Bluebeard is a classic fairy tale, and its origins are debated. Although credit for the written story is given to Charles Perrault (this is the author of the public domain text), it was already popular by the time of its publication in 1697. First and foremost, Bluebeard is a cautionary tale, one warning against allowing curiosity and temptation to get the better of you. It's also a particularly scary fairytale to tell to young children if you like getting woken in the middle of the night with their nightmares! Although the inspiration for the story is debated, several theories exist as to its roots, due to its similarities with other stories. The first, "Cupid and Pysche", is a classical Greek story about a beautiful woman (Psyche) who caused Aphrodite to become jealous when people began to revere Pysche in her place. Aphrodite ordered her son Cupid/Eros to make Pysche fall in love with the most hideous person available, but Cupid himself fell in love with the mortal woman, and became her lover, with a twist - Pysche was forbidden to look at Cupid! Unable to bear the suspense any longer, Pysche one day looked at her lover, causing Cupid to flee, fearing the wrath of his mother once the secret was out. Yet, this story has a happy ending, in the Zeus agreed that the lovers could be together for eternity.
Another suggested inspiration for the story is that of "Conomor and Triphine", the tale of a politically-savvy Breton count named Conomor whose wifes had a nasty habit of dying mysteriously (as did their children), as the count married these women for their money and lands. The more widows and hieresses he married, the richer and more powerful the count became, although he did not kill them simply for money - a prophecy had been made that he would die by the hand of his son. Eventually, he made the decision to kill any wife of his that became pregnant, in an effort to avoid the fulfillment of the prophecy. By now, Conomor wanted a new wife, his sixth, and the daughter of another Count caught his eye - Triphine.
After delaying for as long as possible, Triphine married Conomor with the knowledge that she might die, although her father convinced her that if she died, then her death would be seen by God as a sacrifice, and would stop Conomor. As the story continues, Triphine is given a silver ring that will turn black if her life is in danger, and once Conomor discovers that Triphine is pregnant, the ring turns black and is noticed by his wife. Running to the chapel where the other wifes are buried, Triphine prays for guidance. The dead wives rise from the grave, and tell her to poison Conomor, after which Triphine attemps to escape and return to the land of her father, also placing the blackened ring on the talon of a falcon headed in that direction, in case she should fall. Indeed, she dies, for Conomor catches up to his young wife, and cuts off her head, but this is not the end of the tale! The falcon finds Triphine's father, who sends a holy man to see his daughter's body. This man commands Triphine to come to life once more, and lives to become an abbess. Conomor is pronounced guilty of misdeeds by a council of nobles, and Triphine's son, Tremeur, causes his father's death by throwing a handful of dirt at Conomor's castle walls, causing the structure to collapse on top of Conomor.
These two tales aside, however, the most likely story from which Bluebeard developed is that of a French mass-murderer named Gilles de Rais (1401 (1404?)-1440) a Marshal of France. The node concerning this murderer contains most of the known information about this man, so I will refer you there. At any rate, it is speculated that the tale of Bluebeard arose amongst French peasants as a way of warning their children to stay away from Baron Gilles de Rais, as although the peasants noted the disappearances (it is thought that in sum, he may have killed up to 300 people, mainly boys, although he confessed to 140 murders) the Baron had too much fame and influence in the region to have the story believed far and wide for a long time. Telling such a warning to their children was the peasants' only means of protection from the sadistic nobleman, whose stature in both the worlds of politics and finance rendered their complaints unheard. A much more mundane version of the story's beginnings is that it is a tale passed down from mother to daughter about the dangers that come with marriage. It is speculated that this tale concerned the fact that marriage was a danger to women simply through deaths related to childbirth.
For more ideas about the beginnings of Bluebeard (of which there are many!), this website will aid your exploration: http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/bluebeard/other.html
It is also of interest to note that while Bluebeard was a popular tale in the 19th century and the years preceeding it, it is now only very rarely included in treasuries of fairy tales. Now considered to be very violent for bedtime reading, the tale seemed to be omitted from children's story books from the 1940s to 1950s onwards, although it was popular in the early 20th century. Now, it seems, Bluebeard is treated mainly in adult literary adaptions (both poetry and prose), although the tale was also used to interesting effect as a foreshadowing of future events in the Jane Campion film The Piano. For further reading on modern adaptions of this tale, here is a thorough link: http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/bluebeard/themes.html
As girlotron has noded the Project Gutenberg version of this story, I will refer you here to read further, and provide in this node some annotations and ideas. Firstly, the colour of Bluebeard's beard itself: it would appear most likely that the man's beard was so black that in certain lights it could seem blue-tinged. This, to me, would be logical explanation. However, it must be kept in mind that this is a fairy tale, and that symbolism was frequently used in fairy tales to give meaning beyond the obvious. A certain suspension of belief is required, but it is clear in the original story text (translated from the French) that the murderer is La Barbe-bleu, Blue Beard (although the most commonly accepted spelling of the man's name is Bluebeard). Indeed, early on in the tale, we are told that the man is considered to be hideously ugly because of his blue beard - it seems clear that the beard is actually blue.
