Although not the first of Rabelais’s novels published, Gargantua begins the chronological adventures of the giant family. It promises to chronicle the life of the hero, as in the hagiographies (sacred biographies, or edifying lives of the saints) widely circulated in monasteries. It begins as a parody of these testaments to piety, inverting their conventions. Thus, instead of addressing the devout, it singles out different readers: glorious drinkers and chasers after love—especially those within the church.
Yet deeper meanings emerge. The persona through which Rabelais speaks, Alcofribas Nasier, is a mock-scholar, caught in his cups; his academic specialty is drinking. This characterization creates more fun but hints at hidden meanings. Rabelais establishes a parallel between Nasier’s dialogue and the dialogue form of Plato’s Symposium, which is also based on drinking party conversation, which contained Socrates’ teaching on love. He also repeats Alcofribas’s description of Socrates, which contrasts Socrates’ rough physical exterior with his rich internal wisdom. This book also has unexpected depths.
That these depths remain unexpected is a tribute to Rabelais’s art, for on the surface not much happens. After the prologue, Gargantua is conceived and born, clothed and fed. He travels to Paris for several “gigantic” experiences. He exposes abuses in the system of education and proposes a new method. Returning to the countryside, he encounters a cake sellers’ war, a dispute expressed in epic terms. Gaining control, Gargantua distributes provinces to his comrades but cannot find a place for Friar John, a renegade monk and his henchman. For him Gargantua creates the Abbey of Thélème, a fantasy community of personal freedom and self-realization. Rabelais inserts verbal games of every description: parodies of scholarly prose, satires on legal and social practices, comic verse, monastic jokes, academic jokes, dirty jokes. Some of the book remains undeciphered to this day, and much requires explanation, but Rabelais’s humor and vision of humanity suffering from repression make the book rich.