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The Fox and the Grapes, by illustrator John Rae (1882-1963)[i] 
“The Fox and the Grapes” is classified as AT 59 in the Aarne-Thompson motif index.  In the Perry Index, it is Æsop’s fable number 15.
It finds antecedents in Æsop’s Fables and the Roman de Renart, br. XI, v. 257-333 (FR), or Reynard the Fox.  It is Jean de La Fontaine‘s « Le Renard et les Raisins » and Æsop’s The Fox and the Grapes.
The Fox and the Grapes, by illustrator John Rae  
The Fox and the Grapes, by Æsop

A hungry Fox saw some fine bunches of Grapes hanging from a vine that was trained along a high trellis, and did his best to reach them by jumping as high as he could into the air. But it was all in vain, for they were just out of reach: so he gave up trying, and walked away with an air of dignity and unconcern, remarking, “I thought those Grapes were ripe, but I see now they are quite sour.”  (V S Vernon Jones, translator [EBook #11339])

Le Renard et les Raisins, by La Fontaine
Certain renard Gascon, d’autres disent normand,
Mourant presque de faim, vit au haut d’une treille (Mourant: Dying)
Des raisins mûrs apparemment
Et couverts d’une peau vermeille.
Le galant en eut fait volontiers un repas; (un repas: a meal)
Mais, comme il n’y pouvait atteindre : (atteindre: to reach)
« Ils sont trop verts, dit-il, et bons pour des goujats. » (verts: green)
Fit-il pas mieux que de se plaindre ?
(III. 11)
The Fox and the Grapes, by La Fontaine
[EBook #50316]
A fox, almost with hunger dying,
Some grapes on a trellis spying,
To all appearance ripe, clad in
Their tempting russet skin,
Most gladly would have eat them;
But since he could not get them,
So far above his reach the vine
“They’re sour,” he said; “such grapes as these,
The dogs may eat them if they please!”
Did he not better than to whine?
(III. 11)

Cognitive Dissonance: incompatible Ideas

The Fox and the Grapes” is one of Æsop‘s as well as Jean de La Fontaine‘s (III. 11) better-known Fables.  La Fontaine’s “Fox and Grapes” was published in the third book of in his first collection of Fables (1668).  According to Wikipedia, this fable “can be held to illustrate the concept of cognitive dissonance.” (See The Fox and the Grapes, Wikipedia)  “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.”[ii]

“When the fox fails to reach the grapes, he decides he does not want them after all.  Rationalization (making excuses) is often involved in reducing anxiety about conflicting cognitions, according to cognitive dissonance theory.”  (See The Fox and the Grapes, Wikipedia)

The Fox and the Grapes, by Gustave Doré, 1870 (below), 1880 (above)
(Photo credit: Google images)

Linguistic Dissonance: ‘vert’ and ‘sour’

La Fontaine writes that the grapes were ‘vert(s)’ (green) instead of ‘sour.’  Vert is associated with a lack of maturity or naivety, in both French and English.  In the French language, ‘vert’ may also refer to female immaturity.  In Wikipedia’s entry on “The Fox and the Grapes,” the author mentions an illustration by Gustave Doré (6 January 1832 – 23 January 1883) that reveals the second meaning of ‘unripe,’ ‘vert,’ and, consequently, also reveals the story’s “subtext:”[iii] 

Gustave Doré‘s illustration of the fable for the 1870 edition pictures a young man in a garden who is looking towards the steps to a mansion in the distance on which several youung women are congregated. An older man is holding p 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.’”

Des Vertes et des pas mûres

The French expression « Des vertes et des pas mûres » (the green and the unripe) may refer to difficult experiences, but it may also refer to things racy (saucy) and shocking.  Babrius‘ Greek “Fox and Grapes” has the same “ambiguity.”  The literal meaning of the word(s) ‘omphakes eisin,’ ‘Omphax,’ is unripe grapeMetaphorically, however, it describes a girl “not yet ripe for marriage.”

As for the English expression “sour grapes,” it is from the fable “The Fox and the Grapes,” and would mean: false pretenses.  (See The Fox and the Grapes, Wikipedia)

The Moral

The translations of the Moral

  • “I thought those Grapes were ripe, but I see now they are quite sour” (Æsop, V S Vernon Jones)
  • « Fit-il pas mieux que de se plaindre ? »
  • Did he not better than to whine?
  • “Better, I think, than an embittered whine.” (La Fontaine, Marianne Moore)

American modernist author Marianne Moore (15 November 1887 – 5 February 1972) provided a lovely prose translation of La Fontaine’s last line.  Marianne Moore’s translation “sings” and it moves: alliteration, consonance: b, t, r; and assonance: i, e(r).  It is therefore a truly poetical English-language moral.

Cognitive dissonance and linguistic dissonance

The Fox and the Grapes” illustrates the theory of cognitive dissonance (the perversion of rationalization).  There is cognitive dissonance when a person “attempts to hold incompatible ideas simultaneously” (Jon Elster).  However, according to this theory, expressing scorn for what cannot be attained “serves to diminish the dissonance,” which makes it a rather useful ‘perversion.’  It would seem that such a moral is consistent with the popular moral of “The Fox and the Grapes,” which is that, from a practical point of view, it is quite appropriate to lessen one’s disappointment by finding imperfection with what is beyond one’s reach.

But, although this fable is part of the Roman de Renart, where the fox is a trickster, the fox featured in “The Fox and the Grapes,” is a rather philosophical character.  Playing tricks requires savvy or savoir-faire, as does negotiating the various events of life, some pleasant but some not so pleasant.  So if our fox can find fault with what he coveted, he is a happy fellow and, to a certain extent, he is also wise.  As for the young girls of the subtext, they were undoutedly too ‘vertes’ (green).

In “The Cat’s Only Trick,” the cat’s claws allow the cat to climb a tree and thereby escape the hunting dogs who kill the fox.  In that fable, the trickster is fooled.  It is a comic text.  As for our fox, he is not the wise fox featured in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry‘s (1900-1944) The Little Prince (1943), but he is emotionally competent, a form of wisdom.

Green is the colour of hope, and hope, the finest of virtues.  I will always remember discovering Charles Péguy‘s petite fille espérance, the little girl hope, the second virtue: faith, hope and charity.

The Fox and the Grapes, Arthur Rackham
(Photo credit: Project Gutenberg)
[EBook #11339]
-La Fontaine’s Le Renard et les Raisins
(Château Thierry)
-Æsop’s “The Fox & Crane, or Stork”
Æsop’s “The Fox and the Grapes” or
“The Fox and the Grapes out of Reach” 
[EBook #21]
[EBook #11339]
The Æsop for Children 
[EBook #19994] 
“The Fox and the Grapes”
[EBook #19994]  
Babrius‘ Greek Translation 2nd century CE
Phædrus‘ Latin Translation Book IV –  III. De Vulpe et Vua (c. 15 BCE – c. 50 CE)
La Fontaine: The Fox and the Grapes
Wikipedia’s entry
[i] Fables in Rhyme for Little Folks from the French of La Fontaine
W.T. (William Trowbridge) Larned (translator)
[EBook #24108]
[ii] Jon Elster, Sour Grapes: Studies in the Subversion of Rationality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
[iii] The Fox and the Grapes
Louis-Nicolas Clérambault (19 December 1676 – 26 October 1749) 
Simphonia [Sonata] n. 4 for violin and basso continuo
Les Solistes du Concert Spirituel, Hervé Niquet (conductor)

The Fox and Grapes,
by Arthur Rackham
[EBook #11339]
(Photo credit: Project Gutenberg)

© Micheline Walker
22 September 2013