A young woman named Beauty stares out the window at snow gleaming in the dusk. We are told that her skin resembles the snow because it possesses the same "inner light" that seems to emanate from within. The snow is unspoiled by footprints, "white and unmarked as a spilled bolt of bridal satin." The young woman worries for her father's safety because he said he would be home before dark, and he cannot call her because he phones are down.
The young woman's father has gotten his car stuck in the snow far away from home. He is returning from a meeting with his lawyers, where he has discovered that his fortune is gone. He does not have enough money even to buy Beauty the single white rose she requested. His spirits dampened, he comes upon an enchanting house that seems deserted except for one illuminated window. As he approaches the gate, he spies a single white rose blooming on a snowy bush amid the storm. As he enters the gate, he hears "a great roaring, as of a beast of prey." Beauty's father gathers his wits and knocks on the door. He notices that the knocker is a lion's head made of solid gold. To his astonishment, the door opens and then closes behind him without anyone touching it. Inside the house, candlelight illuminates countless crystal jars filled with flowers. He is not afraid, because he senses that the house's master is so rich that he is not subject to the laws of reality. A King Charles spaniel wearing a diamond necklace greets Beauty's father and urges him into a fire-lit study. There, he partakes of food and drink that is laid out for him. He calls a tow-truck service from the number on a thoughtfully provided card. However, when he tries to call Beauty, the lines are down again. The spaniel leads him out the door.
As Beauty's father makes his way out of the estate, he bumps into a rosebush and knocks the snow off another single, peculiarly perfect white rose. He hears another bout of roaring. However, thinking that the estate's master will not mind, he plucks the rose. Suddenly, the Beast, a great creature with a lion's hea, appears next to Beauty's father and "[shakes] him like an angry child shakes a doll." Beauty's father appeals to the Beast, explaining that he stole the rose for his daughter. When Beauty's father shows the Beast a photograph of Beauty, the Beast is pacified. He tells Beauty's father to take the rose but bring Beauty to his house for dinner.
When Beauty meets the Beast, the sadness in his eyes touches her. The Beast asks Beauty's father to serve himself and his daughter, himself eating nothing. He explains that he does not keep servants because being around humans constantly would make him feel mocked. The Beast and his house frighten Beauty; she feels as though she is his "Miss Lamb, spotless, [and] sacrificial." The Beast calms her momentarily when he promises to help her father regain his fortune. Yet the price of his help distresses Beauty; she must stay with the Beast while her father is in London.
Luxury surrounds Beauty at the Beast's estate. But she cannot enjoy it because she senses that the Beast cannot either. She also notices that he avoids her as though he, the mighty predator, is scared of her; the Beast has the "shyness ... of a wild creature." Beauty amuses herself by reading fairy tales until the Spaniel shepherds her into the Beast's den. Beauty feels comfortable with the beast, as though she has always known him. When the clock strikes midnight, the Beast throws himself on Beauty's lap and lavishes her hands with passionate licks. Then he suddenly bounds out of the room, to Beauty's "indescribable shock ... on all fours."
Beauty is happy at the Beast's estate. She spends her days exploring the house and garden and her nights conversing with the Beast. Then one night, her father calls with the good news that his fortune is being restored. The Beast is devastated. Before leaving, Beauty promises him to return to him "before the winter is over." She departs for her new, luxurious life in London. Beauty has never experienced luxury before; her father lost his fortune before her mother died giving birth to her. Consequently, wealth changes the unaccustomed Beauty from a pure, unspoiled young woman into a spoiled girl. Though Beauty sends the Beast white roses, she largely forgets about him and is relieved to be away from him. Because the weather does not change much in London, Beauty does not realize that winter is about to end.
As Beauty gazes at herself in the mirror one day, she hears a scratching at the door. The Beast's Spaniel has come to retrieve her. It does not resemble the well-kept creature that was her companion at the Beast's estate; it is filthy, starved, and distraught. Beauty realizes that the Beast is dying and hurries to his house. Even though spring has broken, the Beast's estate is as desolate as if it were midwinter. It looks deserted except for a very faint light in the attic. The gold door-knocker is covered in black fabric. Inside, the house is dusty, dark, and filled with an air of desperation. The flowers in the jars are dead.
Beauty ascends to the Beast's threadbare room in the attic, where she finds him bedraggled and close to death. The roses she sent him lie dead at his bedside. The Beast tells Beauty that he is dying of hunger because he has not had the will to hunt since she left. He tells her, "I shall die happy because you have come to day good-bye to me." Beauty throws herself upon the Beast, and kisses his paws as he did so often to her. She begs him not to die and promises she will never leave him again. As she cries, her tears fall on his face and, restore him so that he is human once again. Even in human form, Mr. Lyon still resembles a lion because of his "unkempt mane of hair" and broken, lion-like nose. He invites Beauty to join him for breakfast. The story ends with "Mr. and Mrs. Lyon" strolling through the grounds of their estate together while "the old spaniel drowses on the grass, in a drift of fallen petals."
