Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1745
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...
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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 team mascots (the New York Giants, warriors on the battlefield but sponsors of charities) and as commercial hucksters (the Jolly Green Giant).
Thus opposed interpretations abound, and scholars still disagree, even about Rabelais’s themes. Sometimes the disagreement is basic: Equally reputable critics have maintained that he is simply a buffoon and a sage and sober moralist, or that he is neither, or both. One famous example occurs at the end of the Third Book, where Pantagruel prepares his expedition to the Sacred Bottle. Rabelais inserts a panegyric on the herb pantagruelion, an indispensable item in the cargo. If it is anything botanical, it is hemp; but this plant possesses remarkable properties not normally attributable to hemp—for example, a mineral form. Questions follow: What does it mean? Why does it hold this crucial position in his most significant book? If it is so important, why does he drop it?
Rabelais devotees typically dismiss objections of this kind, giving the response that Louis Armstrong gave those asking him to explain jazz: If you have to ask, you cannot understand. In this case, Rabelais is spoofing the inflated descriptions in botanical manuals, often puffed up to promote a wonder drug just brought from the Indies—tobacco, for example, or hemp itself. Yet Rabelais probably has more in mind. The Third Book examines the just society; pantagruelion is termed an instrument of justice (most obviously because the best ropes for hanging are hempen), and the book’s central question is whether Panurge should get married. Hemp may provide the answer. Rope-guided sails may lead him to the oracle; rope may hang him, rendering the question moot; or the asbestos form may insulate him against burning, making marriage unnecessary. Rabelais endures because he continues to provoke interpretation. Besides, he is funny.
First published: 1534 (English translation, 1653)
Type of work: Novel
The giant Gargantua, the patron saint of revelry, is conceived, born, and educated, comes of age, and conducts a successful war.
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.
First published: 1532 (English translation, 1653)
Type of work: Novel
The son of Gargantua, Pantagruel essentially relives his father’s life: He is born a giant, is educated, and launches a campaign against the Dipsodes, the Chronically Thirsty.
Like Gargantua, Pantagruel has an elaborate introduction by Alcofribas, but it is less allusive and revealing because it is written earlier. Accordingly, this book has less unity and thematic integration. Yet it is, in the end, more important, since it lays the foundation of the series and characterizes Pantagruel and Panurge, who dominate the later books.
The structure of Pantagruel parallels that of Gargantua, although the two are absolutely different in detail and incident. The opening recounts the hero’s birth and upbringing. Both heroes are appropriately enormous; Rabelais devises ingenious techniques of feeding and clothing them. Finally seeking his own education, Pantagruel visits many of the leading universities, exposing outmoded educational methods. After exploring the libraries of Paris, he receives a letter from his father containing Gargantua’s prescription for education. Rabelais drops the ironic mask and gives advice that is more than sound: He suggests educational reforms at least a century before their time.
In Paris, he meets Panurge, the archetypal graduate student as social climber and sidekick. Together, the two expose a series of academic humbugs, in the process accumulating a gang of sympathizers. Hearing that the Dipsodes are overrunning Utopia, Pantagruel feels fated to establish order there. To do so, he designs a successful campaign of schoolboy ingenuity. At the end, Pantagruel must administer his conquest, including distribution of wine.
Tiers Livre (1546; Third Book, 1693), book 3 of Pantagruel, superficially continues the latter, but it actually departs radically in format and structure. It is Rabelais’s masterpiece. Rabelais drops the mask of Alcofribas and speaks in his own person. He can do this because the book has the privilege of the king—that is, the author has immunity from prosecution. He begins with the unfinished business of Pantagruel, disposing of it quickly to address its central topic: the querelles des femmes, or woman question, the major literary and social controversy of the mid-sixteenth century. A number of circumstances had combined to alter the perception and the role of woman and the function of love in marriage. Rabelais examines this by depicting Panurge as suddenly obsessed with marriage. He wants a guarantee of female fidelity. This obsession directs the rest of this book and the two following. Book 3 reaches no conclusion, but it ends with the description of pantagruelion, which humans should cultivate in order to live happily.