We missed Aesop’s point

What if we missed Aesop’s point in The Fox and the Grapes? Convention holds that the titular fox of this fable walked away from his snack and declared the grapes sour only after he couldn’t reach them. I haven’t read every fable from Aesop that involves a fox, but the fox is rarely, if ever, petulant and embittered. If nothing else, the fox is a survivor. Surviving by his wit and his guile. If the fox wanted these grapes badly enough, he would have gotten them. Entrapped in a deep well, the fox once enlisted the help of a foolish goat to get free. See The Fox and the Goat. So let’s not pretend the fox couldn’t figure out how to reach these grapes.

We missed Aesop's point in The Fox and the Grapes
Maybe the (usually) sly fox of Aesop’s fables wasn’t being petulant at all. Maybe we missed Aesop’s point.

I contend we missed Aesop’s point in The Fox and the Grapes. My copy, translated by V. S. Vernon Jones, suggests the moral is that “it is easy to despise what you cannot get.” And while I don’t disagree with the sentiment—and have an appreciation for the “sour grapes” idiom—I keep coming back to the fox being more sly than petulant. No matter what words we choose to describe the ubiquitous fox of Aesop’s fables, “fool” has never been one.

Okay, smarty, how did we miss Aesop’s point?

Maybe the fox saw something in these grapes to suggest they really were sour. Maybe in a zealous rush, the fox initially tried to eat the grapes, and only after a few tries he came to his senses and recognized they weren’t yet ripe. All my book says is that the fox saw “fine bunches of grapes.” No other descriptors are available. Maybe he thought he’d stumbled upon a vine of Riesling grapes and, in his excitement, hurriedly started trying to steal some. Then, his excitement abated, he realized what he’d really found were immature Bourdeaux grapes. Or perhaps, after plopping to the ground in his final failed attempt, he noticed the vines showed signs of disease. Or maybe he understood that the season hadn’t been ideal for growing the sweetest grapes.

Because the fable is so short, we lack complete information. However, given what we know of the fox from other fables, I think it’s safe to say the fox had a great reason for foregoing these grapes and it wasn’t petulance. I think he knew something the rest of us overlooked. My proof? The Fox and the Grapes is the fifteenth fable in the Perry Index. The fables are listed in that index chronologically and this is the fox’s fifth appearance. The fox would go on to appear in over sixty fables and you don’t become that ubiquitous simply by being a petty sulker.

Bravo, Mr. Fox! Bravo. Your survival instinct is keen and we all should be so lucky. Don’t eat sour grapes. Don’t pursue sour grapes.


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