Jean de La Fontaine World Literature Analysis - Essay

Jean de La Fontaine World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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 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...

(The entire section is 1692 words.)