(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

La Fontaine’s Fables include some of the most famous poems—perhaps the most famous poems—in the French language. Two such poems are the opening pieces in book 1, “La Cigale et la fourmi” (“The Cicada and the Ant,” often translated as “The Grasshopper and the Ant”) and “Le Corbeau et le renard” (“The Crow and the Fox”). The fame of these poems is due primarily to the fact that they have been learned by heart and recited in class by millions of schoolchildren in France and the French-speaking world. They have been fundamental to the teaching of French to children and to developing an appreciation of literature because of their formal beauty, and they also instill in children the practical morality that they illustrate.

In “The Cicada and the Ant,” for example, the cicada comes to the ant begging for food because she spent all summer long singing instead of preparing for winter. This fable clearly teaches children the importance of planning for the long term, an essential life skill. If it were as simple as that, however, La Fontaine would be regarded as a fine didactic poet, and nothing more. Even in this very first poem, however, something emerges that undermines, and even contradicts, the healthy “moral” implied by the cicada’s unhappy fate. Quite simply, what are readers to make of the ant? Instead of agreeing to share her food with her “friend,” the cicada, she dismisses her without a thought: “So you were singing, were you? Isn’t that nice! Well then, now you can dance.”

Is this the sort of altruistic behavior one wants to encourage in children? Certainly not according to Christian morality, which promotes charity, forgiveness toward others for their sins, and empathy for their misfortunes. Furthermore, the ant is not only un-Christian in her attitude, she expresses her feelings in a cutting, witty manner. Readers therefore have examples of two recurring themes of La Fontaine’s poetry: Success in life goes to those who look after themselves and know how to bend others to their will; and those who are able to manipulate language in an effective, witty manner, regardless of the negative consequences, are to be admired. Finally, it is clear that La Fontaine would have identified with the cicada: His entire career was spent asking rich people to support his artistic endeavors.

The second poem contains a similar “antimorality” hidden under the surface. A hungry fox sees a crow holding a piece of cheese in his beak. He flatters the bird by first saying how beautiful his feathers are, although everyone knows that crows’ feathers are not impressive. The fox then says that if he could sing like the crow, he would most certainly be “the phoenix of the denizens of this forest.” Even though crows cannot sing, the proud bird opens his...

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Birberick, Anne L. Reading Undercover: Audience and Authority in Jean de La Fontaine. Lewisburg, N.J.: Bucknell University Press, 1998. Examines The Fables and some of La Fontaine’s other works, demonstrating how he used techniques of both concealment and disclosure to please an unconventional audience while simultaneously ingratiating himself with his more conventional patrons.

Brereton, Geoffrey. A Short History of French Literature. New York: Penguin Books, 1960. An analysis of The Fables, placing both the work and La Fontaine within the broader context of French literature.

Cruickshank, John, ed. French Literature and Its Background. Vol. 2. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. Contains essays on French seventeenth century literature as well as a fine study of The Fables by Margaret McGowan, in which she examines both La Fontaine’s philosophy and its relevance to his milieu.

Fumaroli, Marc. The Poet and the King: Jean de La Fontaine and His Century. Translated by Jane Marie Todd. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002. Recounts La Fontaine’s life and career within the context of political and cultural developments in seventeenth century France, describing how he sought to maintain his artistic integrity against the oppressive regime of Louis XIV.

Hollier, Dennis, ed. A New History of French Literature. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. This massive volume, challenging in its unusual perspectives, contains an interesting chapter by Georges Van Den Abbeele on La Fontaine and two other seventeenth century French moralists, Jean de La Bruyère and François de La Rochefoucauld. The chapter’s emphasis is on ideas.

La Fontaine, Jean de.“The Fables” of La Fontaine. Translated by Marianne Moore. New York: Viking Press, 1952. An indispensable translation of La Fontaine’s The Fables, rendered by one of America’s great poets. Moore’s translation preserves the style, point of view, voice, and sense of The Fables without straining for rhyme and rhythm at the expense of meaning.

Runyon, Randolph Paul. In La Fontaine’s Labyrinth: A Thread Through “The Fables.” Charlottesville, Va.: Rookwood Press, 2000. Traces the connections between each fable and the succeeding one, locating a common unity throughout the work.

Slater, Maya. The Craft of La Fontaine. London: Athlone Press, 2001. A detailed explication of The Fables, including analyses of their humor, depiction of animals, literary qualities, and moralistic core.