Jessica Martinez

Le Petit Poucet:

From Italy to France, The silent Thief

The fairy tale of “Le Petit Poucet,” by Charles Perrault, is one that really doesn’t get talked about, probably because it wasn’t made into a Disney movie. It does have many adaptations though; Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm for instance carry much similarity to this story. I noticed that while trying to analyze the text, I had either become stuck with certain themes that had already come out, or I wanted to place the different classes I saw in Perrault’s text into a socio-economic realm that didn’t really exist at the time. The internet helped me to see that I wasn’t alone in these thoughts. The only themes and explanations I found while searching the web focused on the themes that were easiest to see, such as those of violence and abandonment, which takes place in the story. It wasn’t until I was asked to strip away the themes and focus on just the words of the story that I discovered that this text has more to offer than a small child who makes some money with seven league boots, or some ogre with cannibalistic tendencies. This story makes a connection with Italy, specifically with the Commedia Dell’Arte, a very physical form of comic street theater popularized in the sixteenth century and well-known in French tradition by the time Perrault wrote his tales.  My idea about it is that the story shows French attempting to “consume” the Italian tradition, to adopt it as their own—and in the end being duped by it. (Perhaps you can already guess which consuming character plays France in my reading…)

Commedia Dell’Arte

Philippe Mercier, Pierrot et Arlequin, 18th century

The fairytale begins with the introduction of a family of faggot makers, who bundled and sold wood for a living. Their youngest, so small they dubbed him “Petit Poucet,” or little thumbling, didn’t speak much and because of this, they thought him slow and weak. The fairytale only gives two other characters in the story a name, one being the father named Guillaume, which appears later in the 1762 dictionary of the French Academy as a type of plane used to smooth or polish wood—the connection there seems fairly deliberate! The third character with a name is the oldest brother “Pierrot.” In the story, who learn something about him: he is the mother’s favorite because he is “un peu rousseau & qu’elle etait un peu rouse,” that is, he looked like her; they share the same reddish hair. The names give the father and the brother importance in the tale; they stand out.

This is particularly significant because the name Pierrot is a direct reference to a stock character in Commedia Dell’Arte, the one who is portrayed most of the time as a more timid, sad character; he is one of the few without a mask, just a painted white face. And just as he appears in his plays, in this fairytale he is not the strong character. If we see the eldest son as Pierrot from the Commedia Dell’Arte, then it is easy to notice how much Le Petit Poucet embodies Harlequin. The first Harlequin in Commedia Dell’Arte is Arlecchino; he is a poor character but has all the tools necessary, wit and creativity, to survive in these situations that he gets into. As we read the story, it unfolds into a type of theatre itself, displaying the Ogres’ desire to “eat fresh meat” as a type of metaphor for a desire to ingest what is around him, make it his own. While on the one hand, this kind of attitude seems related to the aristocracy, on the other it seems equally logical to see the desire to eat Petit Poucet and his brothers as a desire to “take in” ideas that originally came from Italian culture. And we might even link the metaphor of France to Perrault.  In the reading that follows, Le Petit Poucet is the action figure in the story that makes its many meanings come alive.

Examples of Action

There are several instances in the story where “Le Petit Poucet” privileges action over words. When first describing Le Petit Poucet Perrault plainly identifies him as  “However he was the finest and the wisest of all his brothers, he spoke little, but listened much.” (“Cependant il était le plus fin, et le plus avisé de tous ses frères, s’il parlait peu, il écoutait beaucoup”).

In fact, listening turns out to be one of his greatest skills. When Le Petit Poucet’s parents devise a plan to abandon their children in the forest, Le Petit Poucet “heard everything they said… he got up softly and slipped under the stool of his father, to listen to them without being seen.”  (« ouït tout ce qu’ils dirent… il s’était levé doucement &s’était glisse sous l’escabelle de son père, pour les écouter sans être vu. »)

Another instance in which Le Petit Poucet uses actions instead of words to aid his situation is when the children are abandoned for the second time. While the other six children are crying (something Pierrot would do in the Commedia), Le Petit Poucet  “climbed to the top of a tree, to see if he could discover anything.” (“grimpa au haut d’un Arbre, pour voir s’il ne découvrirait rien.”)

The House of the Ogres

The Old French aristocracy was full of cranky old men who lived to spend and spent to live, so it would not have been a stretch for Perrault to relate them to Ogres. I believe here is where Perrault uses Le Petit Poucet’s unique qualities as Harlequin to demonstrate how he took the “treasures” from the old aristocracy to give to the modern French commoner. When Le Petit Poucet and his brothers are trapped inside the Ogre’s house, Le Petit Poucet uses his wit and acts once he realizes the Ogre is going to try to sneak in and kill them. The story unfolds this way:

Le Petit Poucet, who noticed that the daughters of the Ogre had golden crowns upon their heads, and who feared that the Ogre would become remorseful of his decision of not having eaten them that evening, got up around midnight, and took his brothers’ nights caps and his own, went very softly, and set them atop the heads of the seven daughters of the Ogre after removing their golden crowns that he placed atop the heads of his brothers and himself, so that the Ogre /would take them for his daughters and the daughters for the boys that he wanted to kill.

