The Ant and the Grasshopper
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The Ant and the Grasshopper, also known as The Grasshopper and the Ant (or Ants), is one of Aesop's Fables, providing an ambivalent moral lesson about hard work and foresight. In the Perry Index it is number 373. The fable has been adapted or reinterpreted in a number of works from the 19th century to the present.
The fable and its negative version
The fable concerns a grasshopper that has spent the warm months singing while the ant (or ants in some editions) worked to store up food for winter. When that season arrives, the grasshopper finds itself dying of hunger and upon asking the ant for food is only rebuked for its idleness. Versions of the fable are found in the verse collections of Babrius(140) and Avianus (34), and in several prose collections including those attributed to Syntipas and Apthonius. In a variant prose form of the fable (Perry 112), the lazy animal is a dung beetle which finds that the winter rains wash away the dung on which it feeds. In its Greek original, as well as in its Latin and Romance translations, the grasshopper is in fact acicada.
The story is used to teach the virtues of hard work and saving, and the perils of improvidence. Some versions of the fable state a moral at the end, along the lines of "Idleness brings want", "To work today is to eat tomorrow", "Beware of winter before it comes". The point of view is supportive of the ant and is also that expressed in the Book of Proverbs, a book of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament), which admonishes, "Go to the ant, you sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise, which having no captain, overseer or ruler, provides her supplies in the summer, and gathers her food in the harvest" (6:6-9).
There was, nevertheless, an alternative tradition in which the ant was seen as a bad example. This was expressed as a counter-fable in Greek which appears as number 166 in the Perry Index. It relates that the ant was once a man who was always busy farming. Not satisfied with the results of his own labour, he plundered his neighbours' crops at night. This angered the king of the gods, who turned him into what is now an ant. Yet even though the man had changed his shape, he did not change his habits and still goes around the fields gathering the fruits of other people's labour, storing them up for himself. The moral of the fable is that it is easier to change in appearance than to change one's moral nature. The fable was rarely noticed and, though of Aesopic origin, has not been accepted as such into later collections. Among the few who recorded it were Gabriele Faerno (1564), whose Latin poem on the theme was widely translated, and Roger L'Estrange (1692).The latter's comment is that the ant's 'Vertue and Vice, in many Cases, are hardly Distinguishable but by the Name'.
The fable in art
In the 17th century Jean de la Fontaine set the story of "La cigale et la fourmi" at the very start of his Fables. In France the cicada then became the proverbial example of improvidence: so much so that Jules-Joseph Lefebvre (1836–1911) could paint a picture of a female nude biting one of her nails among the falling leaves and be sure viewers would understand the point by giving it the title La Cigale. The painting was exhibited at the 1872 Salon with a quotation from La Fontaine, Quand la bise fut venue (When the cold north wind came), and was seen as a critique of the lately deposed Napoleon III, who had led the nation into a disastrous war with Prussia. Another with the same title, alternatively known as "Girl with a Mandolin" (1890), was painted by Edouard Bisson (1856–1939) and depicts a gypsy musician in a sleeveless dress shivering in the falling snow. Also so-named is the painting by Henrietta Rae (a student of Lefebvre's) of a naked girl with a mandolin slung over her back who is cowering among the falling leaves at the root of a tree.
The grasshopper and the ant are generally depicted as women because both words for the insects are of the feminine gender in most Romance languages. Picturing the grasshopper as a musician, generally carrying a mandolin or guitar, was a convention that grew up when the insect was portrayed as a human being, since singers accompanied themselves on those instruments. The sculptor and painter Ignaz Stern (1679–1748) also has the grasshopper thinly clad and shivering in the paired statues he produced under the title of the fable, while the jovial ant is more warmly dressed. But the anticlerical painter Jehan Georges Vibert has male characters in his picture of "La cigale et la fourmi" from 1875. It is painted as a mediaeval scene in which a minstrel with a tall lute on his back encounters a monk on a snow-covered upland. The warmly shrouded monk has been out gathering alms and may be supposed to be giving the musician a lecture on his improvidence. By contrast, the Naturalist Victor-Gabriel Gilbert (1847–1933) pictures the fable as being enacted in the marketplace of a small town in Northern France. An elderly stall-keeper is frowning at a decrepit woman who has paused nearby, while her younger companion looks on in distress.
