The most important scene in Beauty and the Beast is not when our eponymous protagonists reunite, but when Beast decides to let Belle go. The scene offers valuable lessons on the intimate links between love, freedom, and equality.
A prisoner in his castle, Belle tells Beast at one point something to the effect of, “Can you really be happy if you’re not free?” This despite her enjoying the many books in the castle, if not the Beast’s company. By then they’ve already developed feelings for each other, but as the Dominican theologian, Herbert McCabe teaches us, love can only be possible between two equals.
Love, then, is between equals. To love is to give to another not possessions or any such good thing. It is to give yourself, which means providing a space in which the other can be himself or herself. Love is rather rare and comes with maturity when we can get away from the need to be dominant or to find another who is not dominant (God Still Matters, 2002, 178)
And so Beast decides to free Belle. For them to have a truly loving relationship, they need to cease being captor-captive. This drive for equality dovetails with a liberal and/or feminist reading of the film, which espouses, especially in the character of Belle, the values of self-determination and gender egalitarianism.
What Beast’s shows us is that love can never be coercive; it can never be imposed but freely given. In other words, and we already know this, love can never be selfish; for all the desire it entails, it can never dominate and possess. Love respects the other’s individuality; it does not control the beloved; nor does it seek to do so; instead, it must freely let the beloved be.
This is the deeper meaning of the cliche, “If you love someone, set them free,” one that Beasts literally and figuratively learns and applies, one that we should too, both when we’re in love, and when our beloved has abandoned us. Like him, we have to learn to let our Belle go, no matter how painful it is. And that — the respect for and recognition of another’s freedom — is the ultimate test and demand of love. Not just in the romantic sense, but also in its political meaning — our relationship with each other as free citizens — as well.
Be like Beast. Let your Belle go.