Mary Shivanandan

Beauty and the Beast: Original Solitude and Original Gift

The Problem of Courtship vs Cohabitation

By Kathleen Curran Sweeney

A central problem for marriage today is the loss of understanding about what used to be called  “courtship”: a process that makes the bridge between an initial romantic interest and an engagement to be married.  Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body establishes key concepts that relate to this problem. Interestingly, a very old fable that nearly everyone used to know, and which the Disney movie version popularized, Beauty and the Beast, communicates some of these concepts in a beautifully simple story.  I would like to examine this primordial-like story in order to draw out the way in which it communicates the concepts of original solitude and original gift, as well as other concepts of the theology of the body which are embedded in it. Along with this study, I will examine some of the central issues and a few resources which shed light on the contemporary problem of cohabitation vs. courtship in light of key concepts of the theology of the body.

Beauty and the Beast [1]

The young heroine of this story combines beauty, goodness and truth. She contrasts, thereby, with her sisters who represent the sinfulness of jealousy and greed.  This beauty and goodness is attractive to young men who seek her hand. Beauty, however, politely declines because she is young and wishes to remain with her father a little longer. This period represents a kind of original solitude in which Beauty is firming up her identity, recognizing that she needs to mature in her father’s house, distinguishing herself as a unique person before God, developing her interior consciousness of her personhood, before she is ready for marriage. The father lavishes riches upon his family of three sons and three daughters, but makes it clear that he loves his children more than his riches. It is this love that enables Beauty to develop in a healthy way.

This idyllic life is tested when the father loses his riches. The two sisters react badly, but Beauty has been receptive to the father’s love and rises to the occasion by offering back her own gift of loving service to her family. This indicates that she has matured as a person, able to both receive and give. When the father is departing for a trip and asks the girls what gift they would like, Beauty does not want to ask for any of the self-indulgent items her sisters request, but in order to not appear self-righteous asks for a rose. This rose represents love, and comes to represent a love unto death as the story unfolds. When the father loses his way home, he happens upon the Beast’s castle, where he is anonymously hosted. Before he continues his journey home, he picks a rose from the Beast’s garden to take to his daughter. The Beast appears and accuses the father of “stealing my roses, which I love beyond everything! You shall pay the forfeit with your life’s blood!”  The Beast agrees, however, to forgive him if one of his daughters agrees to come willingly to die in his stead.  This suggests a classic confrontation between a father and a potential suitor for his daughter.

We are here at the point of crisis in this story, and I would like to suggest, also the crisis that women and men face in considering the possibility of marriage. The young woman is challenged to leave her family and face an unknown, possibly fatal, future.  Moreover, she may and should choose this fate freely. Let us see how Beauty faces this crisis. When the father relates the challenge from the Beast, Beauty states quietly that she will go and die in her father’s stead. At one level, the father can be thought of as representing God, the Father, and Beauty has placed the love of God first in her life, even to the point of martyrdom.  On a more psychological level, one can see that the father, in respecting her request for the rose, has confirmed her as the unique and special person that she is, and this strengthened inner-confidence in herself enables her, in turn, to give the gift of herself to another, even in the total and final sacrifice of herself for another’s sake.  John Paul II identifies the original gift with creation given as a gift from God, including the gift of the communion of persons, to which the human person is invited to respond. “The communion of persons means existing in a mutual “for” in a relationship of mutual gift. This relationship is precisely the fulfillment of `man’s’ original solitude.[2]  Beauty has, therefore, achieved an initial fulfillment of her unique and personal original solitude before God with this gift of herself.

The concept of the original gift is further elucidated after father and daughter arrive at the Beast’s palace and the Beast asks Beauty whether she has come of her own will. Beauty shudders and trembles at the sight of the Beast, but replies simply, “Yes.”  This surely is a fiat given with both freedom and love for the father. Beauty is a self-possessed young woman, capable of mature self-giving, capable of the “freedom of the gift” which Pope John Paul speaks of in his Wednesday catechesis.

