It is the mark of an exceptional fable not only to illuminate the moral message it is intended to illuminate, but to do so in a way that reveals a deeper principle in the psyche. Aesop’s fable of “The Fox and the Grapes” teaches that “there are many who pretend to despise and belittle that which is beyond their reach.”1 Well and good in its intended meaning, the fox’s actions in the story subcutaneously reveal a certain working of the mind, a compromise between the conscious and unconscious brought about in a situation in which something desired is out of reach. In this compromise, Freud’s reality principle is satisfied only through a deliberately fantasized wish fulfillment. This wish fulfillment is similar to those constituting dreams, except that it is active in conscious thought, although not necessarily acknowledged by the conscious mind.
In this essay, I will make use of the public-domain English rendition of the fable published in The Aesop for Children and released by the Library of Congress:
A Fox one day spied a beautiful bunch of ripe grapes hanging from a vine trained along the branches of a tree. The grapes seemed ready to burst with juice, and the Fox’s mouth watered as he gazed longingly at them. The bunch hung from a high branch, and the Fox had to jump for it. The first time he jumped he missed it by a long way. So he walked off a short distance and took a running leap at it, only to fall short once more. Again and again he tried, but in vain. Now he sat down and looked at the grapes in disgust. “What a fool I am,” he said. “Here I am wearing myself out to get a bunch of sour grapes that are not worth gaping for.” And off he walked very, very scornfully [emphasis mine].2
It is from this fable that we get our idiom of “sour grapes,” and from this salient detail is my psychoanalytic interpretation derived. The grapes represent something wished for, and their being beyond the fox’s reach represents the unfavorable circumstances in reality that prevent the wish from being fulfilled. Now what is of interest is the fox’s verbal response to his inability to fulfill his desire. After making many attempts to obtain the grapes, the object of his desire, he suddenly pronounces that they are “not worth gaping for,” in fact, that they are “sour.” Now, how could he have known that they were sour? Of course, the point of the story is precisely that he doesn’t and this speech is just his way of consoling himself for the loss. Ostensibly, his scornful pronouncement expresses his desire turning into repulsion. The fact that this behavior was cast into a fable testifies to its universality and relatability.
But let us read into it a bit more. The only way that the fox could have known that the grapes were sour is if he had tasted them. Furthermore, the only way he could have known that they were “not worth gaping for” was if his efforts at obtaining them had succeeded, and he then had decided that the expenditure was not worth the reward. One does not say something was “not worth it” if that something had not been obtained in the first place. Both of the fox’s pronouncements, of the grapes being “sour” and “not worth it,” presuppose that he had been able to eat the grapes. In linguistics, presupposition is the species of semantic entailment that survives negation; with regard to the fox’s pronouncement, the fact of the grapes being eaten is not part of the at-issue content of the sentence, but is embedded within the truths already assumed in the sentence. To say “the grapes were delicious and worth the effort” and to say “the grapes were sour and not worth the effort” both require it to be the case that the grapes were, in fact, eaten.
What stands out about the fox’s pronouncement, therefore, is that it presupposes a fiction: The grapes, in fact, were not eaten. The pronouncement entails a fantasy. We can go further and say that it was the fact of his inability to obtain the grapes that prompted his “scornful” pronouncement in the first place. So the fox didn’t get the grapes, and his reaction was to say something that presupposed that he had indeed gotten the grapes. While ostensibly the pronouncement expressed the rejection of his desire for the grapes, embedded within the pronouncement was a claim of the fulfillment of that desire. In other words, his denial of the desire was the fulfillment of the desire. Although it appears that the fox surrendered to the reality principle by giving up trying to reach the grapes, by his accompanying comment he, specifically his unconscious, hallucinated, as it were, reaching them (in the way Freud theorizes an infant hallucinates its mother’s breast when hungry). A compromise was reached between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, with the former gaining the upper hand. The pronouncement of “sour grapes” is a Trojan horse, left on the shores ostensibly as a sign of surrender, yet containing hidden within it the agents of defeat. We see from this fable the workings of the unconscious that can be hidden within conscious thoughts.
