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Essays & Reviews

The Beast's Embrace

It's the end of "Beauty and the Beast," any version you like, and the Beast, rescued from the evil spell that has kept him in his hideous form, turns back into the handsome prince he rightfully is. In the audience, we women sigh, but not with satisfaction. We are sad, we are sorry, we liked the Beast better.

Christine Daae refuses the deformed but brilliant Phantom of the Paris Opera and runs away instead with her Raoul, a dashing younger son of the French nobility — a happy ending, so why are our eyes wet, why are we so full of regret for the road she has not taken, the suitor she has not chosen, unlikely though he is? What is it about the lover who is a monster that we find so appealing?

For starters, he's a successful monster; he has qualities. His enemies hate him just for being unlike them and pursue him in cowardly packs because they fear him so; but he survives. He even flourishes. So he must be very clever, and he's certainly strong enough to whip any piddling "normal" antagonist, alert enough to outmaneuver any enemy, powerful enough to protect those he loves from any danger, and in the service of love he is braver than lions.

He has to be brave, or he wouldn't be able to resist the easy out of suicide or surrender. The ogre who loves us is a guardian angel whom no one could slip past or tempt from his self-chosen duty of protecting us; and because he loves us, that strength could never be turned against us.

With this fearsome creature, we alone are safe.

But when it comes to anyone who insults or injures us, they will assuredly get theirs at the hands of our loving monster. Though afterwards we may outwardly deplore his violence on our behalf, we'll be secretly glad, thrilled, even, with righteous triumph, and secure in the knowledge that nobody can spit in our eye and get away with it. Erik will drop a chandelier on them, the Beast will rend them limb from limb!

All that strength is miraculously at our command. We don't have to slave in the gym to have muscles of our own, or take self-defense courses so we can fight off our attackers ourselves. We have a secret weapon: we can unleash matchless power with a word — or restrain it, gentle it, make it kneel at our feet. Great physical power is awesome, but power over that power — power by a word, a look, no more effort than that — that is power indeed, more power than most people, male or female, ever get to exercise in the real world. There's something of the adolescent girl's love of horses in this, that sense of mastery over something mighty that can be persuaded to submit, that can be won to our service and held there by the force of our character and virtue, that can be lured into loving us, slight as we are.

And what love! How can the boyish enthusiasm of a dopey dandy like Christine's Raoul measure up to the unwavering passion in which the hideous Phantom holds her? The love of Erik for his Christine, or the Beast for his Beauty, is totally focused, constant, and exclusive. He has eyes for no one but us, his every thought is bent on us, his one wish is to please us. He isn't worried about paying the bills (the Beast has none, and the Phantom extorts money from the Opera management to discharge his), or losing his hair (the Beast has far too much, and for the Phantom, under that wig it's way too late). He is only worried about how we feel, whether we still love him, and how to best please us and keep us happy.

Moreover, our Beast is in some way noble. He's a prince under a curse, or a genius suffering from terminal uglyness that is not his fault — no bum but a man of means (however well or ill-gotten). And the ordeal of his loneliness has exalted and refined his spirit. He doesn't worry about his job, he doesn't flirt with other girls, he doesn't fuss about his food or talk politics or football. He thinks and talks of love, and of deep matters concerning the nature of Man and Beast and Beauty and Art.

Better still, he is in pain. How he suffers from the slings and arrows of truly outrageous fortune — a cruelly distorted outward appearance, the isolation of being different, feared, and unloved! Whatever our own sorrows may be, they pale before his -- they make us privileged by comparison. And we know that for his terrible pain we are the precise prescription: we can give him the love he craves and needs, we can soothe the thousand hurts the world had dealt him, we can make him feel so much better that he almost forgets his hideousness and outcast status — but, and this is very important, in the very best of all possible stories, even we can't actually cure him.

That is, if we do break the spell and Beast becomes prince the Beast has been banished, not accepted by the world as he is, which was what he longed for. No, he's merely been replaced, fang and hide and claw, by a nice-looking young fellow with a fortune and a title; and the audience sighs... missing their glorious Beast. We haven't cured the Beast, we have obliterated him.

As for the Phantom, no matter how much Christine loves him she can't make the world look at him and not cringe in horror and disgust. But if she could, somehow, repair his face and teach him manners, his genius would be set free into the world, wouldn't it? And how long, do you think, would he remain constant to her, under the pressures of fame and fortune and other women throwing themselves at him?

No, the fix our monster is in is at best not, ultimately, fixable.

This is crucial, because if he can't be cured, then -- halleluya! -- our monster will always need us. How can he do without the only one who can bring herself to kiss his terrible mouth? And having once tasted the joy of being loved by us (in spite of everything) he will be constant forever, because he needs us; if we stay with him and love him despite his uglyness, he will be grateful, he will love us all the more.

He's humble before us, our beloved Beast, because he knows he's not worthy (and as much as we may try, we can never, thank Heaven, persuade him that he is). He knows what a stretch it is for us to love him in spite of his hairy puss, his horrible deformity. He knows that our loving him shows how wonderful we are, how totally worthy of his undying devotion. And if we went away, where would he ever find another?

But we would never go, we would never abandon him, because who could we find who would ever need us as much?

Besides, he's great in the sack. How could he not be? Our loving monster will do whatever we ask, and between our guidance and all his pent-up longing, his long deprivation, how could he fail to be a magnificent, a perfect, a most devoted lover?

For our part, he brings out the best in us. He calls us to our highest exercise of love, he vindicates our judgment and rewards our kindness, he makes heroines of us.

No wonder he loves us, who wouldn't?

And then there's the seductiveness of the Other, the stranger, the mate who is almost of another species, which adds the thrill of the forbidden. Better yet, he has known hardly anyone except for us, so no invidious comparisons to other loves will cloud his appreciation of us. He is forever in our debt for allowing him to taste the delights of sex and love at last, and being basically an honorable creature (he is noble, after all), he means to honor his debt no matter what.

He is ours for good; and if for some reason we should cease to wish to be his — why, he will let us go, out of his great love for us. Then he will crawl away, bereft and broken-hearted, and die rather than live on without us, leaving us in melancholy awe of our own great power — to cause another creature to die for lack of our love!

What ordinary man could measure up to this concentration of attractions? For that matter, what extra-ordinary man could? He's a dream, our loving monster, no relation to the realities of what deprivation, loneliness and pain do to the real men (and women) who have to endure them, the embittering effects of ostracism, the tendency of those who have suffered greatly in the real world to pass on pain to others in turn. If those others are close to them and bound to them by pity and love, so much the better.

God help us if we think we have found our fictional perfect but outcast lover in the real world. He doesn't exist there. He can't.

Our incomparable monster, our glorious Beast, exists only in our hungry, desperate imagination, where life is stronger, runs deeper and purer, and is more richly colored than our daily lives on the street, in the kitchen, and at the work place. He has the power of angels, of demons, of longing, and of all the stories we tell ourselves for our comfort and consolation — power we have given him, in our dreams.

And what fantastic power that is! Poor Raoul, poor handsome prince; they don't stand a chance.

18 July, 2000