Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2204
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 perpetual trickster and inventor of farces, changes his character in book 3 to that of a man caught in a dilemma: to marry or not to marry? To choose action or inaction? There are few female characters in Gargantua and Pantagruel; they are limited to Gargamelle, Grandgousier’s wife, and Badebec, Gargantua’s wife, who dies as she is giving birth to Pantagruel. Basically, the story is a very masculine one; as in the medieval farces, women are little more than bearers of children and objects of sexual desire.
Although published two years after Pantagruel, in 1534, Gargantua is known as book 1 because of its chronology. Gargantua is the father of Pantagruel, and the book tells of his miraculous birth, adolescence, education, and maturity. The prologue describes a silenus, a little box for rare drugs, which Rabelais compares to Socrates, and indeed to his own work: ugly from the outside but precious on the inside.
After Rabelais has made a Genesis-like presentation of Gargantua’s genealogy, birth, and naming, the reader learns his first words: à boire (drink), symbolic of the thirst of the Renaissance man for the new learning. Much of book 1 is concerned with education; the critic Thomas M. Greene considers its essential theme to be the process of development in the young giant as he progresses from the “random equality of childhood experienceto poise and sophistication without losing his capacity for naïve joy.” First educated in a haphazard manner by the Sophists, he is purged by Ponocrates and learns more by ear than by eye to integrate all activities—physical, mental, and spiritual—and grow from chaos to discipline and from ignorance to truth and justice.
A lengthy episode treats the wars between Picrochole, King of Lerné, and Grandgousier, Gargantua’s father, a noble and peace-loving lord. Lefranc sees historical and biographical material in this unjust war, as it takes place around La Roche-Clamard, near Seuillé, in Rabelais’s native Chinon. As the war progresses, Friar John of the Funnels, the vibrant and impetuous monk, becomes Grandgousier’s staunch ally. In the words and actions of Friar John, one finds some of Rabelais’s finest satire of the monastic life he knew so well.
In recompense for his help in the war won by Grandgousier, Friar John receives the Abbey of Thélème, Rabelais’s ideal for an elite community. This semiutopian monastery, modeled on the château of Bonnivet, admits both men and women of outstanding physical and moral traits, inviting them to spend their time in pursuit of culture and eventually to leave and marry. It is governed by only one rule: “Fay ce que voudras” (do what you wish). An enigmatic inscription in poetry concludes the book and invites the reader to continue the search for truth in the Renaissance spirit.
Book 2, Pantagruel, is the least coherent of the first four volumes. It reveals the author’s unmistakable style and wit and gives promise of more adventures in the future. As in Gargantua, Rabelais traces the genealogy of Pantagruel in a burlesque parody of the Bible and Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (77 c.e.), as he emphasizes his hero’s gigantic appetite and prodigious strength. Because Pantagruel will later liberate himself and others from the bonds of ignorance, he frees himself as a child from the constraint of his cradle.
Education plays an important role here also, especially in chapter 8, in which Gargantua tells his son Pantagruel to become “an abyss of knowledge.” Pantagruel also tours the famous universities of his day: Toulouse, a center of dance and fencing; Montepellier, noted for its wine; Avignon, for its women; Bourges, for its poor laws; and Angers, which he avoids because it is infested with the plague. He visits libraries, which Rabelais uses to satirize many spiritual texts and the immoral lives of those who read them.
In book 2, Pantagruel meets Panurge, who is to become his friend for life. Panurge is one of a long line of picaros; he introduces himself in many languages, a performance typical of his pranks, which, as Greene observes, “mingle in various measures humor, cunning, perversity, creative inspiration and malice.” Rabelais describes Panurge as proper-looking, a bit of a lecher, always short of money (which he always finds by cunningly perpetrated larceny), and a perpetual trickster. His clever and often crude tricks form much of the wit of books 2 and 4.
In the courtly tradition, Panurge and Pantagruel go off to battle in Utopia, where Gargantua has been transferred by the fairy Morgue. Rabelais seems to return to the spirit of the cronicques as he ends his disjointed but highly original portrayal of the giants.
In contrast to the looseness of book 2, book 3 is the most unified of the entire series. In the prologue, Rabelais compares himself to Diogenes, who, though physically unfit for war, rolled his tub so as not to appear lazy. In the first six chapters, Panurge appears as the traditional spendthrift; having inherited an estate, he rapidly squanders his inheritance on feasting. In the remainder of the book, he engages in lengthy discussions on whether to marry. Many critics trace Rabelais’s treatment of marriage and cuckoldry in book 3 to the medieval farces; others, such as Greene, see the search for truth and the importance of action as forming the real subject of the book.
Panurge consults various sources to resolve his dilemma: the sortes vergilianae (a book of Vergil opened at random), a fortune-teller, the poet Raminagrobis, the magician Herr Trippa. All give him the same response: If he marries, he will be cuckolded, beaten, and robbed. The theologian Hippothadée encourages him to choose someone like Solomon’s “valiant woman”; the doctor Rondibilis tells him of woman’s foibles; the philosopher Trouillogan has no definite answer. After a final consultation with the fool Triboulet, no more satisfactory than all the others, Pantagruel convinces Panurge to consult the Oracle of the Divine Bottle in Cathay. Thus, the stage is set for the adventures that occupy books 4 and 5.
In book 4, inspired by the accounts of navigation so prominent at the time, especially those of Jacques Cartier, Rabelais composed the travelogue or odyssey of his heroes—a fantastic account of imaginary places and allegorical people, filled with the marvelous and touching on science fiction, such as the frozen words that melt and begin to speak. There are many realistic allusions to Rabelais’s own day, such as the Decretals, the base of canonical jurisprudence; the officers of law and justice, portrayed in the Chicanous; and the wars between Protestants and Catholics, symbolized by the battle with the Andouilles.
Rabelais also satirizes perennial vices such as gluttony and its opposite, a sterile asceticism based on pride rather than on genuine piety. Panurge reassumes the character of the trickster and in a famous episode drowns the sheep of the avaricious merchant Dindenault. The travelers have not reached the Divine Bottle by the end of book 4, but Rabelais’s imagination and invention are here at their height.
Originally published posthumously as L’Isle sonante in 1562, book 5 differs so radically from the preceding ones that critics today still question its authenticity; it is bitter, rambling, and far less creative than its predecessors. In it, the story of the navigation continues through many more fantastic islands.
The Isle Sonante (ringing island), with its perpetually clanging bells, is inhabited by birds that resemble men and women and whose names refer to the clergy and members of religious orders. The Chats-fourrés (furry cats) are the officers of the Parlement of Paris, who refused Michel de l’Hospital’s proposal for an edict of toleration for the Protestants. The Apedeftes, or ignoramuses, are the tax collectors and clerks in the counting houses.
After many other such adventures, the travelers finally reach the Divine Bottle and admire the magnificent temple in which it is located. The priestess Bacbuc invites Panurge to hear the long-awaited pronouncement, which consists of one word: “Drink.” The priestess has another word of wisdom: in vino veritas (in wine is truth). The engimatic conclusion has as many interpretations as there are critics, for essentially it tells readers to interpret their own destinies for themselves.
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