In light of the recent buzz of the “Beauty and the Beast” live action remake that’s on our doorstep, a thought that’s been swirling around in my head for years emerged in a concrete way. The ‘true villain’ of the film, really doesn’t deserve his mantle. He is, of course, completely conceited, the very picture of vanity, and rather ruthless as seen in the final act. In accepting this, I also ask if Gaston had been provided with the same conditions as Adam/The Beast how are we certain he too couldn’t be ‘changed’?
Gaston and the Beast are framed in the narrative as the embodiment of outer/inner monstrosity. The entire message of the film hangs on the idea that outward aesthetics do not equate to whom we really are inside. Initially both these figures have unappealing traits. Gaston is self-absorbed and cannot accept Belle’s rejection. The Beast has a temper and a half to go along with his transformed figure. They both are central figures to their environment. The ways they are treated by those around them, and later Belle, are vastly different.
First we have our village star. Gaston literally has a song about how wonderful he is. He has people who, mostly willingly, fall over backwards to accommodate him. And they seem to be pretty chill about it. He’s a man’s man. He fits in perfectly with the social norms. While even the most loyal and adoring Le Fou has a few hang-ups about Gaston’s garish ways that slip in, in general the entire village encourages and supports Gaston. In short: no one’s in a rush to call him out on his bull. Thus his actions and attitude are positively reinforced.
The beast, on the other hand, has an entire castle of servants. They answer his every call, but they occasionally provide him pointers and guidance on how to be a little less savage. When his anger gets the best of them and they concede to his rebuttal there is often a sense of fear in their retraction. But as time draws closer and Belle comes into play they become more steadfast. He has an entire network of former-people trying to help him adjust, change his attitude, and develop empathy.
Belle isn’t an exception to this. It isn’t until Gaston launches his plot to have Maurice taken away that she is outright defiant of him. She tricks him out of her house, shuts him down when he laughs at her father, but she does so with finesse. She does it in a way that plays to his sense of self worth. She doesn’t plainly reject him or his ways to his face. With the Beast she stands up to him and his cruelty from the very onset. She berates his behavior and then coaxes out what good there might be there.
You might argue that Gaston is just plain devilish, blind in his conceit, that there’s no sense in trying to redeem a stalker with potentially abusive tendencies. He tried to imprison her father! He laughed at her family! He went back on his word after being shown mercy! He has no compassion. Well, yes, he did these things. While it might not garnish sympathy and be self-motivated, he wasn’t the first one to insult Maurice or call him insane. That was, in fact, Le Fou. The town implies this as well. He wallops his sidekick the moment Belle speaks back to him about laughing, even if the laughter returns later.
But he wanted to have her father committed, which was really a fate worse than death in those times. Yes, but let me remind you. His caveat was that Belle marry him and her father goes free. Well, guess who else was going to detain her father…in a dungeon…until she agreed to stay. She would have been a flat-out prisoner, but the beast also knew his time was coming to a close: he had to find a ladylove fast and here’s a lady. You’re not telling me that was his first sign of sympathy and not motivated for the Beast’s own benefit on some level.
The entire village sings about how Belle is beautiful but strange. He doesn’t give a fig. He wants her anyway. Yes, he tries to coax her ideals from her but even though he’s framing it in the light of his own benefit, he does treat her with a little more care and attention then everyone else he just shrugs off. He doesn’t lash out at her when she literally tosses him into the mud. It’s not much, but it’s a spark.
The beast WANTS to be good, he just doesn’t know how! He let her stay instead of her father! He gave her access to the castle. He listened to others even if he was angry. Well, yes. But, let me frame this. The beast has been physically changed as a vestigial reminder of his unappealing traits and has a deadline to change those ways. He’s also isolated which equates to a lot of brooding time. It is fairly safe to assume that he’s had a lot of time to realize that something might be wrong with the way he acts and if he doesn’t try to do something he’s done for. He knows something is wrong. So when his servants nudge him and his last-chance-lady pushes him he knows he has to make a conscious effort.
Gaston isn’t afforded this. He doesn’t have time have it hammered into him that he needs to get over himself- or else. All he knows is what had always worked for him before suddenly isn’t doing the trick. He doesn’t know how to handle rejection. When he finally snaps and goes on the hunt for the beast he’s rechanneling his anger in a way that makes sense to him. It may be partially revenge for rejection, but it’s stated clearly from his first appearance that Gaston is a hunter. Why would the beast appear to him as anything but another trophy? That doesn’t negate his final actions, but these factors are relevant when asking why when combined with the adrenaline of the fight and general confusion and conflict might cumulate in to him not reconciling the charity of his life being spared.
Gaston is, as Belle says, a brute. He misses his chance for redemption. But, he is mostly the product of his surroundings. He isn’t given the same defiance, time, or direction that the Beast is to understand his flaws. Without this same consideration it is very difficult to determine if Gaston could have been able to alter his own inward demons into a person more worthy of who he, and the town, thought he was.