Sarah Lawall, editor of The Norton Anthology of Western Literature, Eighth Edition Volume II, writes that Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695) is “France’s most important poet” (201). However, La Fontaine is also known for his timeless stories: his fables that are relevant even centuries later. According to Lawall, La Fontaine was “Born into a bourgeois family at Chateau-Thierry, in northern France” (201). He settled in Paris and finished school and became popular for his literary achievements. “He wrote poetry in several different genres, including opera librettos, but the collection of fables is still considered his masterpiece” (Lawall 201). His fables are well-known for many reasons. He wrote 230 fables, and they were popular with children and adults (Lawall 201). Lawall addresses La Fontaine’s use of satire. Phillip A. Wadsworth writes in his essay, “The Art of Allegory in La Fontaine’s Fables,” “La Fontaine virtually created the French fable in verse” (1126). Verse gives the fables a readability. David Lee Rubin discusses the double irony of La Fontaine’s fables in his essay, “[Dis]solving Double Irony: La Fontaine, Marianne Moore and Ulysses’s Companions.” These features of the fables are part of what makes them timeless. The nature of La Fontaine’s fables, including “The Cicada and the Ant,” “The Crow and the Fox,” “The Wolf and the Lamb,” “The Oak and the Reed,” and “The Rooster and the Fox” contain artistic techniques such as satire, verse and double irony that make them timeless masterpieces, representing human nature as explored during La Fontaine’s time and today.
The seventeenth century is known as the Enlightenment period. According to Lawall, the term Enlightenment is “used to express the gaining of illumination by means of the power of the human mind” (1). She quotes Dr. Johnson, “He that thinks reasonably must think morally” (1). La Fontaine definitely looks at this idea in his writing. He used his fables to examine human nature. Sometimes he looked at how people take advantage of one another and the delusiveness of claimed self-understanding (Lawall 201). At other times he also explored the more positive aspects of human nature (Lawall 201). Whichever point of view La Fontaine took, he was exploring the nature of human beings, which shows a part of the Enlightenment influence on his writings.
He uses satire as a part of this exploration. In “The Wolf and the Lamb,” he exposes “the cruelty of the powerful” (Lawall 201). It seems obvious that the moral is stated in the first line: “Might is right: the verdict goes to the strong. / To prove the point won’t take me very long” (1-2). According Lawall, there is much more going on in this fable than just the simple moral of ‘might is right.’ She writes, “The subtleties of his characterization and the economy and grace of his verse often deliberately undermine the proclaimed moral” (201). He chooses a lamb, an innocent and helpless animal against a wolf for the character. The lamb is obviously the weaker, and the reader can relate to him as the tale goes on. The wolf represents ‘might’ and shows no mercy. He makes justifications for his actions, and he does not listen to the lamb’s reason. The last line proves that no matter what the lamb said or did the wolf was going to win: “There was no right of appeal” (29). So, La Fontaine’s fable is actually showing that might is not right, but this may not matter because might will always win. The satirical nature of the fable makes people think, and the meaning is relevant even now.
La Fontaine’s satire can also be seen in other fables. In “The Cicada and the Ant,” as in all fables, the reader must think about what it means that man is being compared to a cicada. Lawall writes, “To encounter a cicada talking like a man-about-town has an immediate comic effect. But the analogy also has serious implications: if a cicada resembles a man, a man must resemble a cicada” (201). Although the ant has been smart by working to store his food, the cicada seems more appealing because of her enjoyment of life. In “The Crow and the Fox,” La Fontaine addresses how vanity can cause people to do stupid things like forget about a something important or how a person looks to show off. In “The Oak and the Reed,” La Fontaine uses an oak tree to show how even the strongest can be knocked down. All of his fables address some aspect of human nature through his use of satire.
Wadsworth writes, “La Fontaine was seeking to vary the fable form, to make it more personal and more pleasing, to give it what he referred to as ‘uncertain charme’” (1129). So, La Fontaine’s fables are in verse, or rhyming. “The Cicada and the Ant” has a rhyme scheme of aabbcddc to begin with, then it varies a little and goes back to a closer rhyme. This gives it a sing-song rhythm, which is easy to read and enjoyable. “The Crow and the Fox” follows a similar pattern, abcabddcdefefgghijjhhkik. Although it is a varied rhyme scheme, it still has the same effect and gives the fables the charm that La Fontaine wanted to give them.