"The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" is based on a classic story, "Beauty and the Best," and told in the "once upon a time" third person common to traditional fairy tales. Carter's classic backdrop of basic story and narration emphasizes her tale's unconventionality, with its feminist themes and plot reversal. Like many of Carter's stories, far from "classic," "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" is a tale of self-discovery and rejection of female objectification. According to Meyre Ivone Santana da Silva, the story's primary thematic difference from "Beauty and the Beast" is its manipulation of that story's "act of mirroring." In "Beauty and the Beast," we are forced to see Beauty and Beast as diametrically opposed forces; Beauty is feminine, beautiful, innocent, and gentle, while Beast is masculine, ugly, experienced, and wild. The original story suggests that the sides of this dichotomy are irreconcilable, or in da Silva's words, "completely dissociated."
Yet Carter's characters are more "ambiguous." In the story of "Beauty and the Beast," according to da Silva, "One side is always empowered in relation to the other." Although "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" begins this way, Carter quickly reverses the convention. Beauty begins as a penniless, helpless girl, whom the rich, powerful and world-weary Beast forces to live in his house. However, she rapidly becomes the more active, experienced, and adventurous character. While the Beast hides from the world, she is confident enough to live a high-profile life in the city. While at first she is afraid of him, she comes to realize that he is actually afraid of her. In the end, Carter totally reverses the Beauty/Beast dichotomy; the Beast takes on the role of fairy-tale princess, wasting away in his attic "tower," guarded by a beast (in this case himself), and needing Beauty to rescue him from that beast or beastliness.
Carter uses symbolism in "The Courtship of Mr. Lyon" to emphasize her main feminist agenda. She employs a paradigm commonly found in literature, distinguishing the city as a masculine place of experience and corruption and the country as a feminine one of inexperience and purity. However she uses this literary convention to undermine a gender convention; the Beast is trapped in isolation in the country while Beauty has free range of the city. Because the characters need to access both their "masculine" and "feminine" attributes in order to be happy, they are both are unhappy when they are limited to being in one place. The country is so "innocent" or devoid of activity that it weakens the Beast almost to the point of death. The city is so "worldly" and full of superficial interactions that it hardens Beauty and begins to replace her inner beauty with a spoiled, false air. Carter uses the city and country as symbols to strengthen her contention that a person needs to be both "masculine" and "feminine" to have an authentic and fulfilled existence.
Carter uses food or sustenance as an equalizer because it is symbol of both animal and human nature; both animals and humans must eat in order to survive. At first, food signifies civilization and humanity. When the Beast leaves out food for Beauty's father, he shows his humanity by being courteous to his guest. It is the same when he feeds Beauty; he may be a lion who eats raw flesh, but he provides her with the finest human food. At the story's end, food signifies animal nature. The Beast is dying because he is not eating, just as humans can die from starvation because we too are animals.
Beauty proves herself to be more than a traditional fairy tale heroine, but in the beginning, she conforms to the paradigm. Like many of Carter's heroines, she must start within and then break free from the restrictions and assumptions of patriarchal society. As da Silva phrases it, "The daughter is conscious of her annihilation in the patriarchal society but she doesn't have autonomy to overcome it." While Beauty is living with the Beast, she finds amusement in reading fairy tales. It is as though despite living in a modern world with telephones and automobiles, Beauty wants to believe in the conventional "happily ever after." Her request for a single white rose also conveys this wish for conventionality; the rose symbolizes her chasteness and delicateness. Carter emphasizes Beauty's femininity, innocence, and virginity by comparing her to the immaculate snow upon which she gazes. By saying the snowy road, and by association, Beauty is "white an unmarked as a spilled bolt of bridal satin," Carter seems to insinuate that Beauty's uniqueness lies in her gentle femininity and that her destiny is marriage. However, knowing Carter's motives, we can assume that Beauty's virginity represents possibility more than it does naivete. Beauty may be trapped within a society that objectifies her, but her innocence empowers her; she is pure of mind enough to see through its conventional dichotomies and claim her own destiny, as she does at the story's end. In fact, Carter reminds us explicitly early on that Beauty has "will of her own"; she actually empowers herself by consenting to live with the Beast because in doing so she is choosing to step out of her role of child and act as protector to her father.
Like Beauty, the Beast does not conform to his side of the "irreconcilable binary" of Beauty/Beast. Also like Beauty, in the beginning of the story, he seems to conform. As a lion, 'king of beasts,' he is the embodiment of masculine power, strong, confident, and rough. When we first encounter the Beast, this seems to be true of him. His very anger ignites the house with "furious light" and he roars with the strength of not only one but "a pride of lions." He is strong enough to "[shake] Beauty's father like an angry child shakes a doll ... Until his teeth rattled." But it quickly becomes clear that the Beast's strength is an impediment to human interaction. When he speaks, Beauty wonders "how [she can] converse with the possessor of a voice that seemed an instrument created to inspire ...Terror." The first time he kisses her hands, Beauty is terrified by how rough his tongue is until she realizes he is not trying to harm her.
The Beast is so ashamed of his appearance that his only companion before Beauty is his spaniel. By the end of the story, we see that the Beast's loneliness makes him weak and inactive. Beauty's absence weakens him so much that he is unable to do so much as feed himself, and he almost dies of despair. At the end of the story, Beauty is still a beautiful woman, but she is active and brave; she is a mixture of Beauty and Beast. So too is the Beast, who retains remnants of his leonine appearance when he transforms into a gentle human. He also retains the name Lyon, signifying his former identity. Beauty takes his name when she marries him. While taking one's husband's name can be seen as an act of submission, in this case it is an acknowledgment of Beauty's own masculinity. She is claiming her rightful title, for she too is a strong Lyon/lion.