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The Sweetest Fig

by Chris van Allsburg


The Sweetest Fig introduces questions about empathy, cruelty, respect, greed, and control.

Monsieur Bibot, a Parisian dentist, is given two magical figs as payment from one of his patients. The figs make Bibot’s dreams become a reality. Bibot tries to control his dreams before eating the second fig in order to become the richest man in the world. His dog Marcel eats the fig first, thwarting Bibot’s plans to become the richest man in the world. Bibot angrily chases Marcel around his apartment and then under the bed. Annoyed, Bibot goes to sleep. The next morning Bibot wakes to find he has become the dog and Marcel, the new master.

Read aloud video by Kimberly Robinson

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

The Sweetest Fig is a book that introduces many philosophical ideas without a clear definition at first. Upon deeper investigation, many notions of issues such as empathy, cruelty, respect, greed, and control arise. What is respect and kindness, and why are they important? Is it healthy to try and control everything around you? What are the dangers of greed?

Societies are complicated structures, and quite often, people forget to ask themselves basic questions about what is truly important to them and why. Talking about concepts of right and wrong can be valuable in developing critical thinking skills. What constitutes “respect”, and why is it important to treat others a certain way? Respecting other people fosters mutual respect and creates a beneficial relationship for everyone involved.

When Bibot and Marcel trade places as dog and master the issue of empathy comes into play. Do you think Bibot regrets the way he has treated Marcel in the past? Why is it important to look at someone else’s point of view or “put yourself in their shoes”? Many people will agree that it is a good practice to envision how your actions will affect someone else. Asking the students if they have ever felt victimized by a person who didn’t think they were being disrespectful is a way to explore this idea. Also, asking what they would have done if roles were reversed could help them understand others’ actions. This part of the discussion can lead to an exploration of issues such as social equality and fairness. Some philosophers believe that all individuals should be treated equally in certain aspects such as race, religion, gender. Equality ties well into the issue of why respecting people is important.

Once Bibot figures out that the figs are indeed magical, he focuses on how to control his dreams to become rich. People often mistake or misplace what truly makes them happy. The question “Does money guarantee happiness?” leads to asking what type of things do people value and why they value them. Should Bibot spend so much effort worrying about getting what he doesn’t have? Is it possible to have lofty goals yet still be satisfied with what you already have? Suggesting the importance of evaluating one’s goals to conform with their own values could help to provide greater motivation to achieve those goals by remaining “true to yourself.”

By discussing how Bibot might think of himself when he sees himself through their eyes, students can explore abstract issues such as self-worth. Self-worth is another issue that can be brought up by asking a question such as, “What do you admire about other people?”, “What do you like about yourself?” and “Why do you think Bibot is so concerned with becoming rich?.”

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

Before Reading

  1. What do the cover and/or title lead you to believe this story will be about?
  2. Do you know what a fig is?
  3. If so, can you explain the texture, flavor, etc.?
  4. Do you know what Bastille Day is and who celebrates it?
  5. Did you know the name Marcel in Latin means “little warrior”?
  6. Have you ever been to France? The Eiffel Tower?
  7. What French things do you know?

Section 1: Monsieur Bibot, the old lady, and the magical figs.

  1. Do you think Monsieur Bibot is a kind person? To Marcel? The old lady?
  2. What makes someone “kind”?
  3. Why does Bibot keep his home and office so clean? Being clean is good, but does Bibot’s level of cleanliness represent controlling behavior?
  4. Why do you think Monsieur Bibot was mad when the old lady tried to pay him with “magical” figs?
  5. How would you feel if someone tried to pay you for a job with something other than money?
  6. How does Bibot treat Marcel? Why do you think he treats him this way?

Section 2: Monsieur Bibot, the delicious figs, and his dreams.

  1. If the fig weren’t delicious, how would you feel about not getting paid?
  2. How does money make you feel? Does it feel better to have a lot of money than a little?
  3. What do you think of people who have a lot of money? Why?
  4. Are there more important things than money? What are they?
  5. Does money guarantee happiness?
  6. Why do you think Bibot wants to become the richest man on earth?
  7. What is a dream?
  8. Have you ever dreamed of being rich?
  9. What makes someone rich? Is Bibot “rich” by your definition?

Section 3: A reversal of fortune as Marcel eats the last fig.

  1. Why do you think Marcel eats the last fig?
  2. Do you think Marcel knew that the fig was magical?
  3. What lesson do you think Monsieur Bibot will teach Marcel?
  4. Why does Marcel wish that he was Monsieur Bibot?
  5. How would you feel if you switched places with your pet?

After Reading

  1. How did the end of the story make you feel? Why?
  2. What do you think happens next?
  3. Knowing the outcome of the story, do you now feel the magical figs were a fair trade for Bibot’s services?
  4. Do you think Marcel was a “little warrior”? Why or why not?
  5. Have you ever treated someone poorly and then felt remorseful afterward?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion archived here. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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