Lily Hoang


On the Fatal Effects of Female Curiosity and Disobedience



[Exhibit A]


It is not a box but a jar. This is a mistake in translation that doesn’t much matter.


Prometheus was not curious. He was a thief. This is a crime and so he is punished, duly.


Zeus tells Hephaestus and Athene to build the first woman from the moist soil of earth, and each god gives her a seductive gift.


Does it matter that she was told not to open to the jar? Was this not what woman was made to do?


She closes the lid and Hope is imprisoned. Humankind learns strife. Blame not Pandora: she does only what she was molded to do. Prometheus is the one who broke the rules. Pandora ruins the world because Prometheus gave us fire.


According to Hesiod, Athene taught her needlework and weaving. Not once does she prick her finger.

Aphrodite endowed her with grace upon her head and a cruel longing and desire the makes a body ache.

Hermes gives her a shameful mind and deceit.

Hermes gives her lies.

Hermes gives her a name—Pandora—because every Olympian god bestows upon her a gift.


Fine, Prometheus was afraid of punishment. He gave specific orders to his brother Epimetheus not to take any gifts from Zeus, but no one can refuse a lovely lady and the god of all gods.


It contains toil and how many other pains.


Therefore, Hope is a toil that Pandora saves. She is a heroine. She is a scoundrel. She is a destroyer.


[Exhibit B]


Adam is content. Eve is a problem. And then we learn shame. I keep it beside my bed, and when I turn on the lights, I see myself and blush.


[Exhibit C]


Vladimir Nabokov: Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.


Thomas Hobbes: Curiosity is the lust of the mind.


Ralph Waldo Emerson: Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret.


Thomas Aquinas: Lust for knowledge is a sinful appetite.


Curiosity, from the Latin curiositas, meaning an eagerness for knowledge.


Albert Einstein: The important thing is to not stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reasons for existing.


Seneca: Nature gave us an innate curiosity and, aware of its own art and beauty, created us in order to be the audience of the wonderful spectacle of the world; because it would have toiled in vain, if things so great, so brilliant, so delicately traced, so splendid and variously beautiful, were displayed to an empty house.


Charles Darwin: Pure curiosity is unique to human beings.

But when is it a problem?


Curiosity is the knowledge emotion.


Alfred Tennyson: To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.


Benjamin Franklin: Curiosity about life in all its aspects, I think, is still the secret of creative people.


Curiosity is a cognitive ability that the brain uses to digest its environment. To unfold curiosity’s potential, cognitive tools—in particular thinking, the capacity for abstraction, and the technical skills needed to produce material tools that change the environment—must be embedded in cultural practices and anchored in social science.


Curiosity drives us forward, and I am only quoting men here.


George Steiner: We cannot choose the dreams of unknowing. We shall, I expect, open the last door in the castle even if it leads, perhaps because it leads, into realities which are beyond the reach of human comprehension and control.


Edmund Burke: The first and simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind is curiosity. Curiosity is the most superficial of all the affectations; it changes its object perpetually, it has an appetite which is very sharp, but very easily satisfied.


Albert Einstein: I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.


Montaigne: Only fools have made up their minds and are certain.


Aristotle: All humans, by nature, desire to know.


Walt Disney: We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.


[Exhibit D]


Back in 1697, Hans Christian Andersen orated the story to the Sun King and his pals like this: Once there was a girl who married a man because he had a lot of money. She ignored his blue beard, although it made her rather uncomfortable. He took her back to his palace and some time passed and now he had to take a trip. Before leaving he gave her all the keys to his palace and he pointed to one and said don’t put this one in any key lock. It belongs to a room that she shall not enter. He went off to wherever and of course she opened the door and inside she found slaughtered bodies—presumably of his previous wives—and in shock she dropped the key into a pool of blood and later it would not wash clean. Bluebeard came home and asked for the keys and upon seeing the stain he decided he must kill her. He had only asked her one small thing and still she disappointed him. This isn’t really how Andersen saw things but that’s OK. Bluebeard was about to lop off his wife’s head, when lo! here came her brothers and they kill him and although flawed, she is saved!

