In a Granta Magazine interview with Ted Hodgkinson, Helen Oyeyemi talks about re-writing the endings of canonical texts to suit her own reading of the novel in question. Writing in the margins of library books, Oyeyemi ‘would cross out endings that I didn’t like and I would rewrite them […] I would order everything to my taste, and everything that I decided would happen, happened’ (Oyeyemi to Hodgkinson). This process of re-imagining and adapting texts is central to her 2011 novel Mr Fox, which offers a new interpretation of the infamous “Bluebeard” story. In this fairy tale, Bluebeard’s young bride is given the keys to all of the rooms in his home while he goes away, and is told she can explore her new surroundings with the exception of one room. A moral tale advising against female curiosity, Bluebeard’s wife goes against these orders and opens, in Angela Carter’s terms, “the bloody chamber” where she finds the tortured remains of his previous wives who, like her, were disobedient. Following in the footsteps of Daphne du Maurier, Margaret Atwood and Angela Carter, Oyeyemi’s novel illustrates the continuing ‘cultural investment in an old tale about a bad marriage’ (Tatar 57). Oyeyemi’s adaptation, though, re-imagines the relationship between Bluebeard’s wives, depicting a ghostly sisterhood between Daphne Fox and Mary Foxe, the real and imaginary wives of the eponymous St John Fox, Oyeyemi’s version of Bluebeard.
In ‘Mr Fox,’ Oyeyemi re-imagines the infamous Bluebeard story which advises against female curiosity.
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Mr Fox is set in the 1930s, and rather than depicting a real wife-killer, St John Fox is a literary Bluebeard: he is a writer who has a penchant for killing his female characters. St John Fox’s imaginary muse Mary Foxe challenges him to stop writing stories that feature gynaecide, accusing him of a being a ‘villain’ because ‘You kill women. You’re a serial killer’ (4). In a further change to the traditional story and many variations where Bluebeard has one current wife who finds a bloody chamber full of the dismembered bodies of her predecessors, in Mr Fox the title character has two “wives”: Daphne Fox, his real wife, and Mary Foxe – the muse who embodies John’s idea of the perfect woman. Rather than finding a room full of John’s dead ex-wives, Daphne discovers that her husband’s imaginary ideal woman has invited herself into their marital home, which – unsurprisingly – puts a strain on their relationship. As Daphne says, ‘I, the real woman, the wife, had nothing on the made-up girl’ (198).
Maria Tatar’s argument that ‘Bluebeard’s wife has been reinvented so many times that she has every right to complain of an identity crisis’ (4) is particularly apt in Oyeyemi’s novel. As John’s creation, Mary’s identity is entirely constructed: John named her and controls her. One of the attributes that makes Mary the perfect woman is that John can silence her as he wishes. For instance, when he gets tired of her he says, ‘Just be quiet. In fact – you can’t speak. You’ve just lost your voice, Mary’, and he ‘closed her voice up in my hand’ (231). Oyeyemi therefore re-imagines the controlling aspect of the traditional Bluebeard story, where Bluebeard punishes disobedient wives, by giving John the ability to silence his muse. Similarly, the opening page of the novel shows that John asserts authority over Daphne, portraying his wife as an object that can be manipulated to meet his requirements. He notes that Daphne ‘doesn’t dare complain’ anymore because ‘she is physically unable to’: John says that this is ‘because I fixed her early. I told her in heartfelt tones that one of the reasons I love her is because she never complains’ (1). John’s Bluebeard-inspired power is therefore asserted over both of his “wives”.