This element also gave the fables a deeper meaning. Wadsworth writes:
Also, without saying so, he was approaching allegory as a poet rather than as a moralist. Abandoning the long accepted concept of the fable as a two-part composition, a piece of wisdom exemplified in a fictitious narrative, he was beginning to explore and develop the inherent double potential of fables, an intimate poetic relationship between the particular and the general, the concrete and the abstract. (1129)
La Fontaine’s use of verse and poetic form took his fables to another level of exploration. He was not only making them enjoyable, but he was going beyond the surface in their meanings. This is probably why they have lasted throughout the centuries.
Another complexity of La Fontaine’s fables is the double-irony they contain. Rubin defines this as “the immediately unresolved juxtaposition of viewpoints that cancel one another out” (26). “The Rooster and the Fox” is an example of this double irony. The fox tries to get the rooster to come down by telling him that they are at peace and he should “come and receive a fraternal kiss” (14-15). Instead, the rooster tells him that there are hounds coming and they should all celebrate their peace. When the fox hears this, he runs away scared. Now the rooster feels good or proud of himself because he has cheated a cheat. The double irony is that this cancels out the moral. Is it okay for the rooster to have tricked the fox even if the fox was trying to trick him? According to Christian beliefs, this would not be moral. A Christian believes that a good person ‘turns the other cheek’ when being wronged. So, “The Rooster and the Fox” shows an example of the double irony that La Fontaine uses in his fables to make people think about the nature of humans.
Another example of double irony is “The Wolf and the Lamb.” As the wolf represents the mightier or the stronger, he represents the idea of survival of the fittest. Some might argue that this is okay. However, when the lamb is presented as the weaker more helpless species, the problem arises. The lamb asks the wolf to be reasonable, which was a big idea in La Fontaine’s time: “I beg you not to be angry but to think / Calmly about it. Here I am, / Relieving my throat’s dryness / At least twenty yards downstream from your Highness, And in consequence / I cannot be in the least / Guilty of sullying your royal drink” (11-17). The lamb represents reason, and she presents her case very reasonably. However, the wolf does not care because he does not have to. He feels that he is justified in his anger and irrationality simply because he is mightier. This can represent the aristocratic authority that was crumbling in France during this time period as well. The double irony is that the moral presented is that ‘might is right,’ but as Lawall states, “‘Might isn’t right’ could be the moral. But such a doctrine must be qualified by awareness that, whether it is or isn’t right, might makes the worse appear the better reason for itself” (201). The use of double irony in this fable and others presents the complexity of La Fontaine’s fables. It shows how La Fontaine was going beyond the simple story and looking at serious questions of how humans really are and how they think about things. Traditionally, fables were thought to be simple because of their association with teaching, but “La Fontaine is usually up to much more than presenting a simple moral” (Lawall 201). Instead, La Fontaine
Lawall writes, “Although the stories that La Fontaine tells in his fables may already be familiar from other sources, his telling makes them new” (201). His telling of the fables was definitely different. Although he was inspired by Aesop, his fables are different from Aesop’s. Lawall states, “He narrates the familiar fables not only with a deft pointedness that makes them seem up to date even now, but with a high degree of narrative economy so that their impact is quick and sharp” (201). His fables are short and sweet, and the way that he writes them gets the point across.
Jean de La Fontaine’s fables are timeless tales. They have rhyme and rhythm, and that makes them enjoyable and artistic. They contain satire that shows the message and makes the reader think about what La Fontaine wanted to say. They have double irony that also makes the reader think and shows a deeper message. Overall, La Fontaine’s fables have lasted through the centuries because of their unique form and qualities.
La Fontaine, Jean De. “The Cicada and the Ant.” The Norton Anthology of Western Literature Vol II, Eighth Ed. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.
–. “The Crow and the Fox.” The Norton Anthology of Western Literature Vol II, Eighth Ed. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.
–. “The Oak and the Reed.” The Norton Anthology of Western Literature Vol II, Eighth Ed. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.
–. “The Rooster and the Fox.” The Norton Anthology of Western Literature Vol II, Eighth Ed. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.
–. “The Wolf and the Lamb.” The Norton Anthology of Western Literature Vol II, Eighth Ed. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.
Lawall, Sarah, Ed. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature Vol II, Eighth Ed. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.
Rubin, David Lee. “[Dis]solving Double Irony: La Fontaine, Marianne Moore, and Ulysses’s Companions.” Comparative Literature. 47. Winter 1995. Print. 25-41.
Wadsworth, Philip A. “The Art Of Allegory In La Fontaine’s Fables.” French Review 45.6 (1972): 1125-1135. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 25 July 2013.