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One of the works of the French poet Jean de La Fontaine is a collection of stories that's usually known as Contes et nouvelles en vers. It seems to me that this title implies that there was a difference between the genres called "conte" and "nouvelle". Indeed, if you read the book, you can see how the author explicitly called some of the stories "conte", while some others are called "nouvelle", but I don't understand why La Fontaine decided to make such difference.

Can someone explain what was such difference? Has it to do with the length of story?

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  • I've found the table of contents of this book by Tiphaine Rolland. Maybe there is some relevant information there.
    – Charo
    Mar 9, 2023 at 16:31

2 Answers 2

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It appears that the "contes" are written in regular verse and use an older diction, while the "nouvelles" are written in irregular verse, with rhyme scheme and meter varying in the course of the poem. I have not been able to read the Tiphaine Rolland book you mentioned in your comment, but a review in the Italian language by Federico Corradi of said book mentions in passing:

l’alternanza tra nouvelles in versi irregolari e contes in vieux langage risponde ad un’esigenza di varietà.

the alternation between nouvelles in irregular verse and contes in vieux langage responds to a need for variety.

Corradi, Federico. Review of L’Atelier du conteur. Les “Contes et nouvelles” de La Fontaine. Ascendances, influences, confluences by Tiphaine Rolland. Studi Francesci: Rivista quadrimesta fondata de Franco Simone Volume 60 No. 2, Issue 179, 2016. pp. 321–322. https://doi.org/10.4000/studifrancesi.4349. Quoted line is on p. 322. Translation mine and AYOR.

A glance at de la Fontaine's text does seem to confirm this. For example, the conte "La Clochette" ("The Little Bell") begins:

O Combien l'homme est inconstant, divers,
Foible, leger, tenant mal sa parole !
J'avois juré, même en assez beaux Vers,
De renoncer à tout conte frivole;
Et quand juré? c'est ce qui me confond,
Depuis deux jours j'ai fait cette promesse;
Puis fiez-vous à Rimeur, qui répond
D'un seul moment. Dieu ne fit la sagesse
Pour les cerveaux qui hantent les neuf sœurs:
Trop bien ont-ils quelque art qui vous peut plaire,
Quelque jargon asses plein de douceurs;
Mais d'être sûrs, ce n'est-là leur affaire.

Oh, how men are inconstant, variable, fickle, light, and poor keepers of their word! I had sworn, even in verses beautiful enough, to renounce all silly tales. And when did I swear this? That's what defeats me; I promised two days ago. Then put your faith in the rhymer, who is answerable only for a single moment. God did not make wisdom for the brains that the nine sisters haunt. They have far too much of some art that can please you, some jargon quite full of sweetness; but it is not their business to be reliable.

La Fontaine, Jean de. "La Clochette: Conte." Contes et Nouvelles en vers. 1665. Vol. 1. London, 1755. pp. 170–172. Lines quoted are on p. 170. Translation mine and AYOR.

The poem is fairly short compared to some of the nouvelles, and the rhyme scheme of abab is maintained throughout.

By contrast, "La Coupe Enchantée: Nouvelle tirée de l'Arioste" ("The Enchanted Cup: A nouvelle taken from Ariosto") is irregularly rhymed from the get-go:

Les maux les plus cruels ne font que des chansons
      Près de ceux qu'aux Maris cause la jalousie.
Figurez-vous un fou , chez qui tous les soupçons
      Sont bien venus , quoi qu'on lui die,
Il n'a pas un moment de repos en sa vie.
Si l'oreille lui tinte , Ô Dieux! tout est perdu,
Ses songes font toujours que l'on le fait cocu;
      Pourvu qu'il songe , c'est l'affaire.

The most cruel evils are mere songs when compared to those things that cause husbands to be jealous. Imagine a madman who welcomes all suspicions, regardless of what they claim. He has not a moment of rest in his life. If his ear rings, O gods! all is lost. His dreams are always that he is being cuckolded. And he believes that whatever he dreams is the case.

la Fontaine, "La Coupe Enchantée." Contes pp. 96–112. Lines quoted are on p. 96. Translation mine and AYOR.

The verse-pattern of these lines is not maintained over the rest of the nouvelle. It seems ad hoc, and subsequent lines follow equally ad hoc patterns. They are creative and delightful to work out, but not regular in the way of "La Clochette." And this nouvelle is considerably longer than that conte.

Insofar as these two poems are representative, they confirm Corradi's remark that the nouvelles are in irregular verse and the contes more formal. They also bear out your hypothesis that length is a factor in deciding whether a given poem is nouvelle or conte. Perhaps the strictly regular verse forms used in the contes make them unsuitable for more extended narratives.

