Jean de La Fontaine

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Jean de La Fontaine World Literature Analysis

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In order to understand the significance of La Fontaine’s work, one must start with his audience. In seventeenth century France, the literary world was dominated by salons, groups of artists and intellectuals who would meet at the homes of wealthy aristocrats. This intersection of the wealthy, social upper crust with some of the most talented figures of the period created a culture that prized not only beauty and intelligence but also the qualities of good conversation, such as creativity, originality, style, wit, and repartee. La Fontaine’s work is strongly influenced by that culture, and his poems were in turn very well received by the aristocratic intellectuals who exercised great power over the process of publication.

There has been over the years a tendency to view La Fontaine’s work as divided between sophisticated, even licentious works, such as the Tales and Short Stories in Verse, intended for adults, and the simpler, more naïve The Fables, intended for children and adolescents. Nothing could be more mistaken. This misapprehension was reinforced by the fact that the models for his fables, the works of Aesop, Phaedrus, and others, often were indeed written for the education of young children, a tradition La Fontaine seems to reinforce by dedicating his first book of fables to the young dauphin, who was the heir to the throne. In addition, the relatively simple Greek and Latin texts by Aesop and others were commonly used during La Fontaine’s time as a means of teaching these classical languages to young people.

Finally, it must be pointed out that La Fontaine’s poetic fables have been used in French primary education from the eighteenth century to the present as a way of teaching basic moral principles, as well as instilling a love of poetry through the exercise of recitation. To this day, though not as much as in the past, French schoolchildren are often required to learn several of his most famous poems by heart. As Jean-Jacques Rousseau and many others have pointed out, however, the “morality” of many of La Fontaine’s fables is much closer to the cynical, dark, and fatalistic worldview associated with the Réflexions: Ou, Sentences et maximes morales(1665-1678; The Maxims, 1706) of one of La Fontaine’s contemporary influences, François de La Rochefoucauld, than it is to any kind of pious or otherwise benign philosophy.

Furthermore, La Fontaine’s use of conventional pastoral settings, rural colloquialisms, and a pseudoconversational style overshadows the fact that the poems are extremely complex metrically, linguistically, and in terms of content. La Fontaine is considered the greatest pure poet of his century, and his literary reputation is at least equal to those contemporaries who contributed to the more elevated, “respectable” genres of tragedy, such as Jean Racine, didactic verse, such as Nicolas Boileau, oratory, such as Jacques Bossuet, and other writers.

The Fables

First published: Fables choisies, mises en vers, 1668-1694, 12 volumes (English translation, Fables Written in Verse, 1735)

Type of work: Poetry

These more than two hundred verse fables, many based on earlier sources ranging from Aesop to stories written in sixth century India, are characterized by a highly original and complex form and a playfully ambiguous, often satirical, content.

La Fontaine’s The 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...

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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 mouth to sing, the cheese falls to the ground, and the fox makes off with it. Does this poem teach that “Every flatterer lives at the expense of the one he flatters,” which is the explicit “moral” given in the poem, and that one should therefore never have an inflated opinion of oneself? Or does it teach that the way to get by in life is to exploit other people’s weakness of character? These are simply the most obvious examples of a fundamental ambiguity that underlies the majority of La Fontaine’s poetic fables.

Both opening fables are also excellent examples of the subtlety and complexity of his style. Directly contravening many of the established poetic rules of his era, La Fontaine experimented with short verses, such as some poems of less than twelve syllables, which is the length of the standard, classical French Alexandrine verse. He also combines verses of various lengths within a single poem, makes frequent use of enjambment, mixes high and low levels of discourse, and combines mythological and realistic subject matter, just to name a few of his pioneering techniques, some of which directly influenced not only his peers and disciples but also avant-garde poetry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Among the other famous fables in book 1 is “Le Loup et le chien” (“The Wolf and the Dog”), in which the wolf envies the dog’s comfortable lifestyle until he learns that he lives constantly in chains; “Le Loup et l’agneau” (“The Wolf and the Lamb”), in which the lamb reasons with the wolf and explains why he should be spared, but is eaten anyway; and “Le Chêne et le roseau” (“The Reed and the Oak Tree”), in which the oak boasts of his size and strength to the reed, only to be knocked down by a powerful storm, while the reed, by bending to the will of the wind, survives. In each case, the simplistic plot and moral of the original fable is transformed into a rich narrative tale, with hidden allusions to contemporary society, and conveyed in a seemingly casual, conversational style that upon closer inspection shows itself to be exquisitely composed and artificial.

The fables in books 2 through 6 tend to be less well known, though they do include poems that many native French speakers would recognize, such as “Le Lion et le rat” (“The Lion and the Rat”) and its famous moral that “one always needs someone littler than oneself” (book 2); “Le Renard et les raisins” (“The Fox and the Grapes”) the famous “sour grapes” fable (book 3); or “Le Lièvre et la tortue” (“The Tortoise and the Hare”) (book 6). Books 7 through 12 were all published later in La Fontaine’s career and tend to be based on a wider variety of sources, including Asian ones, such as the fables of the sixth century Indian storyteller Pilpay, whose texts were translated into French in the mid-seventeenth century. The later fables also have a darker, deeper, and more satirical character than the others.

Book 7 opens with one of the most famous poems that is not learned in primary school, partly because of its length and partly because of its content, “Les Animaux malades de la peste” (“The Animals Sick with the Plague”). In an apocalyptic world, where animals everywhere are falling sick and dying of the plague, the Lion holds a meeting of the animals in which he decides that they need to sacrifice one of themselves in order to placate God’s wrath. However, he adds that they should choose the one among them who is most guilty of sin as their victim. He sets the example by confessing to have swallowed many innocent sheep, and even a shepherd. The others tell him that is no sin and his victims should have felt honored to be devoured by such an important animal. Other animals confess, with similar reactions. Finally, the donkey admits that he once ate some grass that did not belong to him. Everyone immediately agrees that he is the worst among them, and they tear the donkey limb from limb.

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