With its mixture of satire, burlesque, and fantasy, Penguin Island resembles Voltaire’s Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759), 1947 and Thornton Wilder’s play The Skin of Our Teeth (pr., pb. 1942). Like Candide, Anatole France’s episodic novel is a reasoned attack upon unreason. Unlike Voltaire’s work, which ridicules philosophical error for the most part, Penguin Island attacks the absurdities that have fastened onto human customs and institutions.
For its flights into fantasy and its ambitious attempt to explain the course of civilization in terms of a burlesque of history—past, present, and future—Penguin Island also may be compared to Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth. Both works turn history into myth, comment with tolerance upon human follies, and suggest that a dim, ambiguous purpose ultimately controls human destiny. Wilder’s comedy, however, is essentially optimistic and melioristic; in spite of natural and social disasters, his message is that the human animal will not only survive but also actually improve its lot in the universe. France is pessimistic. He believes that humanity’s course is cyclical, not linear. By the conclusion of Penguin Island, the human race has reached the apex of its scientific and technological advances, after which point it retreats into barbarism. The future of Penguinia is not much brighter than its past; every movement forward is succeeded by a step backward, until the cycle is repeated endlessly. Whatever divine force operates in the universe, France seems to believe, its machinery—just as its intelligence—is beyond understanding. However, the author, always amiable, treats a doomed humankind with kindly tolerance instead of scorn. Although his satire occasionally has a cutting edge, he is more often the gentle ironist than the stern moralist. France exposes folly but does not castigate the foolish.
The two great subjects for his satire are the follies of human customs and institutions. The author analyzes the conventions of woman’s role as opposed to her nature, as expressed throughout history—or through mythologized French history, France’s particular field of investigation. Her “real” nature, France believes, is that of sexual temptress, concerned only, or mostly, with the satisfaction of her physical needs. The blessed Maël, for example, creator of the race of Alca, describes woman as a “cleverly constructed snare” by which a man is taken before he suspects the trap. Moreover, Maël opines that, for vulnerable man, the imagined sexual lure of a woman is more powerful than her real body....
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