A few days ago, I was thinking about the wonderful 1991 Disney animated movie, “Beauty and The Beast.” I was always moved by the Transformation scene at the end when the evil spell on the Beast and his castle is finally lifted after he nearly dies and Belle finally declares her love for him. In my opinion, it’s one of the best moments in animated movie history. That scene has haunted me for a long, long time and the other day, I felt inspired to watch it again, and was as–or even more moved by it–than the first time I saw it. And this time I knew why–the entire story of the Beast in this movie is a metaphor for a man suffering from NPD–who healed from it.
As the movie opens, we are shown a series of stained-glass images telling the story of how the Beast became that way. He wasn’t always a Beast. His real name was Adam and he had been a handsome young prince, but extremely arrogant, entitled, and lacking in empathy (sound familiar?). One cold and snowy night, a beggar woman came to the castle begging for a place to sleep for the night to escape from the bitter cold. In exchange she offered him a single rose. Adam sneered at the rose and refused her a warm bed and coldly sent her on her way, but not before the beggar woman suddenly transformed into a beautiful enchantress, who in her righteous anger at the callous young prince’s heartless actions, put a spell on him, turning him into the physical manifestation of the Beast he had become inside, and at the same time transforming the trappings of his former grandiosity and entitlement (a well-appointed and beautiful castle and loyal servants) into a dark and frightening prison and common household objects. The rose she had left him–which I believe represents Adam’s True Self (and he had sneered at it because it represented the vulnerability he had rejected)–would continue to bloom for a decade. If Adam failed to learn to love another (and earn her love) in that decade, the woman had warned him the rose would die and he would be forever doomed to his fate (unable to heal from his narcissism, he would become malignant). Adam’s only window to the outside world was the magic mirror the woman had left him, but all Adam can see in it is his own hideous reflection.
The Making of a Beast:
No longer receiving any narcissistic supply, Adam falls into depression, despair, and self hatred. He attacks his own image in a painting and refuses to look at himself in the mirror anymore. He is consumed by anger and self-pity until the day a beautiful young woman (Belle) comes by the castle to rescue her father, who The Beast has imprisoned for trespassing.
Belle is the opposite of The Beast in every way. Not only is she physically beautiful, but she is poor, the daughter of the town eccentric who is a laughing stock and considered crazy, even though he is actually a brilliant inventor. Belle is kind and loving and has a high level of empathy. The first thing she does is offer to take her father’s place in the castle’s dungeon if The Beast will only free him.
The Beast takes her up on her offer on the condition she stay there in the castle with him forever. Belle reluctantly agrees, even though she is at the mercy of The Beast’s terrible temper and frequent narcissistic rages. Her father is freed, and Belle dutifully obeys whatever the Beast tells her to do, but because she is an empath, she can see through his frightening facade to the broken young man he really is. Early during her stay, she is wandering around the Castle and comes across the enchanted rose under its glass dome. The Beast catches her and quickly covers the rose (evidence of his vulnerability) and rages, bellowing “Do you realize what you could have DONE?? Get out!” But as the months pass, the Beast begins to look forward to their time together, and slowly learns some manners and social graces. Belle works on humanizing Adam and finds she is slowly falling in love with him, and as he begins to accept her love (mirroring), he reluctantly begins to reveal his true self to her.
Meanwhile, Belle is being pursued by a very arrogant and probably malignantly narcissistic young man from her town named Gaston. Belle can’t stand Gaston, and refuses his proposal of marriage in which she would be nothing but an object and slave to him. Consumed by rage over her rejection of him, one night Gaston and his buddies plan an attack on the The castle to kidnap Belle. In the ensuing battle, The Beast is falls to the ground from a high elevation and is left for dead. A grieving Belle finally proclaims her love for the Beast, just as the last rose petal falls.
The spell is broken and The Beast is transformed back into Adam, the handsome Prince he used to be–only with a difference–he is no longer entitled or arrogant and he is now capable of being able to love, thanks to Belle’s empathic kindness. The castle (which I think represents the quality of Adam’s life) is also transformed to its former glory and the household objects turn back into loyal servants (who can now be his friends too). Note that a narcissist regards other people as mere objects and not human.
When I talked to some friends about writing an article about this movie being a metaphor for healing from NPD, it was mentioned to me the dangers of making such a comparison. First of all, this is a fairy tale and in real life, things don’t normally work out this way. A woman who falls in love with a narcissistic man is far more likely to be abused and exploited than loved in return–and she almost certainly isn’t going to be able to “fix” the narcissist. Just as problematic is the idea that in order for a narcissistic man to change, he must earn the love of a woman. It was pointed out that this could be construed as sexist.
But because this is a fairy tale, the underlying moral is of course more compelling (and entertaining) if there’s a romance involved. I think of this romance as a metaphor for the relationship between a self-aware and willing narcissistic patient and his or her therapist. Belle’s looks don’t actually matter–her beauty is a metaphor for her pure soul and empathetic nature. She is giving the Beast the reparenting he probably never got from his own family. The Beast’s ugliness is a metaphor for his narcissistic personality, but in this case, it’s not so deeply ingrained in him for it to have become malignant–which is why the enchanted rose is still alive until the spell is broken. The rose represents The Beast’s true self, which is integrated back into the Beast’s psyche during the Transformation.