of it?” (Atwood 178) For Sally, the only option is to clean, and climb back in bed next to Edward (Atwood, 177-178), for without him there is no mental stability for her, no identity to which she wants to turn but that of herself as Edward’s wife. In spite of everything that life has to offer her, in spite of her intelligence, she chooses to be nothing else but Edward’s wife.
Atwood, Margaret. “Bluebeard’s Egg.” The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999. 156-178.
Brothers Grimm. “Fitcher’s Bird.” The Classic Fairy Tales. Ed. Maria Tatar. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999. 148-151.