Jean de La Fontaine La Fontaine, Jean de - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

L'Eunuque [The Eunuch] (drama) 1654

Adonis (poetry) 1658

Relation d'un voyage de Paris en Limousin [Account of a Journey from Paris to Limousin] (letters) 1663

Contes et nouvelles en vers [Tales] (stories) 1664-74

Fables (fables) 1668-94

Les amours de Psyche et de Cupidon [The Loves of Psyche and Cupid] (poetry and prose) 1669

Margaret Guiton (essay date 1961)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Fox and the Crow," in La Fontaine: Poet and Counterpoet, pp. 2-11. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1961.

[In the following essay, Guiton commends the appealing, poetic language of La Fontaine's fables.]

Le Corbeau et le Renard

Maître corbeau, sur un arbre perché,
Tenait en son bec un fromage.
Maître renard, par l'odeur alléché,
Lui tint à peu près ce langage:
"Hé bonjour, Monsieur du Corbeau.
Que vous êtes joli! que vous me semblez beau!
Sans mentir, si votre...

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Nathan Gross (essay date 1969)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Functions of the Framework in La Fontaine's Psyché," in PMLA, Vol. 84, No. 3, May 1969, pp. 577-86.

[In the following essay, Gross asserts that the narrative remarks which frame La Fontaine's story Psyché are meant to draw the reader's attention to the powerful effects of both nature and art on human emotion.]

La Fontaine's longest tale, Les Amours de Psyché et de Cupidon, is his most ambitious completed work.1 Like the unfinished Songe de Vaux, it utilizes a mixed style of prose and verse. For structure, however, there is no comparable work by him or any other classical French writer. La Fontaine set Apuleius' tale in...

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Philip A. Wadsworth (essay date 1971)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "La Fontaine's Theories on the Fable as a Literary Form," in Rice University Studies, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring 1971, pp. 115-27.

[In the following essay, Wadsworth examines La Fontaine's contributions to the development of the fable genre and traces the fable's literary antecedents. He concludes that the genre's lack of respectability imparted creative freedom to the fabulist.]

je me suis flatté de l'espérance que si je ne courais dans cette carrière avec succès, on me donnerait au moins la gloire de l'avoir ouverte.

—La Fontaine, preface of 1668

The words of La...

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Joseph C. Cauley (essay date 1975)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Narrative Techniques in the Contes et Nouvelles en Vers of La Fontaine," in French Literature Series, Vol. 11, 1975, pp. 27-38.

[In the following essay, Cauley argues that La Fontaine uses his Contes or Tales to examine narrative itself, relying as he does upon such techniques as narrators within the narrative, "authorial interventions," and interruptions by those who are listening to the tale within the tale.]

La Fontaine's Contes were admired by his contemporaries but fell into disfavor, largely because of their frequently licentious subject matter. After a long period of neglect, the Contes have regained much of their...

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Roseann Runte (essay date 1977)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Paradox of the Fable in Eighteenth-Century France," in Neophilologus, Vol. LXI, No. 4, October 1977, pp. 510-17.

[In the following excerpt, Runte observes that in the century after La Fontaine's death, fabulists and other writers tended to characterize his work in the fable genre his work as immoral and as imprecise in style.]

The fable enjoyed a popularity in eighteenth-century France which is confirmed not only by the numerous collections of fables and the over two hundred authors who contributed to them, but by the fact that their audience was universal.1 Fables were quoted, recited in society as well as at the Académies, and were...

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June Moravcevich (essay date 1979)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Reason and Rhetoric in the Fables of La Fontaine," in Australian Journal of French Studies, Vol. XVI, Part 3, May-August 1979, pp. 347-60.

[In the following essay, Moravcevich asserts that La Fontaine uses the seventeenth-century tools of reason and rhetoric in a complex but classically. pleasing manner via his animal characters and ultimately in order to instruct his readers in "wisdom rather than morality."]

Both reason and rhetoric enjoyed considerable prestige in France in the first half of the seventeenth century and coexisted harmoniously in the works of such writers as the epistolographer Guez de Balzac, the dramatist Pierre Comeille, and the...

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David Lee Rubin (essay date 1983)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "A Genre Renewed: Formal Reflections on the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine," in Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature, Vol. X, No. 19, 1983, pp. 747-55.