However, all of this is only a hypothesis based on a hint in Corradi. I think Rolland's work would be most useful in supporting or disproving it, but since it has been some months and no answer has been put forward, I thought this might be better than nothing. Hopefully someone who has access to Rolland's monograph and/or is an expert on La Fontaine and/or has a more competent grasp of French (and, for Corradi, Italian), will provide a better answer soon.

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  • en vers is indeed in verse but a conte or une nouvelle are not usually in verse.
    – Lambie
    Jan 31 at 22:49
  • @Lambie since La Fontaine's clearly are, I'm not sure I understand your point?
    – verbose
    Feb 1 at 0:27
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    Here is an article in French discussing the major differences between the contes and nouvelles. Maybe, if I can throw off my laziness, I will translate the relevant bits. persee.fr/doc/lefab_0996-6560_2011_num_22_1_1204
    – Lambie
    Feb 1 at 15:43
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    This distinction—that contes have more regular verses and nouvelles more irregular—doesn't seem to hold up on inspection. La Fontaine calls Le Fleuve Scamandre a conte, even though it has an irregular rhyme scheme and lines of varying lengths (8, 10, and 12 syllables). The only difference I see is that nouvelles tend to be longer than contes (although not invariably—a few of the nouvelles have 500–1000 words, and the longest conte has over 1500).
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 3 at 3:48
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Both contes and nouvelles are short stories.

La Fontaine encompasses both of them under the term contes in his preface (bold mine):

J'avais résolu de ne consentir à l'impression de ces contes qu'après que j'y pourrais joindre ceux de Boccace qui sont le plus à mon goût; [...]

He later specifies nouvelle for twelve of the stories and only when they originates from a novella written by Boccaccio, Machiavel, Ariosto, or others.

He specifies conte for only four of the stories, two of which are ironically stated to be taken from Cent nouvelles nouvelles, showing these nouns used to be interchangeable.

The remaining eleven stories are not categorized in either type.

René Godenne, in Histoire de la nouvelle française (1970) states (bold mine):

La Fontaine confére a ses récits une forme, — la narration en vers —, à laquelle la nouvelle du XVIIe siècle ne recourt jamais. De plus, l’auteur, à la différence d’un Préfontaine marqué par les romanciers burlesques du siècle, vise a restituer, dans leur intégralité, le ton et l’esprit de la Renaissance. L’emploi du terme de « nouvelle », — exigé par la présence de « nouvelle » dans le titre des livres qui servirent de modéle a l’auteur —, est archaique. D’ailleurs, dès la deuxiéme édition des Nouvelles en vers, le terme de « conte », qui depuis 1600, désigne régulièrement les anecdotes plaisantes des recueils populaires, vient s’associer à « nouvelle » dans le titre : Contes et nouvelles en vers de M. de L.F., Les titres de trois éditions, celles de 1668, de 1674 et de 1676, ne comportent même plus que «conte ».

This supports the idea that La Fontaine only used nouvelles for the stories originally called in Italian novelle, but conte was what they would otherwise have been called in French.

Here is anyway what commonly distinguishes them in more recent French literature:

A conte is imaginary. It often starts with some vague information like Il était une fois. It can be transmitted both orally or in books. Supernatural symbolic events are possible. Well known types of contes are contes de fées (fairy tales), contes philosophiques, contes fantastiques, contes libertins, etc.

A nouvelle is a written realistic narrative. It looks like actual facts being related. Its characters might be well know people living well known events in well known locations.

A conte often has a moral while a nouvelle is more likely to have a chute (a punchline).

Note that La Fontaine most famous writings are neither contes nor nouvelles but fables. In fables, everything is openly invented, symbolic and happens in an imaginary world.

Ref.: Fables, contes, nouvelles. Liaisons poétiques

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  • Also, La Fontaine's contes and nouvelles are nearly always rather risqué, while his fables are for the most part suitable for children.
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 3 at 0:18
  • @PeterShor Yes, that also explains why the fables are much more known. Every French person studied several of them at primary school, often their first contact with French literature.
    – jlliagre
    Feb 3 at 1:37
  • Not just every French person; they were on the syllabus for high school French in India, where I learned the language.
    – verbose
    Feb 3 at 3:01
  • What you have write about the concept of conte seems to be supported by the following excerpt from the book La nouvelle française by René Godenne. It refers to the XVIII century, but it's probably the same at the time of La Fontaine.
    – Charo
    Feb 3 at 11:57
  • "Au XVIIIe siècle, « conte » est un terme qui s’oppose à « nouvelle » parce qu’il renvoie principalement à des types de narration distincts : soit une aventure fondée sur des incidents d’une autre nature (le conte de fées, le conte oriental, le conte allégorique), soit une aventure reposant sur un propos d’un autre ordre (le conte philosophique). Il est significatif que Sade utilise l’expression « conte allégorique » pour Rodrigue ou la tour enchantée, l’unique récit des Crimes de l’amour qui exploite une donnée fantastique".
    – Charo
    Feb 3 at 11:57

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