For a long time, the illustrators of fable books tended to concentrate on picturing winter landscapes, with the encounter between the insects occupying only the lower foreground. In the 19th century the insects grew in size and began to take on human dress. It was this tendency that was reproduced in that curiosity of publishing, the 1894 Choix de Fables de La Fontaine, Illustrée par un Groupe des Meilleurs Artistes de Tokio, which was printed in Japan and illustrated by some of the foremost woodblock artists of the day. Kajita Hanko's treatment of the story takes place in a typical snowy landscape with the cricket approaching a thatched cottage, watched through a window by the robed ant. An earlier Chinese treatment, commissioned mid-century by Baron Félix-Sébastien Feuillet de Conches through his diplomatic contacts, uses human figures to depict the situation. An old woman in a ragged dress approaches the lady of the house, who is working at her spinning wheel on an open verandah.
Use of the insects to point a moral lesson extends into the 20th century in the 'dynamic cubism' of Jacob Lawrence. In his 1969 ink drawing of the fable, a weeping grasshopper stands before a seated ant who reaches back to lock his storeroom door. It is notable that in the majority of cases artistic sentiment has moved against the ant with the recognition that improvidence is not always the only cause of poverty. Nevertheless, Hungary used the fable to promote a savings campaign on a 60 forint stamp in 1958. The following year it appeared again in a series depicting fairy tales, as it did as one of many pendents on a 1.50 tögrög stamp from Mongolia. In this case the main stamp was commemorating the 1970 World's Fair in Japan with a picture of the Suwitomo fairy tale pavilion.
La Fontaine's portrayal of the Ant as a flawed character, reinforced by the ambivalence of the alternative fable, led to that insect too being viewed as anything but an example of virtue. Jules Massenet's two-act ballet Cigale, first performed at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1904, portrays the cicada as a charitable woman who takes pity on "La Pauvrette" (the poor little one). But La Pauvrette, after being taken in and fed, is rude and heartless when the situation is reversed. Cigale is left to die in the snow at the close of the ballet.
The English writer W. Somerset Maugham reverses the moral order in a different way in his short story, "The Ant and The Grasshopper" (1924). It concerns two brothers, one of whom is a dissolute waster whose hard-working brother has constantly to bail him out of difficulties. At the end the latter is enraged to discover that his 'grasshopper' brother has married a rich widow, who then dies and leaves him a fortune. The story was later adapted in the film Encore (1951) and the English television series Somerset Maugham Hour (1960).
James Joyce also adapts the fable into a tale of brotherly conflict in "The Ondt and the Gracehoper" episode in Finnegans Wake and makes of the twin brothers Shem and Shaun opposing tendencies within the human personality:
- These twain are the twins that tick Homo Vulgaris.
In America, John Ciardi's poetical fable for children, "John J. Plenty and Fiddler Dan" (1963), makes an argument for grasshoppers fiddling and poetry over fanatical hard work. Ciardi's ant, John J. Plenty, is so bent upon saving that he eats very little of what he has saved. Meanwhile, Fiddler Dan the grasshopper and his non-conforming ant wife survive the winter without help and resume playing music with the return of spring.
John Updike's 1987 short story Brother Grasshopper deals with a pair of brothers-in-law whose lives parallel the fable of the ant and the grasshopper. One, Fred Barrow, lives a conservative, restrained existence; the other, Carlyle Lothrop, spends his money profligately, especially on joint vacations for the two men's families, even as he becomes financially insolvent. However, at the end comes an unexpected inversion of the characters' archetypal roles, as when Carlyle dies, Fred—now divorced and lonely—realizes he has been left with a rich store of memories which would not have existed without his friend's largesse.
The text of La Fontaine's version of the fable was set by the following French composers:
- Louis-Nicolas Clérambault, to whom the works in the fables section of Nouvelles poésies spirituelles et morales sur les plus beaux airs (1730–37) have been attributed.
- Jacques Offenbach in Six Fables de La Fontaine (1842) for soprano and small orchestra
- Charles Gounod, part-song for a cappella choir (1857)
- Charles Lecocq in Six Fables de Jean de la Fontaine for voice and piano
- Benjamin Godard in Six Fables de La Fontaine for voice and piano, op.17 (c.1871)
- Camille Saint-Saëns for voice and piano or orchestra (1910?)