She had a sister and her name was Anne.

So says Hans Christian Andersen, so he publishes.


150 years later, the Brothers Grimm offer two variations: “Fitcher’s Bird” and “The Robber Bridegroom.”

“Fitcher’s Bird,” the tale more closely related to Bluebeard, goes something like this: Once there was a sorcerer who disguised himself as a poor man and although he was begging, he stole pretty girls when her parents were not looking and put them in his basket and they were never seen again.

One day he went to a farmer’s house and he had three daughters. The sorcerer knocked on the door and out came the oldest sister who was kind enough to give him some crusty bread and so he touched her just once and she became tiny and flew into his basket and he carried her to his home deep in the woods in just a few fatal steps.

He was not so handsome but boy was he loaded down with gold and all things glinting. The eldest sister did not mind being his prisoner, if greed is a prison and love has no name.

He gave to her the eldest sister all things good and beautiful. One day he had to go somewhere and he entrusted his new bride with the keys to his estate, telling her she could go anywhere save this one room that is unlocked by this one key and he warned her that should she enter, her exit would be under the penalty of death. He also gives her an egg to carry around—why? But of course she goes in and what does she see? Death, death everywhere and blood and bodies and never has she seen such a fright! She sees such a fright and drops the egg, and although it does not break, blood swallows the pristine white egg and makes it red. When the sorcerer comes back, well, he has no choice but to kill her. He leaves her hanging in his forbidden room.

And so her returned to the old farmer’s place because his daughters were all rather lovely. He knocks and the second daughter answered and she gave him bread and he put her in that basket. Yes, there were keys and a door and disobedience. There was a basin and it overflowed with body parts all cut up and morose. She dropped the egg and then she ended up dead.

And so he returned to the old farmer’s dingy shack and brought home the youngest. But young daughters are clever in a way older daughters are crones in waiting. The sorcerer gave her the keys and the egg, but this time, she stowed the egg and then went exploring. She opened the door, and what did she see? Her sisters! Her sisters! Dead and cut up and there’s no life around, but diligent and loving, the youngest pieced together her sisters and then their bodies became whole once again. They hugged and kissed and everyone was just so happy.

When the sorcerer returned he demanded again the keys and the egg and seeing the thing so pure he loved her immediately. This was the woman he was destined to marry. The Brothers Grimm declared, “He now had no more power over her and had to do whatever she demanded”—but why?

Therefore, there is wisdom in youth, not just cunning.

She put her sisters in a basket and covered them with gold and silver and said to the sorcerer that if he wanted to wed her he must take this basket straight to her parents because they were very poor and she couldn’t think of marrying him when her parents were suffering so. He put the basket on his back and it was quite heavy indeed. He went on his way and sometimes he got tired and took a little rest but then one of the sisters inside the basket would say, “I am looking through my little window, and I can see that you are resting. Walk on!” The sorcerer looked back to his castle and although he could not see his soon-to-be wife, he knew that she knew he was being lazy and this caused him shame enough to pick up and continue. After some time again he got tired and rested and again a sister called out from the basket, “I am looking through my little window, and I can see that you are resting. Walk on!” Now the sorcerer was quite some ways beyond sight of his castle and how could she see? How did she know? So he picked up and continued. Every time he rested, there came his wife’s haunting voice, although surely it was impossible for her to see so far: she must have the most excellent vision.

Meanwhile, in the sorcerer’s castle the youngest sister dipped herself in a vat of honey and rolled around in some feathers. She made a dummy and put her in the window and then she went out to meet all the wedding guests in her clever bird disguise. She greeted them and so she greeted the sorcerer too as he was walking home to become a groom to a bride he loved so dearly. When he met the youngest sister in her bird costume, he asked her from whence she came and she said from his castle and he asked after his young bride and the bird nodded her head up to the window where the fake bride was standing and the sorcerer waved he was so happy to see even her form from afar.

