Perrault's Fairy Tales Critical Context - Essay

Charles Perrault

Critical Context

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Although some men composed the popular fairy novellas, they were mostly the work of women. Originally, just like Perrault’s Fairy Tales, the works of the fairy writers were meant to be read aloud or told from memory like folktales. Stock situations, such as that of a beautiful maiden being forced to marry against her will, were elaborated upon and interwoven with other elements to produce stories that took an hour or more in the telling. Many of these narratives were eventually published, either individually or in collections. Judging from those that were published, storytellers would often compliment their friends or comment on recent events through oblique references within the story; in addition to such commentary, the authors primarily strove for wit, satire, playfulness, and graceful language. The most famous and successful of these adult fairy writers was Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy. Her Contes de Fées (1690) and Les Fées à la mode (1695), translated together as Fairy Tales by the Countess d’Aulnoy (1856), are still widely read in French and are occasionally retold for children in English. The best known of these tales in English are “The White Cat” (“La Chatte blanche”) and “The Yellow Dwarf” (“Le Nain jaune”), both of which were popular in the nineteenth century.

Charles Perrault, as a moralist, drew upon such works as Aulnoy’s vehicles for philosophical examinations of human behavior and thought. Another influence on him was an older contemporary, Jean de La Fontaine, whose fables, written between 1668 and 1695, were similarly intended both to appeal to young readers and to offer insight to older ones. Perrault adapted La Fontaine’s simplicity of language and brevity of plot for his new genre, the fairy (or nursery) tale. Later writers took up Perrault’s ethical fairy stories, including moralist and educator Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont, now most remembered for her children’s version of Suzanne-Gabrielle de Villeneuve’s 1737 adult fairy romance “Beauty and the Beast,” (“La Belle et la Bête”).