Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 446

AT THE SIGN OF THE REINE PEDAUQUE was the first of Anatole France’s many works to exhibit in full his peculiar talents. This tale is gusty in outline and overlaid with vast erudition in philosophy and in ancient history. In plot, the novel is reminiscent of TOM JONES, but the treatment is pure Gallic. France’s humor is always subtle and at times wicked. In the Abbe Jerome, he has created a memorable character, the fluent, scoundrelly cleric who becomes a sympathetic creation.

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The novel’s discreet mocking of the occult and its refined and occasionally lusty intelligence appeal more to the brain than the senses. France’s careful artistry and pure style are the perfect vehicle for his peculiar combination of sensitivity and irony. He disliked Romanticism and condemned the crudity of the Realistic school of fiction, and, indeed, there is little of either the romantic or the realistic in this or his other novels. He scorned prose that claimed profundity in obscurity, stating that a good style is complex but does not appear so. Clarity and purity were fundamental qualities of his art, and nowhere do these virtues stand out more admirably than in AT THE SIGN OF THE REINE PEDAUQUE.

The narrative and dialogue are both crowded with epigrams and witticisms, sometimes to the point of almost paralyzing what little action there is in the book. Jacques tells his own story with a strangely sophisticated innocence. Every aspect of life is intellectualized, from eating to lovemaking to battling the world for survival. Many of the monologues are short essays, and the dialogues between characters are more philosophical than dramatic. Whole discourses are presented on subjects such as the influence of food upon civilized history. Much of the talk that fills the book is humorous, and most of it makes its point sharply and bitingly. France was never a great inventor of incident in his fiction, and the value of this novel, as of so many of his, lies in the reflections and comments that fill its pages.

Influenced by the irony of Renan, the bitter wit of Voltaire, and the use of the eighteenth century setting of Denis Diderot, France attempted to interweave his tale of the adventures of the Rabelaisian, philosophical monk and his faithful follower, Jacques, with satire of quasi-magic and astrology; the story is filled with the irreverence that came to be its author’s trademark. France was steeped in borrowed thought and language, and his weak narrative construction reduces his plot in places to a kind of loping commentary, yet his grace and wit raise AT THE SIGN OF THE REINE PEDAUQUE to the level of high art.

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