The wedding party gathered and her brothers—what brothers?—showed up to save her, and so they boarded all the exits and dumped fire everywhere and so the sorcerer and his whole crew died ablaze and everyone good was saved and everyone bad didn’t.


“The Robber Bridegroom” goes this like: Once there was a miller and he had a daughter and he wanted her to marry well because he was poor and so he decided that should a good man stumble by and propose marriage, well, his family would be wise to accept.

Not long thereafter there came a man who wanted to marry the miller’s daughter and the miller thought it would be a fine match. The miller’s daughter, however, was not so keen.

Often this future bridegroom would come visit and often he chided his future bride for not visiting his home, her future home, but she said she didn’t know where it was and she had not travelled far and she’s no good at maps. The future bridegroom told his future bride that he would leave a trail of ashes that would lead her right to his doorstep.

The miller’s daughter therefore one day went to visit her future bridegroom’s estate and she saw his trail of ashes, but she was clever and put in one pocket lentils and the other pocket with peas. She threw one to the left and the other to the right, all the way to her future bridegroom’s digs in the middle of a scary forest, but instead of knocking on the front door, as manners might dictate, she found her way to the cellar where an old crone was sitting and a firm warning was given about the state of affairs in this house: it was full of murderers, and her future life partner led this band of misogyny who killed only women in the most vicious of ways. The old crone took pity and told her to hide behind a barrel because the murderers were approaching and fast. The miller’s daughter did as the old crone said and in came her future bridegroom with his crew and he carried with them a beautiful girl. She was given three glasses of wine—white, red, and yellow—and she was forced to drink and drink until her heart bloomed and her blood fell with the gentleness of fireworks. Oh, there was laughter and joy in the room then; the miller’s daughter nearly screamed but instead she kept quiet. They cut up the other girl’s body and while chopping madly, a finger went flying right into the future bride’s lap.

Later, all the men went to into a drunken sleep and the miller’s daughter escaped.

When finally it came to pass that there must be a wedding, everyone was invited. No expense would be spared. Robbers are, after all, rich, or else they are not robbers or not good ones at least. The guests toasted to a future of joy and many, many children. Finally, when all the guests had spoken, the bridegroom told his wife to speak up, to promise her love forever, and instead she told the guests about a dream about a cellar and an old crone and murder and a finger. The bridegroom laughed at his poor wife’s paltry dreaming but then she pulled the finger out of her pocket and held it high over her head as proof. All the robbers were executed.


When women go hunting for secrets, men die. This is not justice: these stupid snoops.


[Exhibit E]


I decline when I am not curious.

I accept where fun possibly slinks and I must pounce. I chase for pleasure. I am a hedonist.

I say yes too often—and without suspicion.


There are requirements: discoloration and wealth; spaces of secret; an enchanted key; curiosity and its partner deception; punishment.

But who should be punished? He who deceives or she who is curious?

They call him Bluebeard, and she is nameless because she is his possession.


On my second day in San Diego, I go on a date with a mundane guy but we go to the zoo, which is fabulous. I paid for my own ticket.

At every exhibit, I would point to the corner, having spotted the sight. “Look, there,” I said, “it’s over there.”

“Look,” he said, pointing in front of me, and there were two more, right up on the children, their faces gilded with awe, their small hands touching the glass. They want to get closer. They want to touch. We are so alike, a child and me: we marvel at all we cannot understand. But we are different, too, and so our languages slip past each other. We marvel at each other because we cannot understand, and I don’t even try anymore.


My boring date wants to be a writer and is between jobs. Neither impress me much, and I intimidate him, I know I do. He is, however, an excellent guide, taking me from animal to animal, through aviaries of dizzying green. “When do they take them out?” I ask.

