The Fox & the Grapes

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This article is about the Aesop fable. For the episode of the anime Kanon, see List of Kanon episodes.

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]

The Fox and the Grapes, illustrated by John Rae, 1918

The Fable

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 she leaped with all her strength. As she 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.[2]

In her version of Jean de La Fontaine‘s retelling of the fable, Marianne Moore underlines his ironical comment on the situation in a final pun, “Better, I think, than an embittered whine”.[3]

The English idiom sour grapes which develops from the story is often misused of envious disparagement to others but what the fable describes is purely subjective behaviour. Similar expressions exist in other languages; for example, the Persian expression: “The cat who cannot reach the meat says it stinks.” The idiom is present in the Scandinavian countries also, where the sour grapes have been replaced with sour rowanberries since grapes are not common in northern latitudes.

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

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[4] 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 ambuguity in the Greek of Babrius. The phrase there is “όμφακες εισίν” (omphakes eisin), the word omphax having both the literal meaning of an unripe grape and the metaphorical usage of a girl not yet ripe for marriage..

The fable illustrated by Milo Winter in a 1919 Aesop anthology

Concise Translations

The fable illustrated by Milo Winter in a 1919 Aesop anthology

Most 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.’[5]

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.[6]

By comparison, the Phaedrus version has six pentameter lines, of which two draw the moral. Both Babrius and La Fontaine have eight, the latter using his final line to comment on the situation.

Artistic Uses

One of La Fontaine’s early illustrators was the artist Jean-Baptiste Oudry,[7] 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,[8] 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.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

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;[13] a Brownhills alphabet plate (1888) in the 19th century;[14] and a collector’s edition from the Knowles pottery (1988) in the 20th.[15] 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.[16]

There have been musical adaptations as well. The fable figures as one among the five set by Bob Chilcott for piano and choir in his Aesop’s Fables (2008).[17] It is also one of the ‘five very short operas’ in Ned Rorem‘s Fables (1971). A setting of Marianne Moore’s translation of La Fontaine, “The Fox and the Grapes” is more a cantata for chorus of two and tenor soloist (representing the fox) than an opera. Its action is all in the programmatic music.[18]

In popular culture

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. The Electric Company adapted the fable as one of the “Very Short Book” series; in only a few pages and words it sums up the fable exactly as written, with the fox saying “I’ll bet they’re sour!” The Librivox recording of this fable is included as example content with some releases of the operating system Ubuntu.


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