The psychical phenomenon illuminated by this fable is present in examples given by Freud to illustrate dreams as wish-fulfillments. He cites several examples of counter-wish dreams, all of which depict fulfillment of one wish by the unfulfillment of another wish.3 There is the man who dreams of being arrested for infanticide; this expresses his wish not to have a child by his mistress. (Freud likens killing a child with preventing its birth). Then there is the instance, cited right after the previous, in which a physician of modest means dreams of being fined for income tax evasion; the wish is, of course, that he were wealthy enough to have income taxes to evade in the first place. Freud sums up these dreams with “the well-known story of the girl who was advised not to accept a suitor because he had a violent temper and would be sure to beat her if they were married. ‘If only he’d begun to beat me already!’ the girl replied. Her wish to be married was so intense that she was ready to take the threatened unpleasantness into the bargain, and even went so far as to turn it into a wish.”4 In all of these examples we see that there are two wishes involved, one which is overtly expressed in the dream and is unfulfilled (in other words, an otherwise unpleasant prospect is wished-for and fulfilled), and a stronger, covert wish that is fulfilled in the dream precisely by the unfulfillment of the first. Our fox is a dreamer of such dreams: he would have the grapes be sour if only he were able to reach them.
Our fox, however, did not properly dream. Rather, he made a conscious renunciation. Here we compare the fable to another instance that Freud mentions which will be most illuminating in regard to this distinction. A woman patient presented him with a dream of hers that seemed to contradict his theory of dreams as wish-fulfillments.5 The dream was that she wanted to give a dinner party, but had only smoked salmon and was unable to obtain any other food and had to abandon her plan. Analysis brought out the context of the woman’s life that brought this dream about: She was jealous of a woman friend, whom the patient’s husband held in particularly high regard. This friend, who was very thin, had expressed to her the wish of becoming plumper, and the patient’s husband happens to prefer plumper figures. Her husband himself was very stout, and had resolved not to attend dinner parties anymore for fear of the fattening food usually served at them. The smoked salmon in the dream identified the patient’s friend, whose favorite dish is smoked salmon. This much brought out the interpretation, which was that the dream expressed the patient’s wish that her friend’s wish to become plumper, which would make her even more attractive to the patient’s husband, would not be fulfilled. To this extent, the dream is equivalent to all the previous ones in which the unfulfillment of one wish was the fulfillment of another. Yet there is an additional detail, coming from the patient’s waking life, which adds another correlation. The patient’s own favorite dish was caviar, and she had been wanting to have caviar every day for some time, but would not allow her husband to buy it for her. This detail leads Freud to the additional interpretation, the dream being overdetermined:
“[I]t would not have been surprising if my patient had dreamt that her friend’s wish was unfulfilled . . . But instead of this she dreamt that one of her own wishes was not fulfilled. . . . [M]y patient put herself in her friend’s place in the dream because her friend was taking my patient’s place with her husband and because she (my patient) wanted to take her friend’s place in her husband’s high opinion.6
Here the patient’s primary wish was for herself, and not her friend, to be the object of her husband’s admiration, and the fulfillment of this wish entailed the unfulfillment of the secondary wish, which, in the dream, was for a dinner party and, in waking life, was for caviar. The unconscious wish the patient had been harboring had given rise to a symptomatic behavior in waking life, as well as to a dream. What stands out about this renunciation of caviar is that it was an active behavior in waking life, just as was the fox’s pronouncement of sour grapes. Both Freud’s patient and the fox consciously renounced something they otherwise would have desired. While one can have dreams deriving from an unconscious wish and, apart from interpretation, not know head or tail of their import—thus the nature of dreams—it should seem more difficult to make a conscious statement, as the fox did, or even maintain a conscious attitude, as the patient did, while unaware of the motivations behind them. And yet this kind of ignorance is not unfamiliar in Freud’s work. In “Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through,” he says that “forgetting impressions, scenes or experiences nearly always reduces itself to shutting them off. When the patient talks about these ‘forgotten’ things he seldom fails to add: ‘As a matter of fact I’ve always known it; only I’ve never thought of it.’”7 It is not that the patient doesn’t know, but that he knows subconsciously, but will not allow the thought to break into the conscious. When a patient cannot bring a repressed memory into consciousness, he will act it out in some way. We see that actions absolutely can be motivated by reasons unknown to the conscious. Indeed, in the case of the smoked salmon dream the patient initially explained her renunciation of caviar as a way to tease her husband, which explanation Freud found unsatisfactory. The patient had to make up a reason for her peculiar behavior, as the real reason was repressed.
But why was her jealousy repressed? Surely a wife as every right to be jealous over her husband. I don’t think she was trying to deceive her analyst so much as herself. To repress the motives behind her behavior, to deny her own jealousy, stemmed from a wish that she had no cause to be jealous to begin with. But in fact, Freud mentions that she herself knew her jealousy was unjustified. Here I appeal to the reader’s experience to say that jealousy is not an emotion that submits to logical justifications in the first place. And so the repression of the motivation behind her renunciation of caviar arose from the very same wish that motivated her renunciation in the first place. She wished to be loved by her husband in place of her friend, and so dreamed that she had taken her friend’s place as well acted it out in real life. For the same reason, she repressed the meaning of her acting it out in real life, since she would rather not have reason to be jealous in the first place. So the repression—the unfulfillment—of a wish can not only be the fulfillment of another wish, but can also be the fulfillment of the very same wish.
