The Fox and the Grapes

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The illustration of the fable by François Chauveau in the first volume of La Fontaine's fables, 1668

"The Fox and the Grapes" is one of the traditional Aesop's fables and can be held to illustrate the concept of cognitive dissonance. In this view, the premise of the fox that covets inaccessible grapes is taken to stand for a person who attempts to hold incompatible ideas simultaneously. In that case, the disdain the fox expresses for the grapes at the conclusion to the fable serves at least to diminish the dissonance even if the behaviour in fact remains irrational.[1] Before "cognitive dissonance" was invented there was a moral to the story and the moral was "Any fool can despise what he can not get"[2]

The fable[edit]

The fable of The Fox and the Grapes is one of a number which feature only a single animal protagonist. (Another example is The Cock and the Jewel.) The Latin version of Phaedrus (IV.3) is terse and to the point.

Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leaped with all his strength. As he went away, the fox remarked 'Oh, you aren't even ripe yet! I don't need any sour grapes.' People who speak disparagingly of things that they cannot attain would do well to apply this story to themselves.[3]

In her version of La Fontaine's Fables, Marianne Moore underlines his ironical comment on the situation in a final pun, "Better, I think, than an embittered whine".[4]

Although the fable describes purely subjective behaviour, the English idiom sour grapes which develops from the story is now often used also of envious disparagement to others. Similar expressions exist in other languages,[5] but in the Scandinavian equivalent the fox makes its comment about rowanberries since grapes are not common in northern latitudes.[6]

La Fontaine's Le Renard et les Raisins[edit]

Pierre Julien's sculpture of La Fontaine with attendant fox

The French fable of La Fontaine (III.11) is almost as concise and pointed as the early versions of Babrius and Phaedrus and certainly contributed to the story's popularity. A century after its publication, this was the tale with which the sculptor Pierre Julien chose to associate its creator in his statue of La Fontaine (commissioned in 1782), now in the Louvre. The poet is represented in a famous episode of his life, when he was seen one morning by the Duchess of Bouillon seated against a tree trunk meditating. When she passed the same spot that evening he was still there in exactly the same position. Julien has portrayed him in an ample cloak, with a gnarled tree on which a vine with grapes is climbing. On his knee is the manuscript of the poem; at his feet, a fox is seated on his hat with its paw on a leather-bound volume, looking up at him.

Gustave Doré's illustration of the fable for the 1870 edition[7] pictures a young man in a garden who is looking towards the steps to a mansion in the distance on which several young women are congregated. An older man is holding up his thumb and forefinger, indicating that they are only little girls. The meaning of this transposition to the human situation hinges on the double meaning of 'unripe' (vert) in French, which could also be used of a sexually immature female. From this emerges the story's subtext, of which a literal translation reads

The gallant would gladly have made a meal of them
But as he was unable to succeed, says he:
'They are unripe and only fit for green boys.'

There is the same sexual ambiguity in the Greek of Babrius. The phrase there is "όμφακες εισίν" (omphakes eisin), the word omphax[8] having both the literal meaning of an unripe grape and the metaphorical usage of a girl not yet ripe for marriage.

Concise translations[edit]

Many translations, whether of Aesop's fable or of La Fontaine's, are wordy and often add details not sanctioned by the original. Two English authors have produced short poetical versions which still retain both the general lines of the story and its lesson. The first of these is a quatrain by Aphra Behn appearing in Francis Barlow's illustrated edition of the fables (1687):

The fox who longed for grapes, beholds with pain
The tempting clusters were too high to gain;
Grieved in his heart he forced a careless smile,
And cried ,‘They’re sharp and hardly worth my while.’[9]

The second also accompanies an illustrated edition, in this case the work of Walter Crane in Baby's Own Aesop (1887). Each fable has been reduced to a limerick by W.J.Linton and is enclosed within the design. "The Fox and the Grapes" has been given the moral 'The grapes of disappointment are always sour' and runs as follows:

This Fox has a longing for grapes:
He jumps, but the bunch still escapes.
So he goes away sour;
And, 'tis said, to this hour
Declares that he's no taste for grapes.[10]

By comparison, the Phaedrus version has six pentameter lines, of which two draw the moral and Gabriele Faerno's Latin reworking has five lines and two more drawing the moral.[11] Both Babrius and La Fontaine have eight, the latter using his final line to comment on the situation. Though the emblematist Geoffrey Whitney confines the story to four lines, he adds two more of personal application: 'So thou, that hunt'st for that thou longe hast mist,/ Still makes thy boast, thou maist if that thou list.'[12]

The fable was also one that the French poet Isaac de Benserade summed up in a single quatrain, not needing to go into much detail since his verses accompanied the hydraulic statue of it in the labyrinth of Versailles. He can therefore afford a thoughtful, moralising tone:

Pleasures are dear and difficult to get.
Feasting the eye, fat grapes hung in the arbour,
That the fox could not reach, for all his labour,
And leaving them declared, they're not ripe yet.