What is more, both Mary and Daphne recall other tales in the Bluebeard canon. As well as having connotations of the ideal Virgin Mary, Mary’s name corresponds to the name of the heroine in the story of ‘Mr. Fox’, Lady Mary. Oyeyemi references this story early in her novel, giving a chapter the title ‘be bold, be bold, but not too bold’ (10), the warning written over Bluebeard’s doorway in the ‘Mr. Fox’ tale (Jacobs in Tatar 186). But Daphne also identifies with the role of Bluebeard’s wife. Jonas Pizarsky, a neighbour, tells Daphne the story of ‘Fitcher’s Bird’ in which the Bluebeard character is preparing to marry his bride but she escapes looking like ‘a strange bird’ (Grimm in Tatar 184). As Pizarsky tells Daphne, the liberated bride’s identity is limited to that of “Bluebeard’s wife” once she is free, as in her madness she ‘used the only words she hadn’t forgotten, I’m a bird, I’m Fitcher’s bird’ (Mr Fox, 229: original emphasis). Daphne identifies with the heroine of ‘Fitcher’s Bird’, telling Pizarsky that the character ‘went insane because of him […] I think that’s happening to me’ (230). To contrast this, Pizarsky tells Daphne that, in ‘Mr. Fox’, Lady Mary conquered ‘Mr Fox just by telling him what she’d seen in his house’, giving Lady Mary, as Daphne notes, the ‘power to walk away, or stay, save his life, order his death’ (247). As well as voicing the power that Lady Mary asserts over Mr Fox, and therefore the power that Mary Foxe has over St John Fox, it is clear that Daphne recognises that she lacks the courage to confront her husband about Mary. Reflecting on Lady Mary’s actions, Daphne says that ‘I don’t know what I’d have done in her place’ (247), illustrating the opposition between John’s wives: their power (or lack of).
Mary Foxe – the muse who embodies St John Fox’s idea of the perfect woman who can be silenced at any time.
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Daphne’s jealousy of Mary, as John’s ideal woman, is made clear in the novel, as Oyeyemi depicts a rivalry between them from Daphne’s perspective. Daphne ransacks her husband’s office in a bid to find a clue as to who John’s other woman is, and shouts ‘WHO IS SHE? THIS WOMAN YOU’RE HUMILIATING ME WITH’ (71). John’s revelation that Mary is ‘only an idea’ (73) is threatening for Daphne. Her interrogation of her husband reveals insecurities about her appearance as well as about their marriage, with Daphne asking John if he tells Mary secrets, or if she is ‘prettier than me’ (74). This is exacerbated when Daphne finds a list comparing her and Mary, where Daphne’s merits are that she ‘is real. Is predictable […] Doesn’t know me’, while Mary ‘is so many things – (too many things?). Is unpredictable […] There’s nothing she doesn’t know about me’ (198). This discovery leaves Daphne with ‘my head in my hands, shaking’ because John ‘was trying to choose between me, his wife, and someone he had made up’ (198).
However, as well as showing a contrast between the two wives, Oyeyemi also depicts an uncanny doubling between Mary Foxe and Daphne Fox, exploring resemblances between them beyond their ‘almost identical surnames’ (127). In a story called ‘What Happens Next’ that features in the novel, Mary meets John, following the suicide of Daphne. Thus, while for much of the novel ‘Mary “Ghost” Foxe’ (31) is the spectral wife, this story positions Daphne in a ghostly role. In a scene reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, where the narrator, the second Mrs de Winter, explores her new home of Manderley and is haunted by the presence of the eponymous Rebecca, her husband’s first wife, in ‘What Happens Next’ Mary inhabits Daphne’s space, following in the footsteps of her predecessor. While researching John Fox and discovering Daphne’s story, Mary says that ‘Daphne Fox looked familiar to me’, and reveals that they are both redheads (142). But Mary goes on to explore Daphne’s room and bed and wonder ‘How had she lain? What had she looked at?’ (161). As well as retracing and occupying Daphne’s physical space, Mary physically resembles Daphne: as well as having similar hair, Mary wears Daphne’s slippers, which ‘were just my size’ (163).
This doubling and approximation of Daphne and Mary’s bodies in ‘What Happens Next’ illuminates the resemblances between the two wives; as well as re-imagining the second Mrs de Winter’s haunted exploration of Manderley, it recalls the bodily contact that du Maurier depicts between the narrator and Rebecca. The narrator wears Rebecca’s mackintosh and notes that it was ‘far too big for me and dragging to my ankles’ (68) – in this Bluebeard tale, the clothing exacerbates the contrasts between the new bride and the deceased wife. In Mr Fox, however, the slippers illustrate the similarities between Daphne and Mary. But the end of ‘What Happens Next’ is particularly telling, suggesting a sisterhood between Mary and Daphne. Mary contemplates leaving John, but the apparitional Daphne encourages Mary to ‘stay here’ and ‘take care of him’ (171), wanting her widowed husband to be happy. Daphne also asks Mary to make John believe that he is not to blame for Daphne’s suicide, asking Mary to ‘tell him […] it’s not his fault about me’ (171). Thus, Oyeyemi portrays a supportive relationship between Mary and Daphne, highlighting relationships between women in a fairy tale where the contact between women’s bodies is usually confined to dismembered body parts being housed in a bloody chamber.
