François Rabelais is universally regarded as one of the major figures in the Western literary tradition, in the company of Dante, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, and Miguel de Cervantes, yet he is more often praised than read. Indeed, in the judgment of scholar Mikhail Bakhtin, “Of all the great writers of world literature, Rabelais is the least popular, the least understood and appreciated.”
The difficulty of Rabelais, the quality that discourages many modern readers from making headway in his work, is not the strategic obscurity of a James Joyce or an Ezra Pound; rather, it resembles the difficulty that one experiences in “getting” a joke, the humor of which is not immediately apparent. To read Rabelais is essentially to laugh, but humor is notoriously elusive, dependent on a wide range of local cultural assumptions and linguistic practices and thus quick to be lost in time and in translation. Here, there is a comparison with Shakespeare: One vein of Shakespearean humor, closely related to the humor of Rabelais, is accessible to the modern reader only via scholarly explication of wordplay, allusions, implicit cultural assumptions, and so on, but Shakespeare remains highly readable even when many of his bawdy puns, for example, are entirely missed.
The difficulty in grasping the spirit of Rabelais’s jokes, their underlying intent, is confirmed by ongoing critical debate. Even such a fundamental issue as Rabelais’s attitude toward Christianity and the Church has been the subject of bitter controversy. Throughout Gargantua and Pantagruel there are frequent satiric jabs at the rites and institutions of the Church. While Rabelais ridicules monasticism and the Papacy, however, and while his parodies of Christian ritual could be deemed sacrilegious if not blasphemous, he stops short of the open atheism of the Enlightenment.
Critics such as Abel Lefranc have argued that Rabelais was in fact a thoroughgoing rationalist who, unable to express his convictions openly, presented them in a humorous guise. According to such critics, Rabelais thus anticipated the skepticism of the Enlightenment. On the other hand, critics such as Lucien Febvre, who devoted a massive volume to a refutation of Lefranc, have argued that Rabelais’s satire was directed against institutional abuses of the Church, not against the heart of Christian belief.
Although such questions may never be definitively resolved, one helpful approach to Rabelais’s humor is that taken by Bakhtin, who places Rabelais in what he calls the carnival tradition, a tradition of folk humor with roots in the ancient past, encompassing such festivities as the Roman Saturnalia and still vital in the Middle Ages: “Celebrations of a carnival type represented a considerable part of the life of medieval men, even in the time given over to them. Large medieval cities devoted an average of three months a year to these festivities.”
Bakhtin suggests that it is Rabelais’s indebtedness to this folk tradition, an expression of popular culture still largely unexplored by literary scholars, that accounts for the relative failure of modern readers to appreciate his work. In the carnival atmosphere, all of the sacred values of medieval society were parodied in a ritualistic manner—often with the full participation of the clergy. Rabelais’s humor is thus characterized by the systematic inversion typical of carnival: parody, blasphemy, gross physical images, and so on.
By placing Gargantua and Pantagruel in this context, Bakhtin shifts the emphasis from an interpretation of Rabelais’s values—that is, the personal beliefs informing his work—to the folk tradition of which his work was the supreme expression even as it marked the decisive break between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages.
Gargantua and Pantagruel
Rabelais’s Renaissance spirit is nowhere more apparent than in his style, an overflowing fountain of verbal exuberance, a rich compound of slang, odd words, jargon of the various professions, interminable lists, and other heterogeneous elements. Gargantua and Pantagruel is full of puns that are difficult to translate: service du vin/service divin (the wine service/the divine service); Grandgousier’s name, from Que grand tu as (gosier) (What a big gullet you have); or Epistemon, who has la coupe têtée (his chop headed off).
This exuberance is also evident in Rabelais’s characterizations. Although he created types rather than flesh-and-blood people, his characters are unforgettable. Grandgousier, the progenitor of the illustrious family of giants, is the most shadowy. He appears as the noble lord, just and forgiving after the Picrocholine Wars and a good father to Gargantua. His son is curious, witty, garrulous, and loving. After the beginning of book 2, Grandgousier appears rarely, but always with concern for his son. Pantagruel, Gargantua’s son, is the real hero of the story. After a well-delineated education, he becomes a kind lord, and his earlier wit changes to wisdom. Perhaps the best-portrayed characters are Friar John and Panurge. Friar John is the garrulous monk who always has something of the cloister about him; kind, generous, and witty, he enlivens all the adventures from the Picrocholine Wars to the voyage for the Divine Bottle. Panurge, the...
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