- André Caplet in Trois Fables de Jean de la Fontaine (1919) for voice and piano
- Maurice Delage in Deux fables de Jean de la Fontaine (1931)
- Marcelle de Manziarly in Trois Fables de La Fontaine (1935) for voice and piano
- Charles Trenet, performed with Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club de France in 1941
- Isabelle Aboulker (b.1938), the fourth piece in Femmes en fables (1999) for high voice with piano
There was also a three-act comic opera based on the fable by Edmond Audran, performed in Paris in 1886, in London in 1890 and in New York in 1891. This was shortly followed by the darker mood of Jules Massenet's ballet Cigale, mentioned above. Massenet also set a song by Maurice Fauré titled "The Grasshopper's Death" (La mort de la cigale, 1912) for voice and piano. This is only loosely connected to the fable and pictures the wheat fields ready for harvest, after which
- The cricket slumbers, as a poet dies,
- Tired of living, proud of having sung.
The Belgian composer Joseph Jongen set La Fontaine's fable for children's chorus and piano (op. 118, 1941) and the Dutch composer Rudolf Koumans set the French text in Vijf fabels van La Fontaine (op. 25, 1964) for school chorus and orchestra. A Russian version of the fable by Ivan Krylov was written under the title "The dragonfly and the ant" (Strekoza i muravej). This was set for voice and piano by Anton Rubinstein in 1851; a German version (Der Ameise und die Libelle) was later published in Leipzig in 1864 as part of his Fünf Fabeln (Op.64). In the following century the Russian text was again set by Dmitri Shostakovich in Two Fables of Krylov for mezzo-soprano, female chorus and chamber orchestra (op.4, 1922). A Hungarian translation of the fable by Dezső Kosztolányi was also set for mezzo-soprano, four-part mixed chorus and 4 guitars or piano by Ferenc Farkas in 1977. The Catalan composer Xavier Benguerel i Godó set the fable in his 7 Fábulas de la Fontaine for recitation with orchestra in 1995. These used a Catalan translation by his father, the writer Xavier Benguerel i Llobet. There have also been purely instrumental pieces; these include the first of Antal Dorati's 5 Pieces for Oboe (1980) and the first of Karim Al-Zand's Four Fables for flute, clarinet and piano(2003).
Movie and TV treatments
La Fontaine's fable lent itself to animated film features from early on, the first being a version by George Méliès in France in 1897. Others produced under the title La cigale et la fourmi were directed by Louis Feuillade (1909) and Georges Monca (1910). There were also Italian films under the title La cicala e la formica by Mario Caserini (1908) and Renato Molinari (1919). The Russo-Polish producer Ladislaw Starewicz made two versions using animated models. The first was in Russia in 1913 under the title Strekoza i muravey, based on Ivan Krylov's Russian adaptation of La Fontaine; then, following his flight to France, and using the simplified name of Ladislas Starevich, he filmed a version under the French title (1927). In the UK, The Grasshopper and the Ant was created from cut-out silhouettes by Lotte Reiniger in 1954. In this the main characters, Grasshopper and Miss Ant, are portrayed as humanoid while the rest of the animals and insects are naturalistic. After being refused food and warmth by Miss Ant, Grasshopper is rescued from dying in the snow by squirrels and plays his fiddle for them. Miss Ant wistfully asks if she can join the party and is turned away by the rescuers until Grasshopper intervenes and asks her in to dance with them.
In America the Aesop's Film Fables studio had included The Ants and the Grasshopper (1921) among its early animated cartoon productions. Then in 1934 Walt Disney provided the story with a socially responsible conclusion in The Grasshopper and the Ants (discussed in the next section). He also adapted the story less directly in the Mickey's Young Readers Library segment, Mickey and the Big Storm; in this, Donald Duck and Goofy spend the first day of a winter snowstorm playing out in the snow and don't bother to stock up on supplies. Fortunately for them, Mickey has more than enough for himself and his friends. Friz Freleng also adapted the tale in his Warner Bros. cartoon Porky's Bear Facts in which Porky Pig works hard while his lazy neighbor refuses to do anything, only to suffer during winter. Although Porky at last gives him a meal out of good-neighborly feeling, the bear fails to learn his lesson when spring arrives.
