A depiction of a bird in glasses and waistcoat with a wedge of cheese in its beak and an umbrella by its foot sitting on a tree branch. The text reads: "Maitre Courbeau, sur un arbre perche. Tenait en son bec un fromage."
L'Oeuvre de Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695) : perspectives et contextualisations
126 :  Senior Seminar
Spring 2024
Class No: 31057
Deborah A. Blocker
2:00 PM - 3:29 PM

All Work for This Class Conducted in French; Completion of FR102, Placement Exam, or Native Language Fluency Required for Enrollment.

Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695) remains one of the most widely read 17th century French writers, alongside the playwright Molière (1622-1671). Some of his Fables — a grouping of 243 poems inspired by the tradition of Aesop’s tales — are read and studied to this day throughout the francophone world, where children are often introduced to them in grammar school. Yet, deciphering these carefully crafted narratives, set in the animal world, often requires much more than a child’s perspective. At once sophisticated, gallant, satirical and full of double (and even triple) entendre, these poems, read like riddles, and frequently contain critical, if not heterodox, insinuations. They were originally published with intricate engraved illustrations, the tradition of which proliferates to this day, in many different styles. In this class, we read the Fables (and their illustrations), very carefully, alongside several others of La Fontaine’s texts, including his Contes, which are frequently licentious, and his exquisitely narrated allegorical tale of the Amours of Psyché et Cupidon. To this end, we study rare editions of La Fontaine’s works on-line (through https://gallica.bnf.fr/) and in the Bancroft Library on campus. Through the lens of La Fontaine’s writings we also explore French society in the Old Régime, of which this poet was one of the most perspicacious observers. In the process, we interrogate the relationship of French classical authors to their aristocratic patrons, including the Sun King, with whom La Fontaine had distanced, yet persistent, interactions. But the main goal of this seminar — which requires no prior knowledge of 17th century France and is by no means restricted to seniors — is to develop the students’ capacities for close-reading and contextualization, as well as their ability to analyze the relationship between text and image. The class is in seminar format and will be conducted entirely in French. Students wishing to be introduced to research practices in literary studies (and in the humanities more generally) will be given the option of drafting a research paper at the end of the term, with individualized support from the instructor. This paper could later become the basis of a senior thesis in French.

Required books : 1. Jean de La Fontaine, Fables, édition de Sabine Gruffat avec une préface de Jean-Charles Darmon, Paris, Le Livre de Poche, 2002. 2. Jean de La Fontaine, Contes et nouvelles en vers, édition d’Alain-Marie Bassy, Paris, Gallimard, coll. Folio, 1982. 3. Jean de La Fontaine, Les Amours de Psyché et de Cupidon, précédé d’Adonis et du Songe de Vaux Poche, édition de P. Dandrey, B. Donné et C. Bohnert, Paris, Le Livre de Poche, 2021.