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Literature / The Grasshopper and the Ants

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Art by Milo Winter
"The Grasshopper and the Ants" is a famous Aesop's Fable, whose allegorical stars are the high-living, fancy-free Grasshopper (sometimes called the Cicada) and the solid, industrious Ants of the anthill.

In midsummer, the days are bright and warm. The Grasshopper hops from place to place, singing n' fiddling all the day long. Henote  makes fun of the ants, who waste the sunshine by working from dawn to dusk. They either coldly ignore him or warn that his pleasure will be paid, one way or another. Heedless, the Grasshopper plays on. Autumn comes with harvest time, and though the days grow shorter, there's food in plenty, and the Grasshopper is as adamant as before that there is plenty of time.

Jump Cut to wintertime; the days are short and cold and there's not a bite of food to be found. The Grasshopper, shivering and starving, sees that in the anthill there's plenty of warmth and food. He knocks at the door and begs to be let in, and some versions include him offering to play music (or teach music to the ants' children) in exchange for food and shelter. Three different endings are possible:

  • The original ending has the ants tell the Grasshopper that he should have prepared during the summer. Now that it's winter, let him sup on songs and dine on dancing. They slam the door in his face, leaving him to die in the snow, because everyone should reap what they sow.
  • An often-utilised rewrite has the ants, satisfied the Grasshopper is repentant, take pity on him and bring him into the hill. He plays for them, and while the Grasshopper learns a lesson about hard work and responsibility, the Ants learn to have fun and loosen up, because neither extreme is healthy.
  • A notable third ending, written by Jacques-Melchior Villefranche, has the ants turning the Grasshopper away, but shortly after his departure the anthill is wiped out in a freak snowstorm. Now homeless and desperate, the ants beg shelter of their neighbors, the Honeybees. The queen of the honeybees at first repeats to them their own heartless words to the Grasshopper, and then lets them into the hive, where the Grasshopper is already providing music and being sheltered. The lesson here is the same as the above ending, with the added twist that the best laid plans can be wrecked by chance, so have compassion on others - you'd want the same for yourself.

The tale was the inspiration for the film A Bug's Life, and also inspired a Silly Symphonies short from Disney.


Tropes:

