Remember the villagers' line?
TOWNSPEOPLE: Now, it's no wonder that her name means "beauty."
Yeah, it's pretty clear what Belle's primary trait is.
But, this film is all about being pretty on the inside, so Belle's gorgeous looks almost don't matter, and she really doesn't think of herself as beautiful anyway.
Her real beauty comes from a much different place:
- She's gentle and kind.
- She treats everyone with respect.
- She cares deeply about her father and would quite literally do anything for him (including spending her life locked in a dungeon).
- That makes her brave, too, which might explain why Gaston can't get too far with her.
- And she's smart, since reading seems to be her passion.
This girl is the total package.
Her Own Gal
But, her most interesting qualities come in the way other people react to her.
For starters, she's totally self-sufficient. Disney had been burned on earlier films for making their famous princesses a little too helpless and timid, right up to The Little Mermaid, which came out just a couple of years before Beauty and the Beast. They weren't going to have that in Belle. She knows what she wants in life, and it doesn't involve waiting around for her Prince Charming to rescue her. "I want adventure in the great wide somewhere," she sings. "I want it more than I can tell." And clearly, someone up there was listening…someone who knew all about being careful what you wish for.
That someone also wanted to make a point.
It was still a little unusual to see in a female character at the time someone who can take care of herself and who really doesn't want to spend her life as Mrs. Anyone. Add that to her voracious reading habit—strong enough, apparently, to support a whole bookshop in a town that still has trouble with the alphabet—which gives her some worldliness and a desire to look beyond her backyard fence. She's smart, well read, and curious, and she has some ideas about what to do with her life that have nothing to do with what other people think.
On a subtler level, she also has a pretty good sense of self. Belle knows who she is and what she wants. She may be lonely in the village and a prisoner in the Beast's castle, but she's never going to go along to get along. If something's not right, she'll say so. If you don't like the fact that she reads, she ain't gonna stop just to make you happy. What you see is what you get with this mademoiselle, and while she would never act rude or disrespectful to anyone else (witness her very patient tolerance of Gaston just after the opening number), she's not going to let you tell her how she ought to behave.
All that makes her a heck of a heroine—someone we can really get behind—but it also gives Belle her second-most important quality:
Belle's an outsider.
Because she thinks outside the box on so many things, nobody in town understands her. The whole opening number sees the entire village whispering behind their hands at her (except the bookshop owner, who's probably putting his kids through college with her patronage). They tolerate her because, holy stinkbugs, she's hot, but they don't care for the real person she is underneath that Cover Girl complexion.
In short, she never fits in. That makes her a little lonely (lonely enough to talk to sheep, who don't care any more than the villagers do but at least are willing to listen) and very self-conscious about her perceived oddness.
She's not the first Disney princess to stand apart from the crowd—Ariel kind of colors outside the lines, too—but it does give her some incentive to go looking for that adventure she wants so much. It also shades her goodness and decency to make her much more relatable…without diminishing that goodness and decency one little bit.
She's the homecoming queen who hangs out at the nerd's table, the movie star who can't imagine why anyone would pay attention to her. She feels weird and awkward and out of step with everyone else, something all of us have felt at one time or another, which helps us relate to her as a heroine. Above all, she's smart and brainy in a world full of dunderheads…and nothing's going to make us care about her more quickly than showing us how alone such a smart person can be in the big, bad world.
Animator Mark Henn and screenwriter Linda Woolverton drew a lot of inspiration from a couple of Hepburns in bringing Belle to life:
- The creators point to Jo, played by Katharine Hepburn, in an early movie version of Little Women as an inspiration.
- Her physical look came from the more European beauty of Audrey Hepburn. In fact, if you check out the color stills from Roman Holiday (a film shot in black and white), you can see Miss Audrey wearing a gold dress that bears a suspicious resemblance to a certain beloved set of ballroom duds.
Both Katharine and Audrey were renowned for their onscreen strength, self-assurance, and confidence, things that Belle has in abundance. These traits help her deal with her outsider status…or, at least, make it a little easier to bear. It also gives her the gumption to head out on the road to adventure in search of her father without a second thought. While the Beast terrifies her when she first meets him, she screws up her courage and agrees to stay with him in exchange for letting her father go.
P.S. Think Belle reminds you of someone over the rainbow? Check out our discussion of "The 'I Want' Song ('Little Town')" in the "Symbols and Tropes" section for more on why Belle's dress resembles that of another belle—one from Kansas, to be specific.
All of these qualities make her a fantastic character: rich and well developed, with a lot of characteristics that people can get behind. But as beautiful as she is on the outside, her final, perfect beauty comes in the way she cares about other people. She's so devoted to her father that she's willing to take his place in the Beast's castle; she treats the servants as friends and guides instead of freaks or objects to be feared. (And, seriously, that takes a lot; if a teapot ever started talking to us, we'd probably lose our minds.) She even argues for the Beast's harmlessness to the townsfolk and might have succeeded had Gaston not pulled his Angry Mob Justice card out at the worst possible time.
And as for the Beast? Even when he's holding her prisoner and they're supposed to be enemies, she doesn't abandon him in the woods to die. Sure, he'd just saved her from wolves, but as we've seen, she doesn't do tit-for-tat moral bargaining. She takes the Beast back to the castle because he'll die if she doesn't.
And she's simply not going to have that.
In short, she cares very deeply for other people, with an inherent generosity of spirit and a sense of right and wrong guided by compassion for those around her (with a few worthless, preening, narcissistic exceptions).
That's where her real beauty lies.
So, where does that leave her to go?
In a certain sense, nowhere.
All of that confidence and sense of self mean that she doesn't necessarily change a whole lot throughout the film. Not like the Beast does, at least. If she starts out as an ideal soul, she can either stay that way or regress, and this is definitely not a movie about regressing. So, she remains the same wonderful girl at the end that she is at the beginning.
The only thing that changes is that she falls in love (and yeah, that's not exactly an "only" kind of development). And, that love is pure enough and real enough to show the Beast the error of his ways: to melt his heart and make him into a good person, too. So, while she doesn't strictly change, she certainly serves as the agent of change for her shaggy paramour. As a reward, she finally finds the home for which she's been looking for so long.
That's a suitable reward for a gal who's always true to herself, and it kind of matches her nature. Belle would want any growth or development on her part to help as many people as possible. And, ending the curse on a whole castle full of people is a pretty good way of doing that, dontchathink?