Jean de la Fontaine 1621-1695
(Also known as La Fontaine) French fabulist, poet, story writer, and dramatist.
The seventeenth-century writer La Fontaine is best known for his popular Fables (1668-94) and bawdy Contes et nouvelles en vers (1664-74; Tales). La Fontaine is often regarded, on the basis of his Fables, as a superficial writer of moral lessons for children. Readers tend to overlook the complex irony, subtle narrative strategies, and perceptive view of human nature which can be found in the Fables and his other literary works.
La Fontaine was the first of two sons born to Charles de la Fontaine and Françoise Pidoux in the town of Château-Thierry in northern France. In 1641 La Fontaine enrolled in a theological seminary in Paris but left after eighteen months. In 1647, La Fontaine married and took up residence in Château-Thierry. The couple separated temporarily in 1658 and separated permanently after 1671. La Fontaine began his writing career with the publication of L'Eunuque (1654; The Eunuch), a comedy that imitated the work of the Roman playwright Terence. Although The Eunuch was unsuccessful, his next work, Adonis (1658), garnered La Fontaine his first patron—finance minister Nicolas Fouquet. In 1661 Fouquet was arrested for misappropriation of funds, forcing La Fontaine to look elsewhere for support for his career. La Fontaine traveled little during his life, but a trip to Limoges with his wife's uncle is recorded in the Relation d'un voyage de Paris en Limousin (1663; Account of a Journey from Paris to Limousin). The trip was likely to have been made in connection with Fouquet's arrest and Madame Fouquet's exile to Limoges. The Account itself consists of six letters that La Fontaine wrote to his own wife describing the stopping points of his journey as well as the people he met along the way. Critics value these letters for the insight they provide into the development of La Fontaine's narrative skills. By 1664, La Fontaine had found financial support and access to Paris's literary world thanks to another patron, the Duchesse d'Orleans. He had also begun publishing the first group of his numerous Contes et nouvelles en vers (1664-74; Tales). In 1668 La Fontaine began publishing his Fables (1668-94), the work for which he is perhaps most famous. Ultimately he compiled a total of twelve books of fables, in three groups, before his death in Paris in 1695.
La Fontaine's three most significant literary works are the Tales, based on stories by Boccacio and Ariosto; Les amours de Psyché et de Cupidon (1669; The Loves of Psyche and Cupid), a mythological story composed in both prose and verse; and the Fables, drawn from works by Aesop and Phaedrus. Though frequently the object of official censorship, La Fontaine's Tales were nevertheless popular during his lifetime thanks to their erotic depictions of love and infidelity. The Loves of Psyche and Cupid is valued by contemporary critics such as Nathan Gross, who refers to the work's complex mixture of prose and verse joined by an elaborate framework that includes a narrator telling the story of Psyche and Cupid to three listeners who in their turn comment on the story's plot twists. Finally and most well known are La Fontaine's Fables or "apologues." These allegorical narratives feature animals such as crows, foxes, and lions, or plants such as oaks and reeds talking and behaving like human beings. The outcome of each fable serves as commentary on the dealings of humankind. It has been pointed out that, like his contemporaries, La Fontaine relied on the works of earlier writers as the source of plots for most of his own works but that he infused these second-hand plots with his own style, point of view, and narrative expertise.
Although relatively popular in his lifetime, La Fontaine was dismissed by most early twentieth-century critics as a writer of didactic fables memorized by school children. However, this view changed after the 1950s when critics started looking beyond La Fontaine's sources and commenting instead on the ways in which he altered these sources. Several critics, for example, have focused on La Fontaine's poetic language and his skillful use of brevity and logic in conveying the messages of his Fables. Others have focused on the messages themselves, arguing that they are less didactic and more thought-provoking than those of the original sources. The Tales, which came under modern scrutiny later than the Fables, have been subject to similar stylistic assessments. Ultimately, the critical consensus tends toward an evaluation of La Fontaine as a master of irony and of narrative manipulation on the basis of his use of language and his handling of his characters' conversations. Added to these qualities is La Fontaine's creation of a framework narrative where characters outside the stories comment on the action of those stories. Finally, critics assert that La Fontaine demonstrates his skilled use of narrative by the way in which he involves the reader in the action of each of his literary works.