  • Adaptational Nice Guy: In many more modern adaptations, the ants will take pity on the Grasshopper and offer him food and shelter for the winter so long as he repents. Expectedly quite prevalent in the Disney Silly Symphonies version, where even beforehand, some of the ants like the Grasshopper and his music.
  • Adaptation Species Change: Depending on the country the story is told, it's either a Grasshopper or a Cicada.
  • All Work vs. All Play: The Ants represent All Work, while the Grasshopper represents All Play.
  • Amicable Ants: Zig-zagged. The ants are portrayed as virtuous and diligent because they work hard to prepare their colony for the winter, in contrast to the lazy grasshopper who mocks them for working all the time. However, when the Grasshopper begs them for shelter in the winter, the ants turn him away, leaving him to die. It is understandable why they would refuse to help the one who showed no kindness to them, but it is still rather cold and uncaring on their part. Because of this, some versions use an alternate ending where the ants do let the grasshopper in, saving his life and changing his heart.
  • An Aesop: Naturally, there's a moral taught at the end, but remarkably, this story's Aesop changes quite dramatically depending on who's telling it.
    • In the original ending, the message is that lazy people deserve to starve. The ants repeatedly warned the grasshopper that he'd run out of food in winter if he wasted his time on song and dance, and end up laughing at his plight when he begs them for food.
    • Nowadays, most schools usually go for a less morbid ending where the grasshopper is spared, which adds an extra moral about showing compassion to those who need it.
    • The Disney version's ending, where the ants demand the grasshopper earn his keep through song, implies the aesop "Art is work too."
  • Beast Fable: The grasshopper represents creative, bohemian types (or useless freeloaders, depending on your view), and the ants stand in for folks who work hard at boring jobs.
  • Break the Haughty:
    • The cocky and lazy grasshopper is left cold and starving during the winter. Even in the takes where their pleads to the ants are met, they are clearly humble and remorseful.
    • The ants suffer this in the Villefranche version where they undergo a role reversal due to a snowstorm taking their own supplies from them. They are made to beg to the bees the same way the grasshopper had them, and are only let in after they repent their selfishness from before.
  • Deconstruction: Disney seemed to be fond of playing around with this story:
    • The original Silly Symphonies adaptation has the worker ants taking pity on the Grasshopper (having held a fondness for his music beforehand). The Queen Ant harshly notes only those who work can share their keep...so the Grasshopper can play for them.
    • A Bug's Life had a darker deconstruction. The film's Grasshoppers just mug the ants for their food every winter, and are probably inspired heavily by locusts. The story revolves around the ants mustering an army to stand up to them. However at the end, one of the Grasshoppers, Molt, leaves his former life of decadence to work in the circus as a strongman, because anybody is capable of change.
    • The Tigger Movie has a light retool of it as a side story. The other animals are too busy helping Tigger with his personal dilemma to prepare for the winter. The hard working Rabbit scolds them for this, but when things worsen he takes pity as well. For their loyalty however, Tigger afterwards supplies for them, compromising the two endings to show both sides can come out better looking out for each other.
    • In a Russian joke, based on Ivan Krylov'snote  poem, the grasshopper (a female) passes the ant during the winter while she is wearing a fur coat and he is working hard wearing a torn coat and boots:
      Ant: Hey, Grassy, where are you going?
      Grasshopper: It's boring, so I decided to go to some club, I heard there are all kind of famous writers assembling there today.
      Ant: Listen, if you see Krylov there, tell him he's a bullshiter.
    • On The Muppet Show, Sam the American Eagle tries to tell the story in an attempt to provide some socially redeeming content to the show, constantly praising the ant while scorning the grasshopper. He is then surprised and disgusted when this version ends with the grasshopper moving to Florida and the ant getting stepped on.
    • Stewart Lee tells a version called The Ant and The Man. Here, the ant works hard all summer and then dies in the winter anyway because it's an ant. Ants have very short lifespans.
    • Futurama gives us Fry's unique take on the story.
    Fry: It's just like the story of the grasshopper and the octopus. All year long the grasshopper kept burying acorns for winter while the octopus mooched off his girlfriend and watched TV. Then the winter came, and the grasshopper died, and the octopus ate all his acorns and also he got a racecar!
  • Disneyfication: Many modern adaptations prefer the outcome of the ants taking pity on the Grasshopper and offering him shelter for the one winter, but with the stern warning to work for his living from now on. In some others, the Grasshopper suffers the winter, but lives to learn from his mistakes and prepare for next winter.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: The original ending in which the ants leave the Grasshopper to starve. Certainly disproportionate if the reader sees the Grasshopper as sympathetic, especially if the Grasshopper had offered to be a music-teacher to the Ants' children — which anyone will notice, is honest work for honest pay.
  • I Warned You: The Ants, usually regardless of which ending is used, will still be sure to remind the Grasshopper to learn from his previous misgivings.
  • Karmic Death: In versions where the Ants refuse to aid the Grasshopper and are meant to be seen as sympathetic, the Grasshopper dies as a direct result of his own sloth.
  • Language Drift: Leading to a kind of Dub-Induced Plot Hole, in Ivan Krylov's Russian version mentioned above (and other Russian translations of that time), the word used for the Grasshopper is Strekoza (probably to avoid She's a Man in Japan) - a word which could be used for a grasshopper then, but to day means exclusively Dragonfly - an insect that not only is a ferocious predator that could hardly be accused of any laziness, but also does not "sing".
  • Laser-Guided Karma:
    • Regardless of which ending, the grasshopper's comeuppance is meant to be this, his laziness leaving him with no preparations for winter.
    • Villefranche's ending involving the bees has the ants have their home destroyed after they rejected the grasshopper. Much like the more sympathetic ending for the grasshopper, they are let in, but only after their callous words are thrown back at them and they repent in the cold. Adding even further karma, the grasshopper they had kicked out? He's chilling just fine with the bees.
  • Meaningful Echo:
    • In the Silly Symphonies short, the Grasshopper sings the song "The World Owes Us A Living" (a theme later used for Goofy), which reflects his laidback lifestyle. Once he's allowed to stay with the ants in exchange for entertaining them, he changes his tune (most of his lyrics, actually) to "I Owe The World A Living", which now reflects his resolution to work hard.
    • Villefranche's ending has the bees repeat the ants' harsh words to the grasshopper after they ask for charity. After the ants show remorse however, the bees are satisfied and let them in.
  • Nice Guy: Both the bees in Villefranche's ending and the ants in the more sympathetic ending turn out to be charitable and empathetic (even if they do sternly remind their subjects of their flawed ways).
  • No Sympathy: The Ants in the ending where they offer no help for the Grasshopper. These days it is often seen as apathetic to leave some schmuck to die on principle he was lazy and unprepared.
  • Order Versus Chaos: The Ants are Order, the Grasshopper is Chaos.
  • Romanticism Versus Enlightenment: The hedonistic Grasshopper is Romanticist, while the practical-minded Ants are Enlightened.
  • Slobs Versus Snobs
  • Starving Artist: The Grasshopper at the end. In turn, the symbol of the Grasshopper or Cicada is frequently joined to characters who are bohemian but vulnerable to the cruel world.
  • Winter of Starvation: In the winter, the Ants are drying their corn and the Grasshopper asks them for a few grains because he is very hungry. They ask why he didn't put away food during the summer, and he answers that he was so busy singing that he didn't have time. To that, they say, "If you spent the summer singing, you better spend the winter dancing."


Alternative Title(s): The Cicada And The Ants

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