Since watching Disney’s gorgeous live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, I’ve been musing about the use of symbols in story. Because Beauty and the Beast has some gems.
Symbolism adds depth to a story and helps you see it in fresh and fascinating ways. Sure, you don’t have to be a symbolism treasure hunter to enjoy a story–but it’s quite fun to dip below the surface and speculate about those deeper meanings!
I remember reading Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter in high school and being only mildly engaged. I loved reading, so I felt a little guilty that I found the book so boring. But when I read the novel again in college I discovered a completely different book. The linchpin was a very knowledgeable professor who showed us that The Scarlet Letter is alive with a network of beautiful and complex symbols.
Symbolism changed the way I engaged with The Scarlet Letter, and I’ve been more attuned to seeking it in stories ever since.
Beauty and the Beast contains some pretty obvious symbols, and their main purpose is to give us basic information about the leading cast of characters. For instance, the book that Belle reads in the opening village scene symbolizes her thirst for knowledge, novelty, and challenging of social norms. That book tells us as much about her as the words she sings.
Another prominent symbol is the glass-encased rose. A rose symbolizes love, but this one is dying–just like the Beast’s hopes for true love. This flower symbolizes more than just love, though. The wilting rose in Beauty and the Beast echoes other dying flowers in art, particularly those used in vanitas paintings.
Vanitas is a genre of still life painting common in northern Europe during the 16th to 18th centuries. If you’ve ever visited an art museum or taken an art history class, it’s a pretty sure bet you’ve seen a vanitas. They usually depict a collection of luxurious, richly-detailed objects, all of which symbolize the brevity of life and the futility of worldly pleasures (the Latin vanitas means “emptiness”).
If the rose in Beauty and the Beast borrows from this tradition of artistic symbolism, then it points to more than just the status of the Beast’s love life. The rose symbolizes the fragile nature of life and the Beast’s need to reform from his previous life of vanity and excess in order to restore his kingdom.
Zoom out from the solitary rose and you’ll see many more symbols with vanitas significance. In fact, two of them are so obvious that you’ll have a hard time convincing yourself that they’re not intentional. Besides flowers, two types of objects that appear in almost every vanitas painting are candles and time pieces. Sound familiar? Yep–Lumiére and Cogsworth!
As I thought about the movie and looked through vanitas paintings online, I came up with this list of vanitas symbols and their possible correlation in the Disney film:
- time pieces (clocks, hourglasses, watches) – Cogsworth
- candles – Lumiére
- mirrors – the enchanted mirror
- chipped crockery or glassware – Chip
- books – the Beast’s library
- musical instruments – Maestro Cadenza, the instrument sculptures in the ball room
- smoke – steam from Mrs. Potts
- dust – Plumette the feather duster
- bubbles – Chip blowing bubbles
- globes – various globes in the library and around the castle
- chess board/peices – chess set in the library
- maps – the map in the enchanted book
- glass – the glass dome that covers the rose
- luxurious objects like fancy clothes, tapestries, and jewelry – all over the castle!
Each of the vanitas objects prompt us to reflect on the nature of life and symbolize either life’s transience (think ephemeral bubbles, candles burning down) or worldly pursuits and passions (quest for knowledge in books and maps, pleasures like music and tapestries). But did anyone at Disney really intend for us to glean so much from their character and prop choices?
I my opinion, it doesn’t matter if they did or not. The symbols in this film or in any piece of story are no less important or interesting because the creator intended something different than we imagine. Stories are incredibly layered; it’s inevitable that a story will take on a life of its own. The finished work always displays a broader spectrum of meaning than the creator intended, and this meaning will continue to expand with cultural shifts.
You can actually make a case that the vanitas symbols in Beauty and the Beast are intentional. The Disney team often draws inspiration from famous works of art. One recent hard-to-miss example is when Anna from Frozen leaps in front of a painting that’s clearly an adaptation of Fragonard’s The Swing. One astute Disney fan noticed that The Swing makes an appearance in the 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast, too. The same fan pointed out other reproductions of famous paintings in the Beast’s palace, including Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer, a Dutch artist familiar with the vanitas paintings of his day.
We know that the creators of the original Disney Beauty and the Beast visited France to glean inspiration for their art. Cogsworth references Baroque and Rococo designs as he gives Belle a tour of the castle. The live action Beauty and the Beast reinforces the lush and opulent style of mid-18th France, which can be both beautiful and garish.
Disney seems to pick up on the fact that true love is redemptive and transformative. In the opening scenes of the 2017 version, Agathe narrates that the prince/Beast “taxed the village to fill his castle with the most beautiful objects and his parties with the most beautiful people.” But love turns the Beast from a vain, eat-drink-and-be-merry prince in a garish, over-the-top castle to a self-sacrificing king who’s ready to receive his people with hospitality. The prince’s rebirth is echoed in the physical changes that the castle undergoes, as well as the restored humanity of the servants.
Rather than turning into beautiful–but inanimate–objects that will serve only as an artful reminder of the vanity of a bygone era, the servants shed their symbolic forms and become human once more when the curse is lifted. The threat of becoming inanimate is a new twist in the 2017 Beauty and the Beast, and it adds to the urgency of the Beast’s need to recast his approach to life.
Through Belle, the Beast comes to understand that life is precious and meant to be cherished–and shared. Life and his place in it is not a commodity to be consumed and squandered. Belle helps the Beast to enjoy life again, not in a selfish and indulgent way as he did before, but with a truthful, selfless love that looks outward and leaves a legacy of hope.
The new flowers that bloom when the curse is lifted will eventually die (as will the again-mortal Beast and servants), but they’ll be a living reminder that while life is fleeting, it’s also incredibly valuable.
What are some of your favourite symbols in stories? Did you notice any interesting symbols in Beauty and the Beast?
P.S. Check out this post for novelizations of the original Beauty and the Beast fairy tale!
Top image by Disney. Used with permission.