Man or woman,  in the context of their beatifying beginning, are free with the freedom of the gift. To remain in the relationship of the `sincere gift of themselves’ and to become such a gift for each other, through the whole of their humanity made of femininity and masculinity (also in the perspective which Genesis 2:24 speaks of), they must be free precisely in this way. We mean here freedom especially as mastery of oneself (self-control). From this aspect, it is indispensable that man may be able to `give himself’ that he may become a gift, that he will be able to ‘fully discover his true self’ in a `sincere giving of himself’ (referring to the words of the Council).[3]

At this point Beauty’s gift of herself  is not yet a gift to a suitor for marriage. Is it capable of becoming so? Beauty is afraid of the Beast. This could represent the boundary experience of shame, fear of being perceived as an object for another’s use. However,  Beauty bravely persuades her father that the Beast is not likely to harm her, and the father leaves her alone with the Beast in his palace. She discovers in the Beast’s palace a room marked “Beauty’s Room.”  This room is supplied with many books, a harpsichord and a supply of music.  This is a particularly telling and critical detail. In former days, Beauty’s favorite occupations had been quiet reading and playing on the harpsichord. The Beast, by attention to this detail, has indicated that he recognizes and respects the unique personhood of Beauty, her whole way of being in the world, that she is not just any young woman. Everything has been prepared for her so she will be made to feel at home. Further, there is a note saying, “you are here the queen over everything.”  She is not to be an object for his use, but rather a subject in command of her life, a person to be respected, a person with eminent dignity.

The next critical point comes when the Beast appears at dinner the next evening and asks her whether she thinks he is ugly. She is truthful and tells him yes, but softens it by saying she thinks he is very good. This is an important recognition on her part that, while he is different, he exhibits a quality of goodness that reveals his humanity. At this, the Beast proposes marriage to her. She says no, but he does not press her, leaving her alone and respecting her will. He only desires love freely given, not forced. There follows a period of regular companionship in which her sense of friendship with him develops and he continues to court her for marriage even though she regularly rejects his proposal. He always accepts her decision, and the story very clearly relates that he leaves her and allows her to go to her own room alone, respecting her chastity. This period is important in making the distinction between friendship and the kind of love that is needed for marriage, while at the same time revealing that respectful and chaste friendship is an important component of the love-to-be.

A final piece of the courtship process is recognized in the next episode when Beauty asks Beast if she can visit her father who is sick with worry that she might be dead.  Beast does not refuse her even though he says he will die of grief in her absence. This shows respect for a parent’s role and importance during courtship. A young man of good character will not refuse to recognize this even if it should create tension for him. It is, in fact, within the return to her family that Beauty realizes she loves the Beast. When she has a vision of him in great stress, “lying half dead,” she immediately returns to him with great concern.  Her heart has shown her how much she has grown to care for him. Perhaps also she recognizes the quality of his love shown by his willingness to die to his own self out of consideration for her. This experience of mutual compassion results in a decision for love. When he revives, she tells him “now I feel I really love you.” Her expression of real love, freely given, changes the Beast back into the Prince he originally was.

Evil made him a beast and only a good and beautiful virgin could restore him through her gift of love freely given. What then is the meaning of the name Beast?  Does this represent animal sexuality, domination or objectivization of the woman?  Yet the Beast of the story does not act in any of these ways, but is instead respectful, patient, self-giving. The name seems rather to be saying that others may view man as basically animal, but in fact he is not; he has an inner dignity that is revealed within the experience of love that is a freely-given gift of the other. It is critical that Beauty’s retention of her chastity throughout the courtship maintains her own dignity and that of the Beast/Prince. The Prince as he was before the wicked fairy transforms him can be seen as representing the original solitude of man as distinct from the animals before sin made him into Beast. During this period, he recognizes he is distinct from the animals and a person who can appreciate the gifts of God, including the gift of woman. The wicked fairy can be seen as representing the serpent, and the degradation of the Prince into the Beast as the fall of man who now has the potential of acting lustfully toward woman and all nature. However, love reveals the truth about man. After the fall of man, Christ, who is most fully human and most completely Self-giving Love, brings a grace that restores man to his true dignity. The Prince as the Bridegroom, Love Fulfilled, can also be seen as an image of Christ.

It is not only the Beast/Prince who is revealed through love.  Beauty’s ability to love is also drawn forth by the love of Beast which enables her to separate herself from her own family and to give herself in love for the sake of the other, who is now the Beast/Prince, and to realize her full womanhood. It is her love for her father (allegorically this could be God, the Father) which has enabled her to develop this kind of love within herself and recognize it in her relationship with Beast. In the final scene, the father is present when the couple is married, as well as “subjects” over whom the married pair “reign wisely,” indicating a positive mutual dominion and the future fruitfulness of a loving marriage.

