Romance Novels Have a Pesky Habit of Romanticizing Abuse. Not ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’

Filmmaker Anna Biller’s first book, a gothic romance-turned-horror, takes the “I can fix him” meme and flips it on its head.

Romance Novels Have a Pesky Habit of Romanticizing Abuse. Not ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’
Illustration:Verso Books

“Anger for a man is like tears for a woman,” a doctor tells Judith Moore, the doomed heroine of filmmaker Anna Biller’s new novel, Bluebeard’s Castle (out this week). “We have to let it out sometimes.” The male doctor is making a house call as Judith wrangles with PTSD and anxiety after her husband, the endlessly charming, endlessly seductive Gavin Garnet, physically attacks her amid an argument one afternoon. Judith doesn’t recount the attack to the doctor but alludes to her fears of her husband’s anger issues; she’s essentially told Gavin’s rage is just another case of boys being boys.

Bluebeard’s Castle begins as a classic love story that flows like a rose-tinted montage cut from an Old Hollywood film. Gavin introduces himself to Judith as a baron estranged from his family, then thoroughly seduces the romance novelist with the aggressive love-bombing and very sort of romancing that she depicts in her books. They marry within days of meeting each other, live in an enchanting gothic castle that Gavin purchases with Judith’s money, and embark on their fairytale happily ever after. But then, things get predictably complicated. Holes in Gavin’s story begin to form like cracks splintering off from a central fissure, and Judith comes to realize she’s living a modern version of the classic Bluebeard folktale about a man who kills all his wives with impunity.

Yet, through every lie Judith catches her Bluebeard in, and through every threat he makes to her safety, she can’t bear to leave him. Each of his psychic and physical attacks on her, Judith reasons (and is told as much by Gavin), is an extension of his own victimhood, and her failure to sufficiently love and consequently heal him. “The woman craves the love that is starting to disappear, and she forgives the abuse because the man convinces her that he’s the one who is hurting,” a passage from a book on domestic violence cautions Judith at one point in the novel.

Illustration:Penguin Classics

Biller’s prose reflects that of a 20th century gothic classic, extensively referencing and drawing clear inspiration from the likes of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. Our only reminders of the novel’s modern setting are occasional references to iPhones and social media sleuthing. Biller, director of Love Witch (2016) and Viva (2007), told Jezebel that with Bluebeard’s Castle, she saw an opportunity to subvert the trope of the dark, brooding male love interest who must be tamed and civilized by the unconditional love of his heroine, regardless of who he’s killed or locked away in a closet. Gavin is a composite of Jane Eyre’s Rochester, the mysterious love interest who keeps his first wife in the attic; Wuthering Heights’ Heathcliff, the obsessive lover driven by maddening passion; and Rebecca’s Maxim de Winter, dapper and charismatic and ultimately violent toward women.

According to Biller, this trope of the mysterious, tortured male lover originates from works like the aforementioned classics and pervades the romance genre to this day. “I think of the ‘I can fix him’ meme,” Biller said, “but a lot of times you can’t.” The romance genre often neglects to depict this reality, and Biller is pretty sure “a lot of romance readers are going to really hate my book because it’s not giving them the thing they want.” That is, a happy ending.

Biller suspected as she wrote Bluebeard’s Castle that it could be controversial. She originally pitched it around as a movie (and still hopes it will be developed into one) but repeatedly encountered pushback from male producers. They didn’t find it “believable” that an intelligent woman like Judith, or any woman, really, would suffer what she suffers and stay in her relationship. Ironically, these reactions, Biller said, reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of domestic violence that Bluebeard’s Castle sets out to expose. Biller researched domestic violence patterns extensively to write the book, and also drew directly from her personal experiences and those of close friends—including one friend who lost her life to an abusive relationship. A lot of Judith’s story is based on this: “My friend’s life was destroyed by falling in love with and marrying a psychopath. So is Judith’s,” Biller said.

[This rest of this article contains light spoilers.]


The most chilling scenes in Bluebeard’s Castle remind me of real-life cases of domestic violence I’ve encountered in my own reporting: Gavin’s tactics to ensnare Judith within their abusive marriage range from DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender), as he turns every accusation and transgression of his on her, to pure gaslighting. At the height of the book’s bone-chilling absurdity, he engages in sexual encounters with her only to vanish immediately afterward and convince her she’s fucking a ghost.

Through it all, Judith is left gatekeeping her own experiences, questioning whether they “count” as domestic abuse, whether she can trust her memory, whether Gavin is her tormentor or the love of her life or both. Memory itself is a chilling focal point of Bluebeard’s Castle; just as many real-life sexual violence survivors may not realize a past experience was an assault or abuse until years later, with time, Judith comes to understand her first sexual encounter with Gavin as violent. “Children can especially be in denial about abuse because they might rely on their abuser for survival,” Biller said. In a similar way, Judith relies on Gavin’s love (or what she perceives as his love) for her own survival, and lives in a constant state of denial that propels the relationship forward. She isn’t stupid, nor is any victim, Biller says—they’re just trying to survive.

One of the most striking aspects of Bluebeard’s Castle is its overtness. Much of literature that presents any sort of social messaging relies on subtext. By contrast, Biller’s novel ends on this note:

As much as we like to believe in fairy tales, where only stupid or bad people meet tragic ends, women are not murdered because they bring it on themselves through their actions or their inactions; women are murdered because they find themselves in the vicinity of a murderer.

“That’s kind of my favorite part of the book,” Biller said. The conclusion builds on the novel’s gothic sensibility with a “Thomas Hardy-esque” narration, and confronts the reader head-on about any biases or victim-blaming sentiment they might hold toward Judith. “You get to the end, and I’m thinking there’s a very real possibility that people could think this book is about making fun of a histrionic, unhinged, ridiculous character who we’re supposed to laugh at,” Biller explained. “I want to make sure I’m telling people that’s not what’s happening.”

To its final page, Bluebeard’s Castle is as much an excavation of the insidious tactics of abusers as it is the culture that belittles and maligns victims, that teaches them to “fix” their abusers or suffer the consequences. Biller didn’t want to “beat around the bush” in calling bullshit on this.

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