Disney’s smash-hit live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast hits all the same beats as the beloved animated original. But in its opening, it does an even better job framing one of the story’s main themes: the contrast between the splendor of the Beast’s castle and the simplicity of Belle’s town.
Belle’s “quiet village” is actually anything but.
While the original told the Beast’s origin story through a stained glass vignette, the new film brings his princely youth to vivid life. The days of the prince (played by Dan Stevens) are one long sequence of sumptuous pleasures amid extravagant rococo finery.
Then, as in the original, Belle introduces her own humdrum life in song. She laments being trapped in a “little town” in which every day is “like the one before.”
The highly literate Belle (Emma “Hermione” Watson once again typecast as a bookish beauty) is contrasted with the portrayal of the townspeople as rustically ignorant, conservatively hidebound, even superstitiously prejudiced. Belle’s sweet demeanor while singing the opening number makes it easy to miss the haughtiness of her derision of her neighbors as “little people” (the distracting autotune might be to blame as well).
But then as the song’s tempo picks up, we find that Belle’s “quiet village” is actually anything but! In fact, it’s positively boisterous with the very vocal market activity characteristic of town life: the shoppers’ inquiries, the placing of orders, the “trucking, bartering, and exchanging” as well as the “higgling and haggling” (i.e., bargaining) written of by Adam Smith.
Belle’s dreams for “adventure in the great wide somewhere” are rather vague and un-actionable.
“I need six eggs!” “That’s too expensive!” “You call this bacon?” “What lovely grapes!” “Some cheese…” “Ten yards!” “…one pound.” “I’ll get the knife…” “This bread…” “Those fish…” “…it’s stale! “…they smell!” “Madame’s mistaken.” “Well, maybe so.”
And we see the division of labor (another Smith-ism) that is also characteristic of town life, and of civilization itself. These are not homogenous peasants eking out a bare subsistence by producing everything for themselves, but specialized workers and business owners all producing for each other in economic harmony: a baker, a shopkeeper, a fishmonger, a cheese merchant, etc. The town is so prosperous, thanks to the efficiencies of the division of labor, that it can even afford to support the highly specialized business of Belle’s favorite merchant, the bookseller.
But it’s not all business in the bustling town. The townspeople are also cheerful and charmingly friendly, indicative of the commerce-bred civility that is also characteristic of town life.
“Bonjour!” “Good day!” “How is your family?” “Bonjour!” “Good day!” “How is your wife?”
The world could use more such “little people”!
Belle is friendly as well. But she also seems to consider herself too good for the work and commerce pursued by the “little people” around her. She longs to return to Paris, from whence she and her father “came to this poor, provincial town” when she was a baby. While her father labors as an inventor to restore his family’s affluence, the working-age Belle leisurely meanders through town “with a dreamy far-off look and her nose stuck in a book,” reading fairy tales (the new film also has her reading more literary fare, like Shakespeare).
Not to be a childhood-ruining killjoy, but who paid for all this?
Belle understandably recoils at the prospect of being a housewife to the local lout Gaston. “Can you just see it? His little wife! No sir, not me. I guarantee it. I want much more than this provincial life!” But her dreams for “adventure in the great wide somewhere” are rather vague and un-actionable. Our only clue is her particular fondness for stories in which the girl “meets prince charming. But she won’t discover that it’s him ’til chapter three.” Of course, given the oppressive customs of the time, as a woman, she didn’t have many other prospects. It’s not like she could hope to ever afford her own castle by launching her own billion dollar startup. At one point in the film, Belle is berated by a schoolteacher for merely teaching a little girl to read. “Isn’t one enough?” he scolds.
As we all know, Belle meets her own prince in disguise when she meets and ultimately redeems the Beast. Her dreams come true when, through genuinely heroic acts, she wins a life for herself in a grand, exquisitely furnished castle with a vast library, where she wears splendid clothes and eats the finest French cuisine while she is waited on by an army of servants. This is a life of considerable bling, as recognized by the makers of the hilarious hip-hop YouTube parody “Belle and Boujee.”
Not to be a childhood-ruining killjoy, but who paid for all this? It’s not like the Beast is an entrepreneur: the local Steve Jobs, providing the townspeople with mass-produced magic mirrors that can make FaceTime calls.
As the new film’s opening sequence makes explicit, the prince paid for his lavish lifestyle by levying taxes—so high that even lefty Hollywood regards them excessive—on the hard-working, commercial townspeople discussed above. The party-animal prince being transformed into a sulking beast may have amounted to a 100% tax cut for the town; no wonder the townspeople are so cheerful and thriving when we first meet them!
Castle Versus Town
As the late historian Ralph Raico wrote:
“Throughout the Middle Ages, the nobility exploited not only its own peasants but especially the merchants who passed through their territories. The nobles’ castles were nothing but thieves’ dens. With the rise of the towns in the eleventh century, one may even speak of “two nations” sharing the soil of France: the plundering feudal elite and the productive commoners of the towns.”
In the High Middle Ages, towns (called “communes”) throughout western Europe were able to fend off and pay off these overlords to the point of winning virtual independence. As Italian scholar Guglielmo Piombini wrote:
“City air makes you free” was a dictum of German descent which was very diffused in the High Middle Ages precisely because the medieval city became an irresistible pole of attraction for serfs who wanted to escape from their lords, for merchants and artisans who wanted to trade and produce freely, and also for those impoverished knights who sought to improve their social conditions. The city offered protection, liberty, earning opportunities and a strong sense of belonging, strengthened by the permanent