I have much to say about the new Beauty & the Beast, but the thing that most struck me was a conversation between Belle and Mrs. Potts, where Belle implies the curse “isn’t fair,” because the servants in the castle “didn’t do anything” to deserve punishment. Mrs. Potts implies they do deserve punishment, for “we did nothing” when the prince’s father took him after his mother’s death and corrupted him from a sweet child into a selfish tyrant, by making him in his own image. Mrs. Potts is taking responsibility for her inaction, and acknowledging no one is without sin. Even if she didn’t corrupt the child, she did nothing to stop it; her silence permitted his abuse, because to turn a child selfish and make him incapable of love is indeed abusive.
Natural sin condemns all of us; our nature drives us toward selfishness and divides us from perfection. Whether you choose to take Genesis as a literal interpretation of the origins of sin, or see it as a mythology embodying universal human failings into human form in an analogy, the message remains the same: we “inherit” sin and human failing and spend our lives struggling to overcome it, condemned by a curse ‘fallen upon us’ by a source outside ourselves—the evil in the world.
The Enchantress threatens the Prince with eternal consequences if he cannot turn aside from his sin (selfishness) and find selfless love (the divine). He becomes a physical manifestation of the nature of his heart (a Beast), and unless he changes his trajectory he will continue to diminish and lose his humanity “forever.” This parallels Christian mythology, in that who we start to become on earth echoes into eternity (either we become more like God, or more separate from Him). The Beast is demented, warped humanity, in all its wretchedness… only by sacrificing his life can he find it anew, and be transformed not only into his former form, but a better, more human self than before.
This is the idealistic objective of Christian theology; to abandon self and become more human in the process. Our present, sinful selves are dim reflections of our true selves; the self we could be, without flaws. While we cannot attain this perfection on earth, we can strive to begin on earth what will continue into eternity – the building of our true self, our desire to become less mortal and more divine.
In learning to love Belle, Beast forgoes his selfish instincts and discovers that the greatest love is to put another first; to live out Jesus’ urgings to “love others as you love yourself.” Beast’s pivotal moment of love is releasing Belle, knowing she may never return, and being willing to live as a Beast for eternity so she can be “free.” It contains echoes of Jesus’ sacrifice… the willingness to abandon self, even if no one ever responded to his love, nor chose to return to Him.
Belle has sacrificial love instinctively; she doesn’t hesitate to offer her life in exchange for her father’s imprisonment, and through her presence in the castle, Beast comes to find love within himself. She sets an example of agape love from their first meeting to the last, but never once dismisses, rationalizes away, or avoids calling him out on his selfish, irresponsible, immoral behavior. She’s the stronger Christ-figure of the story, an innocent who gives her life for another’s “crime” (the theft of a rose, a symbol of precious, fragile innocence) and becomes a transformative influence on the Beast (humanity) in the process. Jesus had no problem loving unconditionally but still pointed out people’s “sins” in the process, most of them stemming from self-love.
Modern culture places a great deal of emphasis on “love,” but often the wrong kinds; this story has it right that the truest form of love is desiring the spiritual, physical, and mental wellness of another person, even if that means you’re not part of their life and receive nothing in return for your affection. Genuine love demands nothing in return, and expects nothing; very few achieve that level of perfect, selfless love.
Since the Enchantress does this all for the Beast’s betterment, it makes his years of misfortune worthwhile; but as human beings, it’s difficult to see where our suffering serves an eternal purpose. Being told, in the midst of despair, that all things work toward good offers little reassurance or comfort. So, what do we believe of God in those moments? That He is our relief or the inflictor of our torment? Is it “fair” that he creates us, then permits us to suffer?
If the truest form of love is refusing to imprison us, the tragic consequence of God’s love for humanity means permitting us to make choices –that hurt ourselves and others, but at the same time, in offering us a glimpse of the divine: the assertion we don’t have to live like this, we can escape our Beastly nature if only we emulate the kind of love God has for us: that which does not possess, nor enforce its will upon us, but offers itself as a sacrifice, an example of a higher life of death to self, and death to the world, in order to find our true self.