Courtship vs Cohabitation

This paradigm of courtship--which bears some similarities to the primordial courtship of Genesis 2 at which Yahweh presides--contains important guidelines for men and women’s pre-marital relationships. Ignorance of these guidelines, however, is apparent in today’s socially-accepted institution of cohabitation. The elements in our contemporary culture which mitigate against the traditional custom of courtship form a very long list which is rather prohibitive and discouraging.  Leon & Amy Kass in their book on courtship and marriage have listed these as: contraception, feminism, equal opportunity for women, stigmatization of out-of-wedlock pregnancy, abortion, erosion of shame and modesty, sex education in schools, divorce, geographic mobility, valuing youth and independence over maturity and settledness, lack of transcendent aspirations, liberal democratic values of equality and individualism, the undermining of authority, and scientific approach to sex. [4] However, at the same time, many young people, especially young women, are feeling dissatisfied with the current situation of sexual partnering and temporary cohabitation. Many don’t seem to know where to look for guidance, but are hungry for something deeper and permanent. A book titled, The Rules: Time-Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right, by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, has been eagerly bought up by tens of thousands of women, even though its solutions are apparently superficial. [5]

Two critical tasks face us in this crisis of courtship and marriage. One is the recovery of woman’s sense of modesty and chastity. Without this, the basic energy beneath the process of real courtship is missing. Contraception has been a major factor removing the energy of chastity from sexual relationships.  To recover this, the understanding of body/spirit unity must be established. One way of seeing this unity was expressed by Mary Joyce:

It is better to think of the body as within the soul than to think of the soul as existing only within the body.... Human flesh is more than the container of the spirit; it actually is the spirit self-revealed.[6]

Karol Wojtyla, before he became pope, expressed this succinctly:

The body is an integral part of the person, and so must not be treated as detached from the whole person.[7]

Later as pope, John Paul II wrote further regarding the understanding of the human person as a responsible subject

not only because of his self-awareness and self-determination, but also on the basis of his own body. The structure of this body permits him to be the author of a truly human activity. In this activity, the body expresses the person.[8]

Many young women need to recover the holistic acceptance of their feminine body as expressing their human subjectivity in order to understand the importance of modesty and chastity. It is above all the inner life of the person that determines the distinctively human character of one’s actions:

The person as a subject is distinguished from even the most advanced animals by a specific inner self, an inner life, characteristic only of persons.... Inner life means spiritual life. It revolves around truth and goodness.[9]

Beauty, in the fable, was able to recognize this inner goodness in Beast despite his ugly outer appearance.

The other critical understanding young men and women need to recognize is that a human person is in the world as both a subject and an object. Another person can be encountered as an object, but to treat another human person as only an object without respect for their human emotional and spiritual subjectivity is never right. The entire work of Love and Responsibility develops this theme in detail.  John Paul II’s theology of original solitude and original gift carries the understanding of human subjectivity further.  The freedom of the gift of self to another is rooted in self-control and self-possession which is developed in original solitude.  One cannot make the whole gift of oneself without first being in full self-possession of the soul/body reality of one’s personal being. When men or women yield their body to another but hold back from complete commitment, they damage the integrity of their body/soul unity. John Paul II has developed the understanding of the nuptial meaning of the body as the capacity for total and free self-gift to the other. This capacity is intrinsically related to the integration of one’s human sexuality, which is accomplished in original solitude.

            Relative to this understanding, Mary Joyce describes the experience of solitude:

Every person is alone in his individuality. Every person is singular in his uniqueness.... But aloneness does not mean isolation or loneliness.... Paradoxically, this sense of aloneness is the true ground for communion with others. The person who receives his aloneness is secure in himself and ready to be open to others without feeling threatened.... And no person can hope to be mature without it... Unless the person receives his own being as a gift, he cannot receive the gift of others... Where true self-fullness is lacking, selfishness, instead of love and charity, appears.[10]

This points to the second major task confronting our society in the crisis created by cohabitation taking the place of courtship. As we saw in the fable of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty needed to consolidate her maturity within her family home before she was ready to consider a marriage proposal from young suitors. This is the task of integration that must be accomplished within the ontological reality of original solitude. The problem of solitude, according to John Paul II, is for the human person, male or female, to recognize that he is not like other animals on the earth, that he is unique among beings in his capacities and in his ability to reflect on his situation of having a relationship to God, His Creator. This is the proper understanding of man’s subjectivity.

