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.
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