Rhetorical Analysis of a Beast Fable by Marie de France
Select a beast fable by Marie de France, as translated by Harriet Spiegel. Summarize the narrative and moral in your own words, then conduct an analysis of the rhetorical strategies that Marie employs to achieve a particular aim in her telling of the fable. How does she craft her message to persuade and appeal to her reader? How and why might the particular animal figures she chooses generate specific associations for her audience? How does the form (genre and rhetorical structure) of the fable affect the way you understand both the story and its intended moral (the content)?
Your final paper will be between 3–4 pages in length (no more than 5) and will be worth 35% of your writing grade. For the purposes of this assignment, you will treat Spiegel’s translations of Marie de France’s fables as the primary source.
- Make specific, clear, arguable claims
- Produce unified, cohesive body paragraphs that contain arguable topic sentences and well-selected evidence from the primary source
- Adopt the appropriate stance, style, and genre conventions of rhetorical analysis attending to the author’s situation, purpose for writing, intended audience, and use of persuasive appeals (logos, pathos, and ethos)
- Develop summarization skills to discern between poetic and prose renderings of a narrative
- Practice process-oriented writing and learn flexible strategies for generating, revising, editing, and proofreading drafts while also reflecting on the process of writing itself
Before you begin brainstorming for this assignment, make sure you have read the following:
- Marie de France. Fables (Prologue, Fables 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11a, 11b, 13, 14, 15, 16, 19, 37, 74, 97, 102, 103, Epilogue). Translated and edited by Harriet Spiegel. University of Toronto Press, 1994.
- Beauchamp, Tamara. “Rhetoric and The Writing Process.” Humanities Core Handbook: Animals, People, and Power 2020–2021. XanEdu, 2020. pp. 121–30.
- Davis, Rebecca. “Genre.” Humanities Core Handbook: Animals, People, and Power 2020–2021. XanEdu, 2020. pp. 21–9.
- Garceau, Ben. “Translation and Transmission.” Humanities Core Handbook: Animals, People, and Power 2020–2021. XanEdu, 2020. pp. 30–40.
- Fogli, Giovanna. “Generating Claims and Structuring a Paragraph.” Humanities Core Handbook: Animals, People, and Power 2020–2021. XanEdu, 2020. pp. 145–63.
- Short, Gretchen. Part One of “Chapter 15: Integrating Evidence and Citing Sources.” Humanities Core Handbook: Animals, People, and Power 2020–2021. XanEdu, 2020. pp. 164–7.
The Writing Process
The first essay assignment you will undertake in Humanities Core is a rhetorical analysis of a beast fable by the 12th century poet whom we know in modern times as Marie de France. As you learned in “Rhetoric and The Writing Process” chapter of the Humanities Core Handbook, the capacity to analyze what makes a given strategy in speech or writing effective and persuasive—that is, to understand a text’s rhetorical strategy—is foundational to critical reading and writing at the university. The purpose of this assignment is for you to focus on a single primary source in detail and to explore how a poet crafts her message with a particular purpose in mind so as to appeal and persuade her presumed audience (or readership).
Identifying Marie’s rhetorical situation presents certain challenges, however, in part because we know so little about who Marie was or where and when exactly she lived and wrote. You may have noticed that scholars refer to the author not by her last name “de France,” but rather by her first name, Marie. This is because the name Marie de France, or “Marie of France,” is based on nothing more than a single line of self-identification in the Epilogue to the Fables: “I am from France, my name’s Marie” (257). This line, along with the fact that the poet writes in French, would certainly suggest that she was French; however, the oldest manuscripts of her work originated in England. Marie makes consistent reference to English words in her writing, and the spelling, punctuation, and textual formatting (orthography) of these earliest manuscripts are typical of Anglo-Norman culture. This would suggest that Marie lived in England in the 12th century, which was occupied and ruled by French invaders from the duchy of Normandy. The fact that Marie was a French-speaker who was educated in Latin would suggest that she was part of an elite ruling class and was possibly an aristocrat or a nun. The latter suggestion is supported by the strong ethical valence of her fables, which seem committed to the ideals of a Christian religious community.
So just because Marie is anonymous doesn’t mean we can’t come to know things about her, as R. Howard Bloch argues in The Anonymous Marie de France. “[A]ny attempt to deal with her anonymity,” Bloch writes, “must proceed internally, via an interpretation of the works associated with her” (339). While these fables are surely meant to instruct, they are also amusing and sometimes bawdy. As translator Harriet Spiegel observes, Marie’s fables are “marked by wit and sympathy, a biting social commentary, and a point of view that can be seen as distinctly feminine” (3). Close examination of the fables reveals their author’s
…compassion for the less fortunate characters, and frequently points to the urgent need for a system of justice that treats everyone fairly. Marie had a particular interest in the political and economic conditions of her day. Many of her fables describe these conditions directly; others convey an attitude of irony, skepticism, and even pessimism about the world, particularly in the often condensed and cryptic morals of the fables. (Spiegel 5–6)
In this assignment, your task will be to unpack some of the commitments of Marie’s work through a careful rhetorical analysis of a beast fable of your choosing. To analyze literally means to “loosen” something in Greek, to begin pulling it apart. Though you may not pull it apart completely, destroying its structure, by loosening it up you can begin to understand its various parts and how they fit together.
