Chagall Illustrates La Fontaine’s Fables: The Young Widow
In the fable of the Young Widow, La Fontaine satirizes the tendency of the young to wallow in their passions. In this fable, a young wife whose husband has just died plunges into mourning as if she’ll never be happy again. Seeing her so distraught, the young woman’s prudent father tells her not to indulge in this unbounded grief, but to “live for the living, not the dead.” He then mentions that at the proper time he can propose a suitable second husband for her, but to this the young widow only sighs, “Alas! The cloister vows befit me better than a spouse.” But nevertheless, within a year the widow is unrecognizable; she has abandoned her mourning clothing and taken up her old habits of dancing and laughing with friends and suitors. But even now her father is silent about his offer of a second husband, and so the young woman is forced to broach the topic herself: “‘Where is that youthful spouse,’ said she, ‘Whom, sir, you lately promised me?’” La Fontaine ends the fable with the young widow’s question, leaving us to wonder at the fleeting nature of our most extreme emotions.
In the etching above, Chagall shows us the young widow in the throes of intense grief. But he has rendered her expression so that she seems strangely removed from the scene at hand. The young woman’s face is turned upward and away from the viewer, as if she is in a state unknowable and inaccessible. Her eyes gaze longingly upward, her lips are parted; this might very well be the moment in the fable in which she exclaims, “My love, O wait for me! My soul would gladly go with thee!”
Chagall’s etched lines seem to spill over into one another. He depicts the widow clutching her handkerchief, her hair hanging loose. At first glance, she seems to have utterly abandoned herself to her grief. There is certainly a frenzied character to her state, but at the same time she seems strangely aware of her grief, and in some way, removed from it. This really is a strange portrait of grief; it seems to have an element of ecstasy in it. The young widow is not experiencing pure anguish, but perhaps reveling in the very degree to which she grieves. Chagall has captured the intensity of the passion she feels, which,when juxtaposed with her humorously matter-of-fact request to remarry at the end of the fable, shows us just how susceptible we are to indulging in the very extremes of our emotions.
Sophy Schulman — St. John’s College Student