Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1038

Partly because France’s greatest comic prose writer was a legend even in his own lifetime, most of the facts of François Rabelais’s life remain hazy. A monk, doctor of medicine, and writer, Rabelais transferred from the Franciscan to the Benedictine order with the Pope’s express permission, because the latter order was more tolerant and more scholarly. The year 1532 found him in Lyons, at that time the intellectual center of France, where he published his first creative work, Pantagruel. As a satirist and humanist, Rabelais labored between the two religious extremes of Roman Catholicism and Genevan Protestantism; he had the mixed blessings of being attacked by Julius Caesar Scaliger, St. Francis of Sales, and John Calvin. All of them warned against his heretical impiety. Rabelais was, first and last, an iconoclast, but he attempted to be moderate in his views and writings. This may have made Rabelais unpopular with his more radical contemporaries, such as Martin Luther and Ignatius Loyola, but it also made him one of the most durable and most humane comic writers. As indecorous as his writings are, they also reveal a relatively conservative spirit; they show a sense of proportion and of human limitation in outraging both.

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In Rabelais, the spirit of comedy blends with the spirit of epic to produce a novel work without parallel or close precedent. The chronicles are quite inclusive, expressing the Renaissance ambition to explore and chart all realms of human experience and thought. The mood of the narrator matches the scope of the narration. Rabelais attributes his infinite exuberance to his literal and symbolic inebriation, which he invites his readers to share. His curiosity, interest in the things of this world, joy, and unpredictability are greatly enjoyable, as long as the reader is willing to be intoxicated by a distillation of strong wit and language. As a genre, the chronicles may be compared to other books of instruction so popular during the Renaissance—such as Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il principe (wr. 1513, pb. 1532; The Prince, 1640); Baldassare Castiglione’s Il libro del cortegiano (1528; The Courtier, 1561), and Roger Ascham’s The Schoolmaster (1570). They also have been considered a parody of medieval adventure romances. Gargantua and Pantagruel includes history, fable, myth, drama, lyrics, comedy, burlesque, novel, and epic. Its sources include sculpture, jurisprudence, pedagogy, architecture, painting, medicine, physics, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, theology, religion, music, aeronautics, agriculture, botany, athletics, and psychological counseling. All of these elements are thrown together with flair and abandon.

It is a consistency of mood that holds together this diverse and variegated work. That mood is not one of thoughtfulness, for Rabelais is no great thinker. The unifying idea, eternal in its simplicity, is the philosophy of Pantagruelism: “Do as Thou Wilt.” The world of Pantagruel is a world in which no restrictions on sensual or intellectual exploration can be tolerated; excessive discipline is regarded as evil and inhuman. In true epicurean fashion, Rabelais has no patience for inhibitions. People live for too brief a time to allow themselves the luxury of denial. The Abbey of Theleme is the thematic center of the work, with its credo that instinct forms the only valid basis for morality and social structure. Rabelais ignores the dangers of the anarchy this credo implies; he is talking about the mind, not the body politic. The dullest thing imaginable is the unimaginative, conforming mind. His satirical pen is lifted against all who lessen freedom of any kind in any fashion: hypocrites, militarists, abusers of justice, pedants, and medieval scholastics.

The reader of these gigantic chronicles, then, must not expect...

(The entire section contains 1038 words.)

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