We are at the lions. They lie beside each other on a turntable that remains still. He is majestic and she lines her face with pride.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“They have to take them out, right? To go running? They don’t just leave them in there. They can’t.”

And then he surprises me.

“You know that saying about curiosity killing the cat?”

“Yes,” I say.

“Well do you know the second half?”

The lioness uses her large tongue to wet her paw and then she lifts it up to relieve an itch in her ear.

“Curiosity killed the cat,” he says, “but satisfaction brought him back.”

“Wow,” I say. “I’ve never heard that.”

“Most people haven’t,” he says. “But Google it. It’s real.”

Later, I will Google it, and so the date is perfect: I find all the animals and puzzle at curiosity. Later, I will not answer his texts. Later, I will become a member of the zoo.


I had already written Harold a letter that would end our relationship. Already, the car was packed. Instead, I went into his bedroom and opened his iPad. It was locked but he uses the same password for everything. I touched the green icon and scrolled through dozens of numbers without names. On his column, he begs her to come over. Or maybe he can go there.

There is his desire on one side and she doesn’t respond, except for the girl who told him to leave her alone, please.

My pride was too thin to fight.

He didn’t change his password because he knew I didn’t want to know. I avoided truth. I didn’t lock his door when I left because he never gave me the key.


Degradation through curiosity.


On the hotel bed in Barcelona, I say, “I just want you to use me.”

Francesc asks, “Does that mean I have your consent?”

I don’t want to know what he will do to me. I understand only lust.

The next day he coils me with rope and the following day he watches another man fuck me.

Minutes ago I texted him and asked when he will come to California again. It is nearly eleven at night in Barcelona, but I know he will respond and so I wait for satisfaction.


Any guy asks, “What do you like in a man?”

“Curiosity,” I text back.

But what I really mean is that I want a man who is more successful than me.

It’s not the money, but maybe it is, too. It is that every partner has muted me out of insecurity.


Maria Tatar writes, “Magic happens on the threshold of the forbidden.”


In Martinique, Jackie and I agreed to go on a picnic with Curtis and his friend. Earlier, I was lost and I couldn’t load my maps. Curtis offered to help. He said, “Ten men came to you before. Why did you choose me?” He returned me to Jackie by asking a series of prostitutes how to find an address that I took too quickly that it blurred out of focus, unreadable.

That night, his friend messaged me and said, “Curtis and I would like to take you and Jacqueline on a picnic on Thursday.”

“OK.” And then, “Sounds great.”

“We will take you to two different beaches.”


“We will cook you ten types of fish.”


“We will make a fire to cook them.”

“Yes.” His English was spotty and I didn’t know any French and he was exhausting my manners.

“And then we will make the juice of the fruit of the passion.”

Jackie and I talked over this last bit, like maybe it was an intention of rape. We went anyway.

At the beach with black sand, these fine Caribbean men grill the fish and pull out a pitcher and six passion fruit and cheap white sugar.


I agree because I am curious. I want to know what will happen next, what adventures I can make.


I tell people that Sabrina is stunning, yes, no question, but her most striking trait is her curiosity.


This guy is telling me I need to do DMT, and I am telling him that I’m not interested.

“But don’t you want to know yourself?” he asks.

“No,” I say, “absolutely not.”


I am not Bluebeard’s curious wife. I am not Bluebeard. I am one of the dead, suspended and missing limbs.

My first boyfriend is now married to a Vietnamese woman.

On my thirty-sixth birthday, Harold texted to tell me he has a new girlfriend. She’s Vietnamese, but it has nothing to do with me, he assures me. He asks, “Do you want to come suck my dick before you leave for South Africa?”

But I am already dead, and the line falls flat.


I want even more knowledge.


I am not satisfied enough: how can I resurrect?


The desire to know, a desire.


Tattooed to my neck—Because I prayed this word:

Tattooed to Mathias’s arm—Because I prayed this word: I want.