In the later 20th Century, there were a number of cynical subversions in TV shows. A typical example was the Muppet Show sketch in which Sam the Eagle's reading of the fable is undermined as the ant is stepped on at the end and the grasshopper drives off to Florida in his sports car.
The moral debate
La Fontaine follows ancient sources in his 17th century retelling of the fable, where the ant suggests at the end that since the grasshopper has sung all summer she should now dance for its entertainment. However, his only direct criticism of the ant is that it lacked generosity. The Grasshopper had asked for a loan which it promised to pay back with interest, but
- The Ant had a failing,
- She wasn't a lender.
The readers of his time were aware of the Christian duty of charity and therefore sensed the moral ambiguity of the fable. This is further brought out by Gustave Doré's 1880s print which pictures the story as a human situation. A female musician stands at a door in the snow with the children of the house looking up at her with sympathy. Their mother looks down from the top of the steps. Her tireless industry is indicated by the fact that she continues knitting but, in a country where the knitting-women (les tricoteuses) had jeered at the victims of the guillotine during theFrench Revolution, this activity would also have been associated with lack of pity.
Other French fabulists since La Fontaine had already started the counter-attack on the self-righteous ant. In around 1800 Jean-Jacques Boisard has the cricket answering the ant's criticism of his enjoyment of life with the philosophical proposition that since we must all die in the end, Hoarding is folly, enjoyment is wise. In a Catholic educational work (Fables, 1851) Jacques-Melchior Villefranche offers a sequel in which the ant loses its stores and asks the bee for help. The ant's former taunt to the grasshopper is now turned on himself:
- Are you hungry? Well then,
- Turn a pirouette,
- Dine on a mazurka,
- Have polka for supper.
But then the bee reveals that it has already given the grasshopper shelter and invites the ant to join him since 'All who are suffering/Deserve help equally.'
In the 20th century the fable enters the political arena. Walt Disney's cartoon version, The Grasshopper and the Ants (1934) confronts the dilemma of how to deal with improvidence from the point of view of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The Grasshopper's irresponsibility is underlined by his song "The World Owes us a Living", which later that year became a Shirley Temple hit, rewritten to encase the story of the earlier cartoon. In the end the ants take pity on the grasshopper on certain conditions. The Queen of the Ants decrees that the grasshopper may stay, but he must play his fiddle in return for his room and board. He agrees to this arrangement, finally learning that he needs to make himself useful, and 'changes his tune' to
- Oh I owe the world a living....
- You ants were right the time you said
- You've got to work for all you get.
In recent times, the fable has again been put to political use by both sides in the social debate between the enterprise culture and those who consider the advantaged have a responsibility towards the disadvantaged. A modern satirical version of the story, originally written in 1994, has the grasshopper calling a press conference at the beginning of the winter to complain about socio-economic inequity, and being given the ant's house. This version was written by Pittsburgh talk show guru Jim Quinn as an attack on the Clinton administration's social programme in the USA. In 2008 Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin also updated the story to satirize the policies of 'Barack Cicada'. There have been adaptations into other languages as well. But the commentary at the end of an Indian reworking explains such social conflict as the result of selective media presentation that exploits envy and fear.
The fable is equally pressed into service in the debate over the artist's place within the work ethic. In Marie de France's mediaeval version the grasshopper had pleaded that its work was 'to sing and bring pleasure to all creatures, but I find none who will now return the same to me.' The ant's reply is thoroughly materialistic, however: 'Why should I give food to thee/When you cannot give aid to me?' At the end of the 15th century, Laurentius Abstemius makes a utilitarian point using different insects in his similar fable of the gnat and the bee. The gnat applies to the bee for food and shelter in winter and offers to teach her children music in return. The bee's reply is that she prefers to teach the children a useful trade that will preserve them from hunger and cold.
The fable of "A Gnat and a Bee" was later to be included by Thomas Bewick in his 1818 edition of Aesop's Fables. The conclusion he draws there is that 'The many unhappy people whom we see daily singing up and down in order to divert other people, though with very heavy hearts of their own, should warn all those who have the education of children how necessary it is to bring them up to industry and business, be their present prospects ever so hopeful.' The arts are no more highly regarded by the French revolutionary Pierre-Louis Ginguené whose "New Fables" (1810) include "The Grasshopper and the Other Insects". There the Grasshopper exhorts the others to follow his example of tireless artistic activity and is answered that the only justification for poetry can be if it is socially useful.
