Rabelais’s five-volume story of Gargantua and Pantagruel satirizes many aspects of Renaissance life, but among all the topics satirized within this tale, Rabelais focuses on the classes, especially royalty and the upper classes. The main royal protagonists, Gargantua and his son Pantagruel, are actual giants within the story. Gargantua and his parents are initially described as gluttons who consume endless amounts of food and spend unfathomable fortunes on clothing, housing, and other items. Although the upper classes are born to privilege, Rabelais points out that being born privileged does not make one smart or well-mannered, which is why Gargantua is portrayed as an ignorant, disgusting, uncouth whelp who must strive hard to obtain good manners, discipline, and education. Pantagruel is raised with better manners, but Rabelais satirizes Pantagruel to show an example of how members of the upper classes often associate themselves with less than deserving followers. Pantagruel’s best friend, Panurge, for instance, is a truly despicable man, yet Pantagruel supports him and rewards him with land and titles.
While it has been 500 years since the initial publication of Rabelais’s stories, the humor is still quite prevalent, even though it is of the lowbrow nature. One of the main elements of humor ties to the sheer size of the main characters. As giants, they can accidentally almost eat people, urinate rivers that drown people, and fart with such force that they create life. Like most Renaissance stories, these tales also include a lot of humorous sexual innuendos, especially jokes that make derogatory statements about female body parts, which create a crude form of humor. Many of the sexual innuendos are often lost on modern audiences, since innuendos play on words or sounds that may have once been associated with sexual slang words, but those words are no longer in use. Other elements of humor include pranks, particularly the ones that Panurge pulls on his unsuspecting victims. There are also many jokes that are told at the expense of Friar John, specifically, or at monks in general. These jabs at the clergy make sense to Renaissance audiences, because within the Catholic religious structure, monks and friars were often considered as lewd and abrasive individuals, since they had the legal right to beg publicly for money and food.
Marriage and Cuckoldry
Books three through five focus on the concept of marriage and whether it leads to cuckoldry. Panurge presents the more misogynistic view on these topics, and argues that women always give in to temptation, citing that Eve gave in to temptation, which led to the Fall. Although Panurge and many other characters promote this blaming and shaming of women strategy, Panurge also admits that he fears he will be cuckolded as some sort of karmic retribution, for he himself has slept with many married women, making cuckolds out of their husbands.
Fear of cuckoldry also highlights how men are uncomfortable with their inability to control women’s bodies, since the main reason that cuckoldry is an issue is because it can lead to illegitimate children. Blaming women in regards to cuckoldry also points to a change in the perception of women, in that they are no longer just objects, but that women also have the power to make decisions, and those decisions may not always agree with the decisions of the patriarchy.
Throughout this discussion of cuckoldry, Rabelais also reveals various viewpoints about marriage in the Renaissance. On the religious side of the argument, one had to be married in order to get to paradise. In addition, if a man married a virtuous woman, he would never have to worry about her being unfaithful. As a pessimistic man absent of faith, and as a man who does not trust women, Panurge cannot accept the idea of a virtuous woman. Pantagruel expresses that there is always a choice to either get married or stay a bachelor, but he does not promote either option, thus pushing the humanist perspective of choosing one’s own future. Gargantua, representing the older generation, pushes the ideal of arranged marriages, which did still occur at this point in the Renaissance, but this was also the time when people were starting to marry for love instead of fortune and political connections.
Absence of Women
Throughout the entire five-volume collection, there is a significant absence of women. Very few female characters are even given names. Of the named females, once those females fulfill their duty for the plot, they disappear. Gargantua’s mother, Gargamelle, gives birth to him in the most horrific way, somehow survives, and then nothing is said about her until Gargantua returns home. Pantagruel’s mother, Badebec, dies in childbirth. Gargantua significantly mourns the loss of his wife, but he nonetheless decides to focus on his son and resolves to find his son a new mother. Entelechy, the Queen of Whims, mysteriously disappears from Pantagruel and his companions the moment she is no longer needed in the story. One of the few women who plays a somewhat more important role in the story, the priestess Bacbuc, is a female who has no interactions with the outside world and instead stays underground, metaphorically in the womb of the earth, providing divine guidance to weary travelers.
The absence of woman reflects a highly masculinized world, which might explain why the story shows more warfare and horrific violence. This perspective also indicates how, during the Renaissance, certain spaces often excluded women. These spaces included, but were not limited to, places of education, sailing ships, and the battlefield. The spaces identified for women or as effeminate within these stories seem restricted to those associated with childbirth, child rearing, nunneries, brothels, or secluded religious spaces. There are spaces where Queens are in power instead of Kings, but these are often islands far removed from the Western world, and are, for the most part, fictitious, which further underscores this theme of pushing women away and only calling upon them when they are absolutely needed for their physical functionality, (childbirth or sex), or for including the foreign presence of Otherness, (e.g. monarchies in foreign lands or divine oracles).