I am texting with a boy I had a crush on in high school and he is telling me how he used to tremor while dialing my phone number. He lives in LA now and I live in San Diego and he says it would be great to see me. He’s not such a coward anymore, he tells me. Maybe it’s because he’s married.

“Have you seen me recently?” he asks.

I haven’t.

“Don’t you care?” he asks.

I don’t.

“Haha,” he writes. “A true writer.”

“More like: I’m a romantic.” But of course I care that he’s gained weight like I have. Nothing fits and it seems highly unlikely that any man could want me now.

It seems equally impossible that any man could’ve wanted me at eighteen, either. Twice that age, I have gambled all my confidence away.


Just another guy tells me he likes how my brain goes and he’s curious to know how I smooch.


I prefer to obey. I want to be controlled; otherwise, I am too feral.


[Exhibit F]


In 2012, Rover Curious landed on Mars. It was the first mission involved in astrobiology since the 1970s. Curiosity’s mission was not necessarily to find aliens, but scientists wanted to sniff the trail of extraterrestrial life present and past.

Firouz Naderi, Director of Solar System Exploration at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explains, “If we stifle the curiosity humans have, especially curiosity about space, they and society will stagnate.”


Curiosity does not belong to the feminine here; therefore, it is called science.


[Exhibit G]


Rochester is hardly Bluebeard, but it’s impossible to dispute the hidden room and the wife and Jane Eyre finds it all. Later, she marries him and they both live happily ever after. OK, so Brontë doesn’t say this, but I work with the fibers of magic and smug endings. I deal my hands with hope.


In Dame Daphne du Maurier, there is not a locked room but there is a dead wife and reviewers even way back in the day thought the story was very similar to Jane Eyre, but that’s just another Bluebeard so what’s the problem now?


In Margaret Atwood’s “Bluebeard’s Egg,” Sally is married to Ed who is daft heart man—by which she means surgeon—and Sally enjoys his stupidity. She marvels in it. She appreciates it. She jokes with her husband about the troops of women who desire him, but he just calls her silly.

Sally takes herself a creative writing class and the teacher reads them a Bluebeard variation “from before Perrault,” which is not a lie but remains a falsehood, because she retells the Brothers Grimm’s “Fitcher’s Bird,” which came into print more than a century and a half after Perrault—as if the Brothers Grimm need more validation—but the egg is key to Atwood’s story and so we accept convenience as truth and forget history. We are always forgetting history.

Sally thinks, “Ed isn’t the Bluebeard. Ed is the egg. Ed Egg, blank and pristine and lovely. Stupid, too. Boiled, probably.”

Until Ed is not an egg. Until Ed puts his hand on her best friend’s ass. Until it’s not really possible, not really. Ed. Stupid Ed: impossible.

Later, in bed, Sally sees that the egg was never white and perfect. “As she looks it darkens: rose-red, crimson. This is something the story left out, Sally thinks: the egg is alive, and one day it will hatch. But what will come of it?”

Sally would be so much happier if she hadn’t opened that door.


I suffer through a Harlequin romance called Bluebeard’s Bride by Sarah Holland. The writing hurts. Mark Blackthorn is the Bluebeard with his many previous wives, all with black hair and blue eyes, and his new conquest Elizabeth, a talented beauty, says, “I was curious. I wanted to see it.”


“Curiosity is a dangerous problem,” narrates Jane Eyre.


“What’s in here?” asks Nancy Drew.

“I don’t want to know,” her friend Lisa responds.

“Aren’t you curious?”


In “The Bloody Chamber,” Angela Carter’s narrator thinks: I know it must seem a curious analogy, a man with a flower, but sometimes he seemed to me like a lily. Yes. A lily. Possessed of that strange, ominous calm of a sentient vegetable, like one of those cobra-headed, funereal lilies whose white sheaths are curled out of a flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum.

I like lilies: they are akin to me, distant relatives.