Oyeyemi re-imagines the relationship between Bluebeard’s wives, depicting a ghostly sisterhood between Daphne Fox and Mary Foxe, the real and imaginary wives of St John Fox.
[Image by Alba Soler under a CC BY NC ND licence]
The idea of Daphne and Mary as sisterly doppelgängers remains intact after the ‘What Happens Next’ story. Towards the end of Mr Fox the imaginary Mary and real Daphne start spending time together without John, and Daphne feels uncomfortable about Mary, thinking that John ‘was going to drop me and live with her’ (241). However, challenging Daphne’s assumption that Mary would be slimmer than her, Daphne gives Mary a lilac shirt to wear, and was ‘glad’ to discover that they ‘were the same dress size’ (242). The doubling between Mary and Daphne here becomes apparent when Daphne reveals that this is her favourite item of clothing because she’d ‘worn it in Buenos Aires, on the first day of our honeymoon’ (242); Mary inhabits the role of the new bride in this attire. As well as mirroring each other, Oyeyemi represents a ghostly sisterhood between John’s wives. Mary encourages Daphne to write the book she has in mind, ‘Hedda Gabler and Other Monsters’ (260), a text in which there are no murderers, so, as Daphne notes, ‘everyone will survive’ (252). Mary leaves John and Daphne at the end of the novel to go travelling, asking Daphne to send her the manuscript of her novel, and adding ‘don’t talk yourself out if it – you can do it, and it’s going to be really good’ (260), once again illustrating a supportive relationship between them, while inverting the ghostly relationship between them in ‘What Happens Next’.
Overall, Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox re-imagines the infamous Bluebeard fairy tale, portraying a literary Bluebeard character in the form of St John Fox, who has two “wives”. Daphne and Mary are portrayed as ghostly doubles, with emphasis being placed on the similarities rather than differences between them, in opposition to du Maurier’s Rebecca, as well as the support that they offer each other. However, the end of the novel questions how amicable Daphne and Mary’s relationship is. Mary’s note results in Daphne realising ‘just how similar Mary’s handwriting was to St John’s’ (261), and thus discovering that it was in fact Mary who wrote the list comparing them both, therefore bringing into question the sisterhood portrayed between them. As Mary’s return is imminent – she’s ‘dying to know what it’ll be like when I come home’ (260) – it could be that Bluebeard’s wives are re-united, re-igniting the strain on Daphne and John’s marriage.
CITATION: Heidi Yeandle, “Re-imagining Bluebeard’s Wives: Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox,” Alluvium, Vol. 4, No. 6 (2016): n. pag. Web. 5 January 2016, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.6.04
 Du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938), Atwood’s ‘Bluebeard’s Egg’ (1983) and Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (1979) are all inspired by the “Bluebeard” tale.
 It may be that Oyeyemi is explicitly acknowledging a connection with Rebecca, with Daphne’s name recalling the author of Rebecca.
Dr Heidi Yeandle is based at Swansea University and is currently working on her first monograph, Angela Carter and Western Philosophy. Her research on Carter has been published in Contemporary Women’s Writing and Imagining the End: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Apocalypse. She has a forthcoming chapter on Carter and Claude Levi-Strauss in Marie Mulvey-Roberts’ edited collection The Arts of Angela Carter: A Multidisciplinary Kaleidoscope, which is due to be published in Manchester University Press in 2017.
Atwood, Margaret. “Bluebeard’s Egg”. Bluebeard’s Egg and Other Stories. London: Vintage, 1996.
Carter, Angela. “The Bloody Chamber”. Burning your Boats: Collected Stories. London: Vintage, 2006.
Du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca. London: Virago, 2003.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. “Fitcher’s Bird”. In Maria Tatar’s Secrets beyond the Door: The Story of Bluebeard and his Wives. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Hodgkinson, Ted. “Helen Oyeyemi: The Granta Podcast, Ep. 68”. Granta: The Magazine of New Writing [online] 20 May 2013. http://granta.com/Helen-Oyeyemi-The-Granta-Podcast-Ep.-68/ [accessed 05 November 2015]
Jacobs, Joseph. “Mr. Fox”. In Maria Tatar’s Secrets beyond the Door: The Story of Bluebeard and his Wives. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Oyeyemi, Helen. Mr Fox. London: Picador, 2012.
Tatar, Maria. Secrets beyond the Door: The Story of Bluebeard and his Wives. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004.