Such utilitarianism was soon to be challenged by Romanticism and its championship of the artist has coloured later attitudes. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Romanian poet George Topîrceanu was to make the case for pure artistic creation in "The ballad of a small grasshopper" (Balada unui greier mic), although more in the telling than by outright moralising. A cricket passes the summer in singing; autumn arrives, but he continues. It is only in icy winter that the cricket realizes that he hasn't provided for himself. He goes to his neighbour, the ant, to ask for something to eat, but the ant refuses saying, “You wasted your time all summer long.” The English folk-singer and children's writer Leon Rosselson subtly turns the tables in much the same way in his 1970s song The Ant and the Grasshopper, using the story to rebuke the self-righteous ant (and those humans with his mindset) for letting his fellow creatures die of want and for his blindness to the joy of life.
In the field of children's literature, Slade and Toni Morrison's rap retelling of the fable, Who's Got Game?: The Ant or the Grasshopper? (2003), where the grasshopper represents the artisan, provokes a discussion about the importance of art. The same is the case in Leo Lionni's similar story, Frederick (1967), about a fieldmouse who, in a community narrowly focused on efficiently gathering for the winter, concentrates instead on gathering impressions. When the other mice question the usefulness of this, Frederick insists that 'gathering sun rays for the cold dark winter days' is also work. Indeed, the community comes to recognise this after the food has run out and morale is low, when it is Frederick's poetry that raises spirits.
- The Little Red Hen, a folk tale with a similar moral
- ^ Ben Edwin Perry (1965). Babrius and Phaedrus. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 487, no. 373. ISBN 0-674-99480-9.
- ^ Mythfolklore.net
- ^ Fable LXXXIII, available online
- ^ Fable 188
- ^ IMENT.com
- ^ View on Flickr
- ^ Google search result
- ^ Available on Flickr
- ^ WikiGallery
- ^ View online
- ^ View online
- ^ Hood Museum of Art, Hanover NH; view online
- ^ View online
- ^ View online
- ^ View online
- ^ Maugham, Somerset: Collected Short Stories Vol 1, story 5
- ^ IMDB
- ^ III.1, pp.414-19, Finwake.com
- ^ There have been modern performances of the fable setting by the Octuor StudioHarmonisteS and Les Petits Chanteurs de Sainte Croix de Neuilly
- ^ A performance on YouTube.com
- ^ Performance at Wrecht.cc
- ^ Performance at Wretch.cc
- ^ Performance at Wretch.cc
- ^ Performance at Wretch.cc
- ^ Available on YouTube
- ^ Performance on YouTube
- ^ The music can be heard on YouTube
- ^ The Russian original and an English translation by Lydia Razran Stone appear in The Frogs who begged for a Tsar (Russian Information Services USA, 2010),available online
- ^ A commentary and short excerpt
- ^ Available on YouTube
- ^ Available on YouTube
- ^ The score
- ^ View online
- ^ Available on YouTube
- ^ The episode is available on YouTube
- ^ An English translation is available at Gutenberg
- ^ Available on YouTube
- ^ Temple sang the song in the film Now and Forever. Available on YouTube
- ^ Lyricsdownload.com
- ^ Warroom.com
- ^ Michellemalkin.com
- ^ The ant and the grasshopper story - Indian Version
- ^ The original and its translation appears at Web.kyoto-inet.or.jp
- ^ Hecatomythium, fable 94
- ^ Fable XVI
- ^ Fable XXVI, p.139-40, French text at Google Books
- ^ There are modern musical interpretations on YouTube, including one by singer Mihai Constantinescu and a hip hop version
- ^ text
- ^ There is a short factual article on the book, celebrating the appearance of the character on a US postage stamp; a reading and animation of the story is available on YouTube
- Mythfolklore.net, Aesopica, Perry 373
- Mythfolklore.net, Aesopica, Perry 112
- "The Ant and the Grasshopper". Prints & Books. Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 2011-04-03.
- "The Ant and the Grasshopper", 15th-20th century book illustrations
- "The Grasshopper and the Ants", 15th-20th century book and manuscript illustrations