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Beauty and the Beast

August 15, 2013

I was following up on Peter’s remark that gender can be variable in Hebrew, not as fixed as in some other languages. I had not been aware of that. I had expected a more fixed gender, and automatic gender agreement. There are lots of commentators that do think that gender is a problem in this verse, but I won’t belabour that. Having read through 20 commentaries on Gen. 4:7, I am prepared to let it lie.

Beauty Beast

But here, in Beauty and the Beast, is a good example of my expectations. This is a passage from a recounting of the story by Madame de Villeneuve published in 1787,

Among the different questions that the monster addressed to her, he asked her how she was amusing herself. Beauty answered him, I have passed the day visiting your palace, but it is so vast that I have not had the time to see all the apartments and the beautiful things they contain. The Beast asked her: Do you think that you can grow accustomed to this place? The girl answered her politely that she would live without difficulty in such a beautiful place. After an hour of conversation on the same subject, Beauty, listening to the terrible voice of the Beast, distinguished easily that it was a tone forced by the vocal organs, and that the Beast leaned more towards stupidity that towards fury. She asked her directly if she would let her sleep with her. At this unexpected request her fears revived, and uttering an agonized cry, she could not prevent herself from saying: Oh! Heaven! I am lost!

Of course, nobody would actually translate it that way. But at least you get the idea. I do believe that the Beast asked Beauty to sleep with him, and not the reverse. The word for “beast” is a feminine word, even though the beast is male. The notion that masculine is male, and feminine is female is tenuous  in gendered languages, because the language doesn’t really work that way. Perhaps the word for beast is feminine because it ends in an “e” – that’s all. But, the pronoun ought to agree with the gender of the noun. So sometimes elle is “the Beast” – a male. The question then becomes: does  elle  mean “she” in English. Well, sometimes yes, and sometimes no. And this situation happens in Greek as well. In languages with gender, the pronouns have gender, and they also relate to biological sex, but in a more remote way than in English. Their first allegiance is to grammatical gender.

Admittedly, in modern French, the pronoun would soon transition to masculine, an the gender of the pronoun would line up with the biological sex. But often there is a transition word to smooth things along. One could switch to another word like “le monstre” or “l’animal.” In any case, in older French, one would expect there to be an agreement in gender regardless of how the story goes.



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