Perrault, Charles (1628–1703)

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PERRAULT, CHARLES (16281703), French poet, literary theoretician, and fairy tale writer. Charles Perrault belonged to a family of middle-class government functionaries, among whom was his brother Claude, an architect best remembered for his remodeled columns on the Louvre. Charles began his literary career by writing satiric verse ("The Burlesque Aeneid," 1648) and gallant poetry while he was studying law. He developed his work under the patronage of Jean Desmarets de Saint-Sorlin, and wrote a forgettable Christian epic entitled "Saint Paulin." Perrault's shorter poetry was more noteworthy, and his poems praising the young Louis XIV (16381715) were well received at court. Nonetheless, at the time his influence on culture derived less from his verse than his position in the royal administration in the 1660s, where he served under the protection of Jean-Baptiste Colbert (16191683). As general comptroller of buildings, Perrault sought to centralize efforts from the various academies, including the French Academy, of which he became a member and the secretary in 1671. With the death of Colbert, however, his influence at court declined, and he found himself in bitter literary arguments with Jean Racine (16391699) and Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux (16361711), historiographers of the king and staunch proponents of the "ancients." Boileau even mocked Charles' brother Claude.

Perrault's poem "Le Siècle de Louis le Grand" (The century of Louis the great), which he read aloud to his assembled fellow academicians in 1687 was both a panegyric to the king and a manifesto of the modernist position. While comparing Louis with Alexander the Great, he proclaimed that the French king's exploits surpassed those of Alexander and that progress was possible not only in politics, but in science, and even in the arts. The ideas and terms of the dispute were not new, but Perrault's poem synthesized them eloquently and launched an intense quarrel that lasted seven years (and indeed, in various forms, into the following century). He developed his position at length in the prose Parallèles des anciens et des modernes (16881697; Parallels of the ancients and moderns, 4 vols.).

As this phase in the quarrel subsided, he published three verse fairy tales (including "Donkey Skin") in 1694, which were soon followed in 1697 by eight prose tales in Histoires ou contes de temps passé: Contes de ma mère l'oye (Stories or tales from olden days: Tales of my Mother Goose). The concisely written stories became an immediate and huge success and established Perrault's literary reputation. Tales such as "Cinderella," "Puss 'n Boots," "Tom Thumb," and "Bluebeard" had been staples in the oral folk tradition for centuries, and they now became written texts to be circulated and enjoyed among the bourgeoisie and nobility, both old and young alike. Fairy tales were a genre that had been popular in women's salons since the mid-1680s, practiced by such writers as Mme Catherine d'Aulnoy (c. 16501705), Mlle Catherine Bernard (16621712), and Perrault's niece, Mlle Marie-Jeanne L'Héritier (c. 16641734). Perrault used the tales' popularity to present stories that exemplified his own literary theories and taste. By their origin the tales are not part of the Greco-Roman tradition, and their subject matter of fairies, ogres, and magical objects removes them from the mythology of classical antiquity. Although he refused the canon of acceptable textual models, Perrault's approach followed many of the tenets of French classicism in that he did not invent his material (with the exception of "Little Red Riding Hood"), and he expressed himself with an economy of language and stylistic devices. The role of magic in the tales is often minimal, and greater emphasis is placed on human nature and social conduct, both good and bad.

The tales exhibit a didactic intent, both within the stories themselves and in the explicit, verse "morals." And even though the events are set "once upon a time" in a fictive land where animals talk and fairy godmothers wave magic wands, the tales are filled with references to seventeenth-century life and satiric commentaries on contemporary society. Perrault retained enough elements of archaic language, repetition, dialogue and dramatic tension to convey a sense of the oral tradition in his sparse, simplified narration. The tales appear as a synthesis, therefore, of both the oral and the literary, of classicism and an anticlassical verve. These competing forces give dynamism to these modern versions of old stories.

Readers today, who are more familiar with the versions of the fairy tales retold by the brothers Grimm, may find some striking, and brutal, points of contrast with the Perrault stories: Little Red Riding Hood is not saved in the end, and Sleeping Beauty marries her prince only to discover he has an ogress for a mother. The decorum demanded in the classical aesthetic did not extend to this new genre with its extremes of fanciful whimsy and cruel violence.

See also Academies, Learned ; Ancients and Moderns ; Boileau-Despréaux, Nicolas ; Classicism ; Colbert, Jean-Baptiste ; Folk Tales and Fairy Tales ; French Literature and Language .