[In the following essay, Rubin clarifies the definition of the term 'fable" and asserts that La Fontaine employs the fable genre not in its traditional rhetorical or instructional formatnot to persuade or pleasebut as a means to provoke thought in its readers In footnote1, Rubin writes: "This article is a slightly revised and expanded version of a paper presented before the 17th-century French Literature Division of the Modern Language Association of America on 28 December 1982. I am...

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Richard Danner (essay date 1985)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Critical Views on Irony in the Fables," in Patterns of Irony in the "Fables" of La Fontaine, pp. 1-30. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985.

[In the following essay, Danner summarizes the evaluations of such La Fontaine scholars as de Mourgues, Runte, and Rubin regarding La Fontaine's use of irony in his Fables. Danner suggests that disagreements between the critical assessments are the result of differing—and not always precisedefinitions of irony.]

Numerous critics have been aware that irony is a striking and even dominant aspect of La Fontaine's manner in the Fables. Several meanings have been ascribed, however, to the ironic...

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Maya Slater (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "La Fontaine's Fables, Book VII: The Problem of Order," in Modern Language Review, Vol. 82, No. 3, July 1987, pp. 573-86.

[In the following essay, Slater identifies some organizing principles that seem to govern the grouping of La Fontaine's poetic fables within each of his books, nevertheless concluding that this organization does not serve to underscore any calculated theme or intention.]

Should La Fontaine's Fables be viewed as a coherent collection or as a number of disparate poems, carefully composed individually, but with few links between them?1For this brief study I have concentrated on Book VII. It seems suitable for such a...

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Kathleen Wine (essay date 1988)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Viewing Romance in La Fontaine's Psyché," in L'Esprit Créateur, Vol. XXVIII, No. 4, Winter 1988, pp. 17-33.

[In the following essay, Wine suggests that in Psyché, La Fontaine explored the limits of classical theories of perfect beauty and experimented with new forms of esthetics and style in his own writing.]

In his epilogue to the first six books of the Fables, La Fontaine professes his need to restore his creative energies with a change of pace:

Il s'en va temps que je reprenne
Un peu de forces et d'haleine
Pour fournir à d'autres projets


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Catherine Grise (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Under the Pear Tree: Cognitive Space and Deceit Structures in Five 'Magical' Contes of La Fontaine," in French Forum, Vol. 16, No. 1, January 1991, pp. 21-38.

[In the following essay, Grise contends that when one character dupes another in La Fontaine's Contes or Tales, the reader participates in a pleasurable sense of superiority for being in on the deceitful jokes.]

At the end of "Joconde," the first of La Fontaine's Contes, one of the characters asks a significant question: "Et si par quelque etrange cas/Nous n'avons point cru voir chose qui n'était pas?"1 The theme of the tale is cuckoldry; two husbands discover...

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David Lee Rubin (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Conclusion," in A Pact with Silence: Art and Thought in the "Fables" of Jeàn de La Fontaine, pp. 97-107. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay Rubin asserts that, contrary to the arguments of other critics, La Fontaine did not ignore the prevailing poetic styles and concerns of the time, but that in fact his Fables reveal his interest in the baroque style current at the time as well as the influence of contemporary writers such as the satirist Boileau.]

A crucial problem of La Fontaine studies, and, more broadly, of the historiography of early modern French literature, is the seeming disconnectedness, even isolation, of...

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Marie-Odile Sweetser (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Pleasures and Pains, Lessons and Revelations of Travel in La Fontaine," in Dalhousie French Studies, Vol. 36, Fall 1996, pp. 23-37.

[In the essay that follows, Sweetser argues that La Fontaine used metaphors of travel in several of his Fables to reflect on the direction of his own life and to counsel the future king of France on the need for and direction of social reforms.]

In a recent study on "Voyage et commerce," JOrgen Grimm includes in the title of his essay a La Fontaine quotation from the fable "Le chartier embourbe" (Book VI, Fable 18, line 8), the humorous exclamatory phrase "Dieu nous preserve du voyage!" (Grimm 84-86). Of course, the...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Mackay, Agnes Ethel. La Fontaine and His Friends: A Biography. London: Garnstone Press Ltd., 1972, 227 p.

Describes La Fontaine's childhood, marriage, friends, and patrons and also provides a detailed discussion of the production of the Fables.

Wadsworth, Philip A. "La Fontaine and His Views on Marriage." Rice University Studies 51, No. 3 (Summer 1965): 81-96.

Discusses La Fontaine's marriage and his infidelity in relationship to the moral standards of the seventeenth century as well as to La Fontaine's own literary works.


Ages, Dr. Arnold. "Voltaire and La...

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