Symbolically, the significance of this blue beard is great. Blue is a deep colour, one that is rarely found in the natural world, except as a translucency - this is why it is used for the cinematic process of bluescreening. It is a cold colour, eternal, lofty - like blue mountain ranges. This description of blue obviously compliments the description of Bluebeard the man, whose cold murders of his wives reveal his equally cold, inhuman heart. It is this unnatural beard which causes people (including the young wife) to fear him on sight alone, as it publically "reveals" his nature. Beards, too, are traditionally highly symbolic. Hair is often connected with supernatural powers, an early reference being the Biblical story of Samson - it is supposed that this blue beard is a combination of a warning of a cold man, and of supernatural (or at least inhuman) qualities.
Keys, too, are always symbolic of many things: power, wealth, openings, closings, secrets and sexuality. Traditionally in folk- and fairy-tales, keys are used to symbolise a mystery that must be solved by a protagonist's quest. Thus, in giving the tiny key to his unnamed bride, Bluebeard hands the young woman a mystery which may be solved, if she dares. In being handed the keys, the wife is given the opportunity to embrace her husband's trust, yet in being forbidden to see into the hidden chamber, Bluebeard obviously does not trust his newest wife. Here there may be traced a link, again, to a Biblical tale, that of Adam and Eve, and the fall of mankind from innocence, as alluded to by eldritch on behalf of dem bones in the previous node. In using the key to enter the forbidden chamber, the wife discovers the true nature of her husband, similar to the tale set in the Garden of Eden. It has also been suggested (although I am a little sceptical about this, myself!) that the key is a phallic symbol, in that it almost-always appears as oversized in this story's illustrations, thus suggesting that the wife is discovering sexual knowledge and possibly promiscuity in taking the key from her husband. Also, in being stained with blood, there is supposedly a connotation of sexual infidelity. To me, however, this final meaning of the key would seem dubious.
Blood, as always, is highly symbolic. Blood is precious - it is necessary to human life, and has traditionally been considered a humour of passion (thus blood-letting as traditional medicine, to balance the humours of the body), as it would have been at the time of this tale's writing. It is clear that the hidden chamber that holds the dead wives' bodies is liberally splattered with blood, showing Bluebeard's utter disrespect for the sanctity of human life. It reminds us that these women are indeed dead - the blood is physically present in the room, an ominous reminder of the terrible temper of Bluebeard himself. Also, blood has traditionally been associated with guilt, as in William Shakespeare's Macbeth. In dropping the key and allowing it to get bloody, the wife has made evidence pointing to her guilt. It is also interesting to note that the blood (and the associated guilt) does not wash from the key, causing Bluebeard to discover his wife's lies. Also, the rapidity with which Bluebeard returns from his trip would indicate that he was testing his new wife's obedience - he purposefully placed her in a position of temptation.
It is also interesting to note that in many illustrations, Bluebeard is portrayed as as wearing a turban, and holding a sabre. The translation of the French, here, is interesting, as sometimes Bluebeard's sword is described as a "sabre", and at other times as a "cutlass". This has given rise to Bluebeard's oft-image of being a stereotypical Turk or other supposed "infidel" of the time, which was used to help explain the man's inhuman behaviour. Again, I draw a parallel to Shakespeare, in Othello: there has been debate over Othello's lineage over the years, but the Moor image is used to explain to audiences the man's supposed lust for violence. Whether a Frenchman or a Turk (etc.), Bluebeard is certainly violent - this tendancy to shift the blame of his nature on another (less understood) culture was typical in tales of the era, and in part may explain the discrepancy amongst the tale's illustrations.
Themes are naturally an important aspect of Bluebeard: the results of giving in to temptation and curiosity, the effect of repentance. The disobedient wife repents her misconduct through prayer, and although her husband refuses her mercy, it arrives in the form of her two brothers, who rescue her by killing Bluebeard. Presumably, her prayers for repentance are answered, and Bluebeard's lack of compassion is rewarded in turn, with no show of mercy. Although the prayer time was alotted as an opportunity to say last rites on her own behalf, the wife also uses them to seek help from her sister Anne (which may be an allusion to Anne of Austria (a Queen of France) or Saint Anne (mother of the Virgin Mary) - St. Anne was known as a miracle-worker and was a patron saint of Brittany, where the Gilles de Rais murders took place, which might indicate some significance to the naming of the wife's sister) who in turn causes the brothers to hurry in their arrival, saving the young wife's life.
In sum, Bluebeard is an interesting fairy tale, for all that it is now no-longer considered to be suitable as bedtime reading! It is a cautionary tale, and has been expanded upon and adapted by many modern writers, filmmakers and playwrites, and will undoubtedly continue to do so.
- The Encyclopedia of Mythology, ed. Arthur Cotterell, Hermes House (2001)
- A Treasury of Fairy Tales (With Classic Illustrations), ed. Michael Foss, Michael O'Mara Books Ltd. (1986)
- http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/bluebeard/index.html (and related pages)