Barchilon, Jacques. Perrault's Tales of Mother Goose. 2 vols. New York, 1956.

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York, 1976.

Lewis, Philip. Seeing Through the Mother Goose Tales: Visual Turns in the Writings of Charles Perrault. Stanford, 1996.

Marin, Louis. Food for Thought. Translated by Mette Hjort. Baltimore, 1989.

Morgan, Jeanne. Perrault's Morals for Moderns. New York, 1985.

Allen G. Wood

Perrault, Charles (1628–1703)

views updated Jun 08 2018

Perrault, Charles (1628–1703)

Perrault, Charles (1628–1703), Children's story writer. Though the stories of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and Sleeping Beauty are among the best known and most popular works of literature in the world, few people recognize the name of Charles Perrault, the man who is generally believed to be their author. Because his collection of stories, Histories; or, Tales of Times Past, was published under the name of Perrault's son, Pierre d'Armancour, there has always been some debate even about the authorship. Glenn S. Burne noted in Writers for Children that, according to the best evidence, "the stories were the work of Perrault in probable collaboration with the talented teenage boy, with whom he had a close relationship." Burne went on to say that Perrault published these tales near the end of his career, when his interests were elsewhere, and he probably had no idea that they would become so important.

Born on January 12, 1628, in Paris, France, Perrault was the youngest son of an eminent Parisian lawyer. Both his parents took an active part in educating their children and, when Perrault was sent to a private school at the age of eight, he was one of the top students in his class. Several years later his brilliance led him to argue with a teacher and leave school to study independently with a friend named Beaurain. In his autobiography, Memoires de Charles Perrault, Perrault described how the two boys got together mornings and afternoons for three or four years, reading in the course of that time most of the Bible and the classic authors. Perrault first tried his hand at writing when he, his older brother Claude (a medical student who became both a physician and an architect), and Beaurain adapted the sixth book of the Aeneid into comic verse, a popular literary practice of the time. Later the brothers collaborated on the first volume of Les Murs de troie ("The Walls of Troy").

In 1651 Perrault took the bar exam and was admitted to the practice of law. He soon became disillusioned with it, however, and left in 1654 to serve as a clerk to Claude, who had bought the post of Receiver General of Finances for the city of Paris—buying positions in the government and army was a common practice at the time. During this period Perrault was also continuing his studies and writing poetry, some of which was published and translated into Italian. In the mid-1660s he was appointed by Jean Baptiste Colbert, then Minister of Finance under King Louis XIV, to an advisory council that supervised the making of monuments, medals, and other works glorifying the king. Perrault became secretary to the council, which later became the French Academy, created "for the advancement and perfection of all sciences." When Colbert was appointed Superintendent of the Royal Buildings, he made Perrault his chief clerk. In this capacity Perrault had the pleasure of helping get his brother Claude's design chosen for the forefront of the Louvre Museum. In 1671 Perrault was formally admitted to the French Academy; in 1672 he became its chancellor and, in 1681, its director.

Perrault married Marie Guichon in 1672, and the couple had three sons and a daughter. Several years after his wife's death in 1678, Perrault decided to devote all of his time to writing and educating his children. As he stated in his autobiography, "With this in mind I went to live in the St. Jacques district [of Paris], which being near to the schools, gave me the great facility to send my children there, having always thought that it was best for children to come home to sleep in their father's house when it was possible rather than sending them to board in the school. . . . I gave them a tutor and I myself took great care to watch over their studies." Burne pointed out in Writers for Children that his wife's death may have been a factor in Perrault's writing the fairy tales, "since he maintained that such literature was an effective means of instilling values."

Though it is the fairy tales that are generally remembered, Perrault gained prominence as a literary figure with his poem "Le Siecle de Louis XIV," which he read to the Academy. In this poem he praised the superiority of modern letters as opposed to the classics, thus raising an argument that lasted for many years and brought his name into prominence.

Perrault died on May 16, 1703, at the age of seventy-five. Many critics believe that his now-familiar stories were half-forgotten folk tales that the author merely set down in a simple, readable form. In Contes Perrault said of them, "These sorts of tales have the gift of pleasing . . . great minds as well as lesser folk, the old as well as young folk; these idle fancies amuse and lull reason, although contrary to the same reason, and can charm reason better than all imaginable probability."

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Perrault, Charles

views updated May 23 2018

Perrault, Charles (1628–1703) French poet and prose writer. A leading member of the Académie Française from 1671, he is best remembered for Tales of Mother Goose (1697).

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