The first step in this analysis will be to choose a beast fable. It may be one of the selections that Professor Davis assigned alongside her lecture, but it could also be any other animal-related fable of the 103 collected in the volume. Your seminar instructor may prohibit you from writing about one of the fables that Professor Davis explicates in detail in her lectures; in any case, you must do more than reconstruct a faculty lecturer’s interpretation to succeed in the writing assignments in Humanities Core. You may wish to browse the table of contents and read over fables concerning animal figures that interest you. Make sure that you find the fable you choose to be interesting and rich, as you will be spending a good deal of time with it. Your seminar instructor may provide you with specific instructions about how to conduct your prewriting for this assignment; what follows are some guidelines for rhetorical analysis that work well for many students.
Re-read the fable and take notes on how the story told relates to the moral at the end. Now write, in your own words, a literal summary of the fable in prose. One way to think about this task is to imagine that as you summarize the story in your own words, you are pouring water (the story) from one bottle into another. Although the contents of the two bottles are the same, the shape, color, and material of the two bottles might be quite different. In the same way, the summary you have written, though it tells the same story, will be different in shape from Marie’s fable.
In a creative way, then, you have begun to analyze, “to loosen” the form of the fable from its narrative content. The next step will use a different kind of mental power: your ability to compare. What kind of differences do you see between your summarized version of the story and Marie’s full poetic fable? An obvious difference will be that your version is unlikely to rhyme or be written in verse. But what other kinds of differences do you notice? Does Marie provide descriptions of characters, or places, or things? Does she slip into direct discourse by quoting the words of any of the characters? Does she indulge in asides, talking about herself as a writer instead of about the story she is telling? Examine the length or brevity with which Marie describes the events. Why does she give more space on the page to some things, and less to others? Does she utilize amplification (embellishment through the addition of further information), abbreviation (shortening or condensation), or emphasis (special or significant stress by means of position or repetition)? What other kinds of differences do you notice? Each of these discrepancies between your version of the story and Marie’s is a rhetorical choice on the part of the author.
Now it is time to think deeply about these rhetorical features. What kind of work are they doing for the reader? Think about ethos, pathos, and logos here, just as you would for your own writing. Does the fable include any sections that bolster Marie’s credibility or authority as a poet? How does Marie manipulate the emotional responses of her audience? Do you get the sense that we are meant to identify with one of the characters more than another, for example? Are any of the actions described in such a way as to give us a sense of their importance or triviality? Finally, how does the logic of the fable proceed? Return to your notes about the connections between the story and the moral. Do you think the moral is supported by the events of the story? Or do you think the argument or reasoning breaks down or is suggestive of a different moral takeaway? What might that alternative moral be?
You might also consider the rhetorical situation that Marie was writing in and how it differs from our own. Using what you have learned from Professor Davis’s lectures, think about how Marie’s fable might relate to the courtly audience for whom it was likely written. What kind of expectations might that audience have had about specific animal figures (your reading of the medieval bestiary might be useful here), or about the genre of the fable? How might our own expectations differ? Does it seem that the fable is intended to educational or entertaining? Or both? Is there a political or economic motive to the moral? What system of governance or social organization is reflected in this world? How does it differ (or correspond) to our own?
Last comes the hardest part. By re-combining what you have analyzed in this fable, make a complex, specific, and arguable thesis about how the rhetorical pieces fit together in relation to the narrative content. Take all of the evidence you have collected in your analysis, and organize a set of sub-claims to support your main thesis. Rather than simply describing these differences, push them to form an interpretive argument about meaning or intention. We have no reason to believe that there is anything haphazard in the way Marie composed her fables. If each formal decision was purposeful on Marie’s part, how do you think this form (the rhetorical structure) affects the way you understand the story and its intended moral (the content)? Finally, be specific to the fable you have chosen. You may find that Marie’s rhetorical moves help you to connect the moral to the narrative, or that your emotional response frustrates or hinders such a connection. It is up to you to decide whether these effects are in turn complicated by the vast gap between Marie’s century and your own.
Merely establishing that Marie makes rhetorical choices is not a sufficient claim for this assignment. Ultimately, your essay must establish what the speaker of the fable is describing and postulating about ethical comportment in her world (summarization), how Marie establishes this meaning at the level of rhetorical strategy, and why it is written in just that way (interpretation). Your interpretive claim (thesis) should convey how the form of the text generates its meaning. This assignment is where you will begin to develop strong humanistic claims and organized body paragraphs. This will happen over multiple drafts that receive peer and instructor feedback, so be prepared to invest time and energy in the process of revision.
Bloch, R. Howard. From The Anonymous Marie de France. Marie de France Poetry. Edited and translated by Dorothy Gilbert. Norton, 2015.
Spiegel, Harriet. “Introduction.” Fables by Marie de France. University of Toronto Press, 1994.