And yet there is something about this analysis that doesn’t sit well. Should we content ourselves by dismissing jealousy as irrational? If we agree that she wishes that she had no reason to be jealous and that, in fact, she acknowledges that her jealousy is unjustified, why is she jealous in the first place? She goes to the effort to dream such complicated dreams and make unconsciously motivated renunciations in real life, all of which express her jealousy, only to repress them in a way that confirms their validity. She plays the fox very enthusiastically for the grapes, her husband, who, in reality, is not at all beyond her reach. There is no mention of marital tension between the couple aside from the wife’s jealousy; Freud says that she was “very much in love with her husband,” and that “her husband would have let her have [her caviar] at once if she had asked him.”8 I’m making these assumptions in order to bring forth a yet deeper interpretation of this dream, this time including the actions surrounding it as part of the material, which is not mutually exclusive with the previous interpretations. Let us assume that the object of the patient’s unconscious wish is not her husband, but her jealousy over him. The patient has an unconscious wish, driven by the pleasure principle, to be jealous over her husband. She is then given opportunity to be jealous over him: He admires her friend, who wishes to become more attractive to him. She spots the grapes. And yet she is unable to reach them, as she knows that there is no reason for her to be jealous; her husband is faithful to her. The reality principle, reinforced by her wish to be loved by her husband, forces her to concede that her jealousy is unfounded, and so she puts it out of mind. It’s not worth thinking about. In fact, the prospect is so ludicrous that it would only happen in a dream. That night she has a dream in which a wish of hers is unfulfilled. And so she goes to Freud and says, “‘You’re always saying to me . . . that a dream is a fulfilled wish. Well, I’ll tell you a dream whose subject was the exact opposite—a dream in which one of my wishes was not fulfilled. How do you fit that in with your theory?’”9 Ostensibly she is arguing for the absurdity of dreams, which would ensure the safe disposal of her jealous wish. But on another level, she seems to be insisting that, although Freud (echoing her ego) has been telling her that her wishes are all fulfilled (i.e. that her husband loves her), her wishes are in fact not fulfilled, indeed, that she has reason to be jealous over her husband. She would have her husband love someone else if only she could be jealous over him. This, after all, is the revival and repetition of penis envy in an adult woman. (It also affords another interpretation of the caviar: She would have it as though her husband didn’t love her enough to buy her caviar every day.) The patient has projected her ego onto Freud, and herself acts out the part of her repressed wish, which, lacking another outlet, expresses itself in a way unrecognizable to conscious minds. (This dynamic with the analyst may reveal a particular parent-child dynamic from her past.) Although putting her wish into a dream appeals to the reality principle, her act of arguing ends up appeasing the pleasure principle, whose fulfillment this time, in true Freudian fashion, we have traced back to her infantile sexual conflicts.
The application of the fox fable is not limited to such circuitous lines of inquiry that may or may not hold water. It can be seen in the most everyday behaviors. When a child, being prompted to try a new food, declares that he hates it before tasting it, he is making the same compromise that the fox makes. When someone sees, for example, a piano virtuoso and says “I couldn’t do that if I practiced for twenty years,” he may be wishing that he did not lack the persistence to master such a difficult skill, since the only way he could really know that would be if he had actually tried for twenty years. When a college graduate claims to have forgotten everything she learned in school, she could be really wishing that she had learned enough to have something to forget. When someone negatively stereotypes a group of “others” based on a few negative examples, saying “they’re all such-and-such,” he may be expressing the wish to actually be able to know every individual of this group, which as an unknown body poses such a psychological threat. In all these instances, the speaker claims a fact which on its own is undesirable, but which satisfies a more primal urge. For who would really want to believe himself a natural failure, or that an entire group of people were really so awful? It can be a helpful exercise to identify and remedy these unfortunate compromises in our psyches.
- Aesop, “The Fox and the Grapes,” The Aesop for Children: with Pictures by Milo Winter, (Chicago, IL: Rand, McNally & Co., 1919), http://www.read.gov/aesop/005.html?
- Aesop, “The Fox and the Grapes.”
- Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, translated by James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 179-181.
- Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 181.
- Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 171-175.
- Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams,173-175.
- Sigmund Freud, “Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through,” The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XII, Translated by James Strachey, (London: the Hogarth Press, 1924),148.
- Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 172.
- Patient quoted in Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, 171.