But Benserade then adds another quatrain, speculating on the fox's mental processes; finally it admits that the grapes really were ripe but 'what cannot be had, you speak of badly'.[13]

Artistic uses[edit]

One of La Fontaine's early illustrators was the artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry,[14] who was also artistic director at both the Beauvais and the Gobelins tapestry works. In consequence of this a series based on La Fontaine's fables designed by Oudry was produced by them during the 1740s and included "The Fox and the Grapes". These stayed in production for some forty years and were imitated by other factories in France and abroad,[15] being used not just as wall hangings but for chair covers and other domestic purposes. Furniture craftsmen in France also used the fables as themes and took these with them when they emigrated. Among them was Martin Jugiez (d.1815), who had a workshop in the American city of Philadelphia where the still surviving Fox and Grapes chest of drawers was produced.[16]

A wooden panel from an 18th-century chest of drawers

The Sèvres porcelain works used the fables on their china as well as reproducing Pierre's Julien's statue from a preliminary model in 1784, even before the finished product was exhibited.[17] Another domestic use for the fable was as an architectural medallion on the outside of mansions, of which there is still an example dating from the turn of the 19th century on the Avenue Felix Fauré in Paris.[18] A medallion of another kind, cast in bronze by Jean Vernon (1897–1975), was produced as part of his renowned series based on the fables in the 1930s. That of "The Fox and the Grapes" features two foxes scrambling up a trellis with what looks like more success than La Fontaine's creation.[19]

There was as diverse a use of the fables in England and from as early a date. Principally this was on domestic china and includes a Chelsea candlestick (1750) and a Worcester jug (1754) in the 18th century;[20] a Brownhills alphabet plate (1888) in the 19th century;[21] and a collector's edition from the Knowles pottery (1988) in the 20th.[22] Series based on Aesop's fables became popular for pictorial tiles towards the end the 19th century, of which Minton Hollins produced a particularly charming example illustrating "The Fox and the Grapes". On this a vixen is accompanied by her cubs, who make ineffectual leaps at the grapes while the mother contemplates them with her paws clasped behind her.[23]

There have also been the following musical settings:

  • Louis-Nicolas Clerambault in the early 18th century
  • Benjamin Godard, the fifth of his Six Fables de La Fontaine for voice and piano (op. 17 1872-79)
  • Louis Lacombe in Fables de La Fontaine, (op. 72 1875)
  • Charles Lecocq, the first of his Six Fables de Jean de la Fontaine for voice and piano (1900)
  • Mario Versepuy (1882-1972) for voice and piano (1921)[24]
  • Marie.Madeleine Duruflé, the third of her 6 Fables de La Fontaine for a capella choir (1960)[25]
  • Herbert Callhoff in German translation (1963)
  • Ned Rorem, one of the 'five very short operas' in his Fables (1971). A setting of Marianne Moore's translation of La Fontaine, this segment is more a cantata for chorus of two and tenor soloist (representing the fox); its action is all in the programmatic music.[26]
  • Andre Asriel, Der Fuchs und die Trauben, the fourth of his 6 Fabeln nach Aesop for mixed a cappella voices (1972).[27]
  • Bob Chilcott, among the five English translations in his Aesop's Fables for piano and choir (2008).[28]
  • Lefteris Kordis, the eighth of nine compositions for octet and voice in his "Aesop Project" (2010).[29]

Cartoon versions[edit]

The fable was made into an animated short by Aesop's Film Fables in 1922 and there was a French version by Marius O'Galop in 1923. Frank Tashlin adapted the tale into a 1941 Color Rhapsodies short for Screen Gems/Columbia Pictures. The Fox and the Grapes marked the first appearance of Screen Gems' most popular characters, The Fox and the Crow.[30] It also figured in the series of Coca Cola cartoon adverts based on fables in 1953.[31]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Elster, Jon (1983). Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality. Cambridge University Press.
  2. ^ MORAL OF THE STORY
  3. ^ "Mythfolklore.net". Mythfolklore.net. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  4. ^ The text appears on p.4 of the document at cfaitc.org
  5. ^ The Concise Dictionary or European Proverbs, London 1998, p.989, proverb 986
  6. ^ See the Wiktionary definition of the Swedish proverb and the YouTube animation of its Finnish equivalent: "Quite sour, said the fox of rowan berries". YouTube. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  7. ^ "Vintage-views.com". Vintage-views.com. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  8. ^ "Perseus.tufts.edu". Perseus.tufts.edu. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  9. ^ "Quoted in Google Books". Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  10. ^ "Salmun.cwahi.net". Salmun.cwahi.net. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  11. ^ Fabulae Centum Fable XIX, p.47
  12. ^ Choice of Emblemes (1586), p.98
  13. ^ The French text is online, Fables (1678), p.15
  14. ^ "Illustrations de Oudry des fables de la Fontaine". le renard et les raisins. 
  15. ^ Hunter, George Leland: Tapestries, their origin, history and renaissance, London, 1912, p.193-4; available online at archive.org
  16. ^ "Antiquesandfineart.com". Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  17. ^ John-whitehead.co.uk[dead link]
  18. ^ "60gp.ovh.net". Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  19. ^ "Medalsoftheworld.com". Medalsoftheworld.com. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  20. ^ "Google Books". Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  21. ^ "Google Books". Google.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  22. ^ "Google Books". Google.co.uk. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  23. ^ "Creighton.edu". Creighton.edu. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  24. ^ The score is online
  25. ^ A performance of the complete work on Vimeo
  26. ^ Crabtree, Joseph Craig: An Investigation and Analysis of Ned Rorem's "Fables", Austin, 2001, pp.63-70. Available at repositories.lib.utexas.edu
  27. ^ A performance on YouTube
  28. ^ imuababe. "There is a performance on YouTube". Youtube.com. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  29. ^ pankomusik. "Aesop Project - VIII. The Fox & the Grapes - Lefteris Kordis Octet". YouTube. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  30. ^ "The Fox and the Sour Grapes 1941". YouTube. 2010-07-07. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 
  31. ^ "Coca Cola 1953 Advert - Walter Lantz Cartoon - 3. The Fox & The Grapes". YouTube. 2011-01-16. Retrieved 2012-08-20. 

External links[edit]