(« Le Petit Poucet qui avait remarqué que les filles de l’Ogre avaient des Couronnes d’or sur la tête, & qui craignait qu’il ne prit à l’Ogre quelque remords de ne les avoir pas égorgés dés le soir même, se leva vers le milieu de la nuit, & prenant les bonnets de ses frères & le sien, il alla tout doucement les mettre sur la tête des sept filles de l’Ogre après leur avoir ôté leurs Couronnes d’or qu’il mit sur la tête de ses frères & sur la sienne, afin que l’Ogre les prit pour ses filles, & ses filles pour les garçons qu’il voulait égorger. La chose réussit comme il l’avait pensé. »)

As you can tell in these scenes, Le Petit Poucet is definitely not a typical chatty, whiny protagonist in fairytales. He doesn’t have to say anything because his actions are what save him and his brothers. He plays the role of Harlequin and uses he uses his wit to escape death. In fact, in class we talked a lot about the power of speech in aristocratic France (a theme that comes up in other Perrault tales). So, here the fact that Petit Poucet attacks speech with action is interesting. What’s even more interesting is that when Perrault does write about what Le Petit Poucet says, he uses indirect speech, as though Perrault himself (and not the character) were talking to the characters in the story and the audience watching; there are only two instances in which Le Petit Poucet speaks directly to people in the story. The first is when he tells his brothers not to fear, he knows he will find their way home, “ne craignez point mes frères, mon Père &ma Mère nous ont laissez ici, mais je vous ramènerai bien au logis, suivez-moi seulement,” and the second time is when he addresses the Ogress and tricks her into giving him all of their family treasures. “Votre Mari, lui dit Le Petit Poucet, est en grand danger, car il a été pris par une troupe de Voleurs qui ont juré de le tuer s’il ne leur donne tout son or & tout son argent.” In both cases, his words merely deliver the plan that his clever physicality has helped him figure out. But this idea that Perrault puts Petit Poucet’s words in his mouth is interesting for another reason.

The Moral of the Story

Not surprisingly, the story ends pretty well for the wood sellers, but not for the ogres. The Ogre accidently kills his daughters instead of the wood sellers’ children in his house and Le Petit Poucet steals the treasures of the Ogre and gives it all to his own family. This theft seems to me to have a double meaning. When Perrault has Le Petit Poucet put on boots and takes from ogre, we can see him taking from the old aristocracy in France to give it back to the French people, represented in this case by Guillaume. On another note, reading for the commedia reference in the name Pierrot, we can also see this as a cultural commentary. The cannibalistic tendencies of the Ogre show a desire to take, literally to ingest different cultures. Perrault might then be said to be stealing from Italy (his appropriation of the name Pierrot and the physicality of Petit Poucet) and writing it off as his own. The thing is, theft is a slippery slope; once you start down that path, there is no going back. The idea that ingesting other cultures keeps causing more hunger is represented by the Ogre slitting his own daughters’ throats, effectively cannibalizing himself. The only children left in the story in the end are those that are capable of being changed by the different ideas they “steal” and disseminate. That could be Perrault’s way of talking about fairy tales: they are always cannibalizing and cannibalized.

At the end of the story, Perrault gives a disclaimer saying that not everyone agrees with Le Petit Poucet’s position on stealing. But he does not side either way with a judgment about how Le Petit Poucet gains his riches. This could be a way of saying that taking from other cultures is how French culture succeeded and rose to prominence in the seventeenth century. The moral comments more on theft, as seen through the words Perrault chooses to describe how “enfans” or children are judged by society. Perrault’s moral goes like this,

One is not saddened to have many children,

When they are so beautiful, well mannered, and very great,

And have an exterior that shines;

But if one of them is weak or does not speak a word,

They will despise it, they will mock it, and they will plunder it,

Sometimes however it is that little monkey

That will bring happiness to the whole family.

« On ne s’afflige point d’avoir beaucoup d’enfans,

Quand ils sont tous beaux, bien faits, & bien grands,

Et d’un extérieur qui brille ;

Mais si l’un d’eux est faible ou ne dit mot,

On le méprise, on le raille, on le pille,

Quelquefois cependant c’est ce petit marmot

Qui fera le bonheur de toute la famille. »

The phrase ”Un extérieur qui brille,” appears to be a reference to the ogre and their power, which represents the proud image of France.  The “marmot” in this story is Petit Poucet, who, because of his broth Pierrot and his habits, refers to Italy and its art.  It is as though French culture was nourishing itself on Italy, which gave it glowing skin and much happiness. And that’s just what Perrault did with these characters. He’s a kind of cannibal. Now that is something I didn’t expect to find out of this story. Finally, if this story is all about how Perrault enveloped Italy’s artistic ideas and used them as his own to please his readers, then we have to wonder what will happen when the “marmot” (Italy) comes around to steals his boots!