Anatole France’s “The Seven Wives of Bluebeard,” Bernard de Montragoux is the Bluebeard but he gives his wife all the keys, even to the Cabinet of Unfortunate Princesses, where he had lost six wives before. Of course she picks up a lover in there and they plan to kill her husband. She spreads the good word that she found his dead wives in the Cabinet. Perrault was wrong. There is no blood on the key. Instead, “Monsieur de Montragoux, on seeing the key, perceived nonetheless that his wife had entered the little cabinet. He noticed that it now appeared cleaner and brighter than when he had given it to her, and was of the opinion that this polish could only come from use.”


In Donald Barthelme’s “Bluebeard,” the new wife, when asked about the forbidden door, narrates, “I told him that I had not, that I was not at all curious by nature and was furthermore obedient to the valid proscriptions my husband might choose to impose vis-à-vis the governance of the household. This seemed to irritate him.”


In “The White Dove,” Gaston Mangard explains, “All women are curious; the lady of the manor went into eight of the chambers, but that was not enough for her.”


LM Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables, has a YA novel called Blue Castle. The aging protagonist Valancy proposes marriage to a man with a naughty reputation.

Are you a jailbird?”

“Does it matter?” said Barney, gleams full of fun in his eyes.

“Not to me. I only asked out of curiosity,” continued Valancy.

“Then I won’t tell you. I never satisfy curiosity.”

Yes there is a room and yes it is forbidden. Break the rules and sometimes you come out a millionaire.


Max Frisch’s Bluebeard is a trial.

—Didn’t you ever read any of his notebooks?

—I knew where he hid them.

—And you weren’t curious?

—Well, I had no way of knowing what he said to our dog when he took it walking in the woods, either.

—So you were not curious…

—Sometimes I found those notebooks in his coat pocket, but, frankly, I didn’t find what Felix scribbled in his notebooks very interesting.


From Charles Dicken’s “Captain Murderer,” “On his marriage morning, he always caused both sides of the way to the church to be planted with curious flowers.”

How are flowers curious? Ask a lily.


In “How the Helpmate of Bluebeard made Free with a Door,” Guy Wetmore Carryl writes:

For, all her curiosity

Awakened by the closet he

So carefully had hidden,

And forbidden

Her to see,

This damsel disobedient

Did something inexpedient,

And in the keyhole tiny

Turned the shiny

Little key:


Behind Barthelme’s door: In the room, hanging on hooks, gleaming in decay and wearing Coco Chanel gowns, seven zebras: her husband’s jolly surprise.


When her Bluebeard shows her a painting, Carter’s narrator explains: Yet I had not bargained for this, the girl with tears hanging on her cheeks like stuck pearls, her cunt a split fig below the great globes of her buttocks on which the knotted tails of the cat were about to descend, while a man in a black mask fingered with his free hand his prick, that curved upwards like the scimitar he held. The picture had a caption: “Reproof of curiosity.”


In Rebecca, the second Mrs. de Winter declares, “Her curiosity was a disease.”


[Exhibit H]


Angela Carter: Perhaps, in the beginning, there was a curious room, a room like this one, crammed with wonder; and how the room and all it contains are forbidden you, although it was made just for you, had been prepared for you since time began, and you will spend all your life trying to remember it.


[Exhibit I]


Teaches Charles Perrault:

Curiosity, with its many charms,

Can stir up serious regrets;

Thousands of examples turn up every day.

Women given in, but it’s always a fleeting pleasure;

Once satisfied, it ceases to be.

And always it proves very costly.


The curse of woman is her curiosity. It kills, every single time.

Our greatest disobedience is our want to know.

But we are all only disobedient little flowers.


Lily Hoang is the author of five books, including A Bestiary (PEN USA Award finalist and winner of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s Nonfiction Contest) and Changing (recipient of a PEN Open Books Award). She teaches in the MFA program at UC San

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