Meaning of Names
Nearly all of the names in the Gargantua and Pantagruel stories are chosen deliberately, because of their significance and how those meanings affect the story in either realistic or darkly humorous ways. For instance, Pantagruel’s name means that “all are thirsty,” since he was born during a time of great drought. In addition, several times throughout Pantagruel’s adventures, there are instances where his companions experience great thirst in his presence, or where enemies are destroyed by their thirst. According to the Online Entomology Dictionary, Gargantua is a word of Portuguese and Spanish origins, meaning “gullet” or “throat,” and Gargantua also shares its root with the word “gargle,” which also refers to actions of the mouth. Gargantua’s name fits him well, since he is born to two gluttonous individuals, and since he himself is initially raised to be a glutton. Many of both Gargantua and Pantagruel’s comrades have names that are descriptive of the roles they play in the story. Gymnast, for example, is the most athletic of the group, and his name means “trainer of athletes,” per the Online Entomology Dictionary. Although he did not train Gargantua as an athlete, he did train Gargantua to ride horses and to fight as a soldier, which are athletic feats. Many of the fictitious location names created by Rabalais, especially in Books Four and Five, play with word meanings and puns to produce satirical metaphors.
Not only is classism expressed within the characters portrayed in the books, but Rabelais’s approach to his five-volume story creates a classist effect that presumes a particular type of reader. The classism expressed within the characters is not uncommon to Renaissance literature, in that the more noble characters are of the upper classes. As a satire, each of the classes are exaggerated, especially the worst traits of each social class or vocational class. Since the story has a mixture of the feudal medieval setting and the Renaissance educational setting, many classes are represented, reflecting the changes in the class structure that occurred during the Renaissance. There is an idealistic class representation, though, which implies that Gargantua and Pantagruel, kings and princes of their own lands, would both associate freely with individuals far below their social class. There is also the aspect that those who are not born of a particular class, but are nonetheless highly educated, can rise above their social standing, which also reflects the changes in social structure for this period of history.
Rabelais’s classism is seen in the way he frames the story and how he tells it. He uses excessive amounts of Latin phrases and legal jargon. Whether his use is humorous or not, only audiences with training in these forms of discourse would understand his humor. He also makes references and allegorical comparisons to mythological stories of antiquity. During the Renaissance, some of these stories were well known, for they became proverbial sayings or were portrayed in plays for the masses. For the most part, however, Rabelais’s use of these references implies that he expects his audience to be well versed in classical literature. Thus, Rabelais’s classism and elitism promotes his works as suitable only for the educated classes. It is therefore not surprising that Rabelais uses education as a way to civilize Gargantua and to improve Pantagruel.
Quest for Discovery
The last three books depict Panurge questing to discover his answers about whether marriage always leads to being cuckolded. In the third book, his quest remains spatially limited to locations within a reasonable traveling distance. As he visits each person, Panurge repeats a particular pattern, which includes giving the party a specific gift, and then, upon acceptance of that gift, he asks the party several questions. Throughout his quest displayed in the third book, Panurge meets with several different people, including a witch, a master of the divination arts, a dying man, a deaf man, a fool, a doctor, a religious scholar, a lawyer, and a philosopher. He also converses with his companions concerning his question. Each individual that addresses Panurge’s question uses a different methodology for analyzing the question and providing an answer, and these methodologies reflect the characters themselves. For instance, Pantagruel insists that Panurge try the Virgilian lottery, for it is how learned men throughout the ages have dealt with difficult decisions, and Pantagruel greatly respects the learned men of history. Epistemon, the scholar of the group, suggests that Panurge take counsel with a master of the divination arts. Although Epistemon’s suggestion may seem peculiar for his character, his recommendation does reflect a scholarly methodology, in that Epistemon believes that one must systematically try all acceptable options for finding answers before giving in to unacceptable options, such as seeking out a non-Christian oracle.
In a typical quest for discovery, the hero does not usually find a suitable answer until the climax of the story or toward the end. In this satire, however, Panurge discovers the answer early on, but he refuses to recognize it as the real answer, since it is not the answer he wants. Thus, instead of ending his quest for discovery in the third book, his quest continues on in the fourth and fifth books, and his quest transforms from a discussion with colleagues to an epic voyage halfway around the world. As the voyage represents a satiric mirror of Odysseus’s voyage, Pantagruel, Panurge, and their companions meet a full array of people from different cultures, just like Odysseus. Although the third book showed Panurge asking practically everyone he met about whether he would be cuckolded after marriage, in the fourth and fifth books, Panurge does not seem to tell anyone outside of his circle of friends about the goal for this epic quest of discovery. His companions tell people that they are venturing to Lantern Land, so perhaps people know about the oracle at that location, and therefore they can assume that Panurge or one of his companions is in search of answers. Upon completing his quest and discovering the oracle, Panurge receives an answer that he likes, and therefore he accepts it as absolute fact. Pantagruel points out the foolishness and folly of his friend, but Pantagruel nonetheless allows Panurge to believe that the quest for discovery was successful.
Gargantua and Pantagruel Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Gargantua and Pantagruel is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.