The first meaning of man’s original solitude is defined on the basis of a specific test or examination which man undergoes before God (and in a certain way also before himself). By means of this test, man becomes aware of his own superiority, that is, that he cannot be considered on the same footing as any other species of living beings on the earth.[11]

This being so, young people today, as always, need to recognize that their unique personal being is a gift from God and that this includes their being either male or female. The acceptance of and confidence in their own sexuality is a central part of the task of integration. It is a necessary prerequisite for the self-possession required for the free gift of their whole selves to another. [12]  Mary Joyce comments that

the human person...is meant to do something very active, that is, to receive his sexuality into the depths of himself, transforming its impulses rather than reacting against them... Unconscious forces that seem to possess those who `fall in love’ need to be grown through, assimilated, and transformed by active meanings and values. This is true because love is not something to be fallen into; it is too creative for that.

In the myths and fables of an earlier culture, the tasks and challenges of adolescence and preparation for marriage were presented to youth in an indirect symbolic way. Confidence in one’s sexuality may be most difficult for males according to Walter Ong, S.J. who has studied the puberty rites for adolescent males across a wide spectrum of cultures.  Since the male is initially held within the womb of his mother and raised by her in the early years, he has a more difficult task of differentiation from feminine traits than the female whose feminine identity is a given within her close association with her mother. The male must prove that he is masculine by separating himself from his mother and performing difficult, life-challenging tasks that women cannot accomplish. A female’s natural environment affirms her feminine traits, so that she is able to confront the male in greater self-possession [13]

Today, however, the task of sexual integration for women has been made more difficult by a false agenda proposed by some radical feminists who challenge young women to become more like men in order to establish equality with men in a masculinized society. To counteract this false approach, the positive value of feminine traits needs to be promulgated in our society to enable adolescent women to have confidence in and identify with their femininity. There are, fortunately, groups of women who are recognizing this. However, the unease in male-female relationships, the misunderstandings about marriage, and the inability of young women to negotiate with young men from a position of confident and chaste femininity are signs that much work needs to be done on this essential task. Chastity education has been a growing and helpful project towards this end. However, a wider conceptual understanding is still needed to undergird and link this effort to a holistic feminine education. While adolescents in secondary schools are benefitting from chastity or abstinence-only programs, this may be lost in college and young adult cultures which are inundated with false ideas about masculine and feminine realities and the way to prepare for marriage. Contemporary society has contributed certain positive approaches which emphasize the woman as a whole person in her intellectual and professional capacities, an aspect that was often neglected in the past. This needs now to be balanced with a better understanding of the deep-rootedness of the feminine way of being human as different from the masculine way of being human. This differentiation is essential to the unity hoped for in marriage.

Helpful in this area are the insights developed in Wojtyla’s Love and Responsibility on the elements of sensuality and sentimentality in sexual love:

It is pretty generally recognized that woman is `by nature’ more sentimental and man more sensual.... In the woman sensuality is as it were covert, and concealed by sentimentality. For this reason she is `by nature’ more inclined to go on seeing as a manifestation of affection what a man already clearly realizes to be the effect of sensuality and the desire for enjoyment. There exists then, as we see, a certain psychological divergence between man and woman in the manner of their participation in love. The woman appears more passive, although in a different way she is more active. In any case, her role and her responsibility will be different from the role and the responsibility of the male.[14]

Sensuality springs from a sense impression of the body, dissociated in a way from the rest of the person, whereas sentimentality is an affection for the whole individual of the other sex, according to Wojtyla’s analysis. It is related to an attraction by males to “femininity” and by females to “masculinity.”  Sentimentality is influenced by imagination and memory and expresses itself in a desire for intimacy. This can be a problem for young people particularly since at times “the ideal is more powerful than the real, living human being.” [15]  Wojtyla deals with the need for integrating the various aspects of love so that the truth of the particular human person is recognized and valued, and the exercise of freedom is enhanced by subjecting the intense energies of sexual love to the test of objective truth. A full and careful study of Love and Responsibility is very relevant to the subject of courtship and the contemporary problem of promiscuity and unstable relationships.

Amy and Leon Kass, professors at the University of Chicago, have developed readings and seminars on the topic of courtship for young people today. In an excellent article, entitled, “Proposing Courtship,” [16] they point out that

we have no clearly defined positive mores and manners that teach men how to be men in relation to women and women how to be women in relation to men.

In an analysis of Erasmus’ Colloquy on courtship, they found that it addresses

what are still the most important issues: 1) how to transform brutish sexual appetite into human loving; 2) how to make a manly man interested in marriage and attached to his children; 3) how to help a woman negotiate between her erotic desires and her concern for progeny; 4) how to enable men to find and win, how to enable women to select and hold the right person for lasting marriage; 5) how to locate the relations of men and women in the larger contexts of human life–familial, political, religious.

In assessing the current practice of cohabitation, the Kasses point out that

going through the forms of courtship provides...a very different kind of practice, for a very different view of marriage, than the practice now thought to be provided by premarital cohabitation.

In courtship, the man is

in love, not just in lust.... his love indicates his capacity to look beyond himself, to be moved by more than selfish calculation, to risk ridicule, rejection, and failure. A lover–unlike a `significant other’–is fit for the adventure of marriage; he is not a fellow who plays it safe.

The woman has a different role.

The correlative of manly ardor is womanly modesty, her reticence, her sexual self-restraint. This is the sine qua non of courtship.... It is feminine modesty that turns men into lovers–not mere sex partners–and that gives the physically weaker sex the more commanding power of judgment and selection.

Contrary to many opinions,  Amy and Leon Kass assert,

female chastity in the past was not mainly contraceptive in intent.... it was intended to serve the woman’s positive procreative interest in the well-being of her (as yet unborn) children by securing for them in advance a devoted and dependable father, who would protect and provide for them.

A further critical point they make in this regard is that

Women who think of themselves as potential wives and mothers and who act accordingly, are much more likely to get men to think and act as prospective husbands and fathers...Their willingness to exercise their power of reform depends, of course, on whether they think that a fulfilling marriage and motherhood are of primary importance in their life.

This comment reminds us that the uncertainty surrounding the desirability of motherhood, which has been created by the combined agenda of radical feminism and contraception, is one of the major obstacles preventing the successful establishment of stable marriages. It would be interesting to explore further how young people of today can be interested in reflecting on these questions through literature, as Amy and Leon Kass have done in their book, articles and seminars.

A Christian context for this topic is provided in A Plea for Purity, by a leader of the Bruderhof community, Johann Christoph Arnold.  He points to the centrality of one’s Christian faith in the process of seeking a marriage partner:

How should a young man or woman find the right partner? For a Christian the decisive factor should always be unity of heart and soul in the Spirit. Both partners must feel that their relationship leads them closer to Jesus, for his will alone can bring together two people who are meant for each other. Without Jesus and the special unity he gives between two people, a couple will very likely not survive the storms and struggles that are a part of every marriage, especially once they have children.[17]

This advice brings to mind the portion of John Paul II’s theology of the body devoted to purity of heart and life in the Spirit. Since historical man lives within the reality of sin, purity in relations between men and women have need of the redemptive grace of a new life in the Spirit. This life is led within the community of Christian believers, a realization which indicates Christian courtship needs to take place within the Christian community.

Contrary to the widely accepted belief that the healthiest relationship is the most private one, we feel that engagement and marriage are concerns of the whole church, not just of the individuals involved. Therefore, when men and women in our communities feel drawn to one another, they turn first to their parents and ministers.[18]

The above reflections  provide a connection between contemporary challenges and various traditions of how to approach the problem of courtship: fables, literature, established rituals, Christian communities. What is most essential, however, is knowing the key anthropological concepts which John Paul II has expounded in Theology of the Body.  Finding these key concepts reflected in the old fable Beauty and the Beast. is one confirmation of their universal and deep-rooted validity. Our challenge is to continue to recognize the experiential and cultural embodiments of this anthropology.



1. The adaptation used here is by Horace E. Scudder in Folk Stories & Fables (New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1907) pp.149-159.

2. John Paul II, Theology of the Body, (Boston: Pauline Books & Media, 1997), p. 61. 

3. Ibid., p. 64.

4. Amy & Leon Kass, eds., Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000), pp. 12-13.

5. Ibid., footnote on p. 25.

6. Mary and Robert Joyce, New Dynamics in Sexual Love, (Collegeville, MN: St. John’s University Press, 1970), p. 57.

7. Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981), p.107

8. John Paul II, Theology of the Body, pp.40-41.

9. Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, pp.22-23.

10. Ibid.,  p. 51.

11. John Paul II, Theology of the Body, p. 36.

12. Joyce, op.cit.,  p. 52.

13. Walter J. Ong, Fighting for Life: Consent, Sexuality and Consciousness (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1981.

14. Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, p.111.

15. Ibid., p. 112.

16. Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass, “Proposing Courtship.” First Things, (New York: Institute on Religion and Public Life, Oct. 1999).

17. Johann Christoph Arnold, A Plea for Purity: Sex, Marriage & God, (Farminton, PA: The Plough Publishing House, 1998), p.93

18. Ibid., p. 97.

Kathleen Curran Sweeney
kcsweeney@ juno.com

Copyright ©; Kathleen Curran Sweeney 2003

Version: 2nd July 2003


Mary Shivanandan