(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Charles Perrault 1628-1703

French poet and essayist.

The following entry presents recent criticism on Perrault's works.

A leading intellectual and poet during the reign of Louis XIV, Perrault is best known as the innovative creator of the modern fairy tale, having authored the collection Histoires ou contes du temps passé avec des moralitez (1697; Tales of Olden Times, or Mother Goose Tales). Perrault was talented in many areas; a lawyer by training, he was a prolific writer and long-time public servant as well. An early member of the Académie Française, he was a prominent voice in the famous “quarrel of the ancients and the moderns.” Perrault endured his many critics and took the creative risks that brought readers the classic tales of “Cendrillon” (“Cinderella”), “Le Petit Chaperon rouge” (“Little Red Riding Hood”), “La Barbe bleue” (“Bluebeard”), and “Le Petit Poucet” (“Thumbkin”), among others.

Biographical Information

Perrault was born in Paris in 1628, the son of a lawyer in the Parliament of Paris. He was the youngest of five boys, and survived a twin who died in infancy. A very bright student, he entered school at age eight and studied for some years at the Collège de Beauvais in Paris before leaving and continuing his studies at home. From an early age he enjoyed verse writing and philosophical debate. Later he studied law, and in 1651, without much effort, he took his “licenses” at Orleans, at a kind of diploma mill which was known to grant degrees easily. Later that year he was admitted to the bar with equal ease. Disenchanted with the lax exam standards and with the practice of the law in general, he quit at age twenty-three and accepted a job as clerk under one of his brothers, then the Receiver-General of Taxes for the city of Paris. In 1657, though not trained as an architect, he directed the construction of a house and gardens for his brother, and by 1660 he had begun his literary career, writing mostly light verse. Some of these accomplishments drew the attention of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the finance minister to Louis XIV, who became Perrault's patron for many years. In 1662 Colbert established the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres to design medals and other commemorations of the king's achievements; Perrault was selected as a founding member. In 1663 Perrault took a job as clerk under Colbert, at the office of Royal Buildings. In 1699, at Colbert's suggestion, Perrault applied for membership in the Académie Française. Wary of Colbert's political intentions, though, the members waited several years before finally accepting Perrault in late 1671. Though he was one of the more active and prolific members, many of his colleagues resented him as a political plant. In 1672 Perrault married Marie Guichon. His patron disapproved of the marriage on the grounds that Guichon's dowry was too small, and Perrault's persistence in the marriage led to a break with his patron. Nonetheless, Perrault was promoted that same year to Controller of His Majesty's Buildings, a position he held for a decade until he was forced to resign in favor of Colbert's son. The Perraults had four children before Marie died in 1676. Perrault continued writing actively after his retirement from public service and was working on his memoirs at the time of his death in 1703.

Major Works

Perrault is best known for the eight traditional and original tales he collected as Histoires ou contes du temps passé avec des moralitez more commonly known, from words in the original frontispiece design, as Contes de ma mère l’oye (Tales of My Mother Goose). Because the tales were officially published under the name of his teenaged son, there has been some critical debate about the elder Perrault's authorship, though most scholars do credit him with the tales. (Several scholars have speculated that Perrault used his son's name because he felt it undignified for a respected man of letters to publish fairy tales.) With this collection Perrault consciously created the modern fairy tale, writing in his preface of the value of having a moral for each of the tales, and envisioning them as “modern fables,” worthy rivals to classical myths and legends. The Contes were innovative and compelling, and paved the way for later collectors and writers such as the Brothers Grimm. Immediately popular, Perrault's stories became some of the most widely known and translated works of French literature, noted for their charm, wit, and a didacticism subtle enough to engage generations of interpreters. Perrault's next best known work is Parallèle des anciens et des modernes en ce qui regarde les arts et les sciences (1688-97), a substantial four-volume contribution to the “quarrel of the ancients and the moderns,” a long-running debate over literary and artistic standards and changing values. Perrault took the side of the “moderns,” arguing consistently that change was beneficial and that the artists and scholars of the age of Louis XIV were superior to their counterparts of classical antiquity. The Parallèle offers extensive comparisons of ancient and modern contributors to literature, the sciences, architecture, painting, and music. Several of Perrault's other works also champion modern culture and civilization. L’Apologie des Femmes (1694) is a direct response to one of his major opponents in the “quarrel,” Nicolas Boileau, and defends the virtue and intelligence of modern women. And the two-volume Les Hommes illustres qui ont paru en France pendant ce siècle (1688-1700) provides over one hundred short biographies of accomplished French writers, artists, and scientists. One of his earliest efforts in this vein, Le Siècle de Louis le Grand (1687) (The Age of Louis the Great) is a fairly straightforward description of Louis' achievements, praising him and suggesting that modern France had surpassed other ages and places. While far from extreme, it was seen as provocative, and had a negative reception when Perrault read it before the Académie. Less well known than his prose tales, some of his earlier tales in verse are also important and interesting to critics. These include Les Souhaites Ridicules (1693) and Peau d’Ane (1694) (The Ass's Skin).

Critical Reception

Though he defended it steadfastly through his life, Perrault was widely criticized in his day for his position in the “quarrel,” and most commentators agree that the moderns lost the battle—at the time. His writings on literary value and the cultural contributions of his era provide useful documentation of the debate, and add to present understandings of intellectual history and the development of literary criticism. While Perrault's Tales of My Mother Goose was undeniably popular from the start, and has remained so through the centuries, his contemporaries in the Académie were critical of it, questioning especially the literary worth of its humble subject matter. But subsequent readers and scholars have found the tales to be of enduring interest. Though not formally studied until the early nineteenth century and the appearance of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, Gesammelt Odurch die Brüder Grimm (1812-15; Children's and Household Fairy Tales, Collected by the Brothers Grimm), Perrault's tales have been of interest to a wide range of scholars, including those of philology, psychology, and Indo-European culture, but have remained of particular interest to scholars of folklore. Exploring Perrault's use of the literary device of the conte—in which a short prose narrative is followed by a brief moral commentary—critic Jeanne Morgan finds the tales to be legitimate rivals to the classically inspired works of Perrault's time, evoking nostalgia in readers by the reference to the familial image of Mother Goose. Analyzing the representation of women characters in Perrault's tales, Carol de Dobay Rifelj contends that they are portrayed as victims—weak, passive, and unable to defend themselves. According to the critic, this is in stark contrast to the female characters created by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women authors of fairy tales, whose female characters tend to be powerful and authoritative. Focusing specifically on “Little Red Riding Hood,” noted fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes similarly argues that the female title character is helpless and even inadvertently contributes to the calamity that befalls her. Little Red Riding Hood's role in the dreadful outcome of the tale, contends Zipes, reflects Perrault's intention to warn children against following their own childish inclinations and to set and instill in young readers standards of virtuous behavior. According to Zipes, Perrault “endow[ed fairy tales] with an earnest and moral purpose, the influencing of behavior of children in a tasteful way.”