François Rabelais World Literature Analysis
Rabelais remains a great unread master; as time passes, he seems doomed to become still more obscure. The past, as a great literary historian noted, grows increasingly remote: People become progressively less able to project themselves into it. Yet more lies in the character of Rabelais himself. Living at the dawn of the “modern” (his age invented the term and the concept), he pioneered what today is considered “game fiction,” fiction that refuses to take itself seriously, rejecting the assumption that fiction “represents reality.” This fiction presents rather than represents, and what it presents is a parallel universe in which commonplace expectations are suspended. It simply does not make sense, or not in the usual way. Yet, in not making sense, it opens readers’ eyes and minds to possibilities previously unseen and unthought; it reveals deeper realities beneath the surfaces. The work of Rabelais anticipates surrealism, stream of consciousness, and metafiction.
In terms of conventional plot, not much happens in Rabelais’s fiction; in terms of conventional characters, his figures are caricatures, stick figures. In fact, plot and character are pretexts for exploiting comic, satiric, and linguistic possibilities. He simply makes fun of everything: his characters, their lives, their society, the church, the whole preposterous busyness of life, and the habit of taking oneself too seriously. The most important thing in life is having a good time; the most important virtue is the good humor that makes for good times.
Rabelais’s fictional starting point illustrates his ideas perfectly. Following a tradition begun by Plato in Symposion (388-368 b.c.e.; Symposium, 1701) and imitated by many classical writers, Rabelais uses the drinking party as the fictional opening. In Plato, this became a convivial, civilized, erudite conversation. Rabelais turns it into a drunken romp, a conversational brawl. He uses the persona or mask (imagined personality) of the wine-sodden monk-scholar Alcofribas, a reincarnation of the Goliard, the social student who drinks and wenches and sings instead of studying. Rabelais takes this undergraduate radical antiestablishment pose as the norm. From this start much follows. Like the Goliards, Rabelais concludes that license is a law unto itself. That is, humans pursue excess. All that counts is recognition; the one with the most toys at the end wins. The pagan motto was “Carpe diem!” (“Seize the day!”) It is a continuing precept.
Rabelais, however, is mostly paying lip service to this way of living. His real hero—the hero of four of the five books, who embodies most of his philosophy—is Pantagruel. Although Pantagruel certainly is earthy and physical, he principally demonstrates Pantagruelism. Rabelais nowhere defines this quality, but it combines generosity, loyalty, fellowship, and love—the feeling that binds a group together. One aspect is team spirit, and much of it appears in different aspects of play in the books. The spirit of play and the impulse to playfulness constitute the Rabelaisian universe.
Rabelais plays with everything: He takes little at face value, and less seriously. Making fun is the common act of society in the book, from the drinking party at the beginning to the oracle of the bottle at the end. Some of it is mere fun; but the rest subverts whatever prevents fun, self-expression, freedom, and wholeness. Subversion is integral to Rabelais’s technique: He does so to rectify and purify, to get clear of interference and constriction. He is a great humorist, but he is a greater humanist and reformer.
Yet Rabelais is not easy or straightforward. He is easily the most cryptic, confusing, perverse, and apparently obscure major European writer before the twentieth century. Even where he seems transparent, he can prove baffling. For example, the common interpretation of his giant-heroes held for more than a century and a half that he had adapted folklore about an epicurean giant and folk hero. Late twentieth century research, however, has discovered no such folklore. Rabelais invented the character of the friendly, convivial, monumental swiller and good guy. The folklore followed—and continues today as...
(The entire section is 1745 words.)