THE TIMES THEY ARE A CHANGIN': RABELAIS' USE OF SATIRE AND HUMOUR AS DEVICES IