Reading Undercover

Anne L. Birberick

Audience and Authority in Jean de La Fontaine

1998
160 pages
$33.50
ISBN 0-8387-5388-4
LC 98-12829

This study examines author/audience relations in the works of the seventeenth-century French poet Jean de La Fontaine. Focusing on the Fables, Les Amours de Psyché et de Cupidon, and the Contesi, Anne L. Birberick explores how La Fontaine remains a largely subversive artist, even while he seeks to establish himself within a conventional system of literary patronage.

La Fontaine and his Fables have long been considered one of the cornerstones of French classicism. Yet the complexity of his relationship to that tradition has often been overshadowed by two images of the poet. One sees him as a charmingly didactic author for children, the other as a gifted adapter of classical source material. Birberick contests these traditional representations by revealing the ways in which La Fontaine not only invokes many of the defining paradigms of the classical period - plaire et instruire, charme et beauté, règle et goût - but also reconfigures them in fundamental ways.

Birberick offers an "anatomy" of readers as she shows how La Fontaine simultaneously appeals to multiple readers whose tastes range from the literal to the ironic, from the orthodox to the heterodox. To negotiate successfully between and among such diverse audiences, the poet employs techniques of concealment and disclosure to foster an anticanonical public. The result is a new kind of reading and writing in the seventeenth century, one that grows out of a rhetorical situation entailing dissimulation, dispersion, and indirection, one that is carried on, as it were, "undercover."

This volume, an important scholarly contribution to the study of La Fontaine and French seventeenth-century literature, si the fullest assessment to date of author/audience transactions in the poet. Each of the five chapters combines careful textual analysis with a consideration of historical and theoretical issues to present original interpretations of key texts from each of the major works.

About the author:

Anne L. Birberick received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and is assistant professor of French at Northern Illinois University. Her previous work on La Fontaine includes articles in Romance Languages Annual and Papers on French Seventeenth Century Literature as well as a volume of essays, Refiguring La Fontaine: Tercentenary Essays (1996), which she edited and to which she contributed a critical introduction and an essay. She is currently working on a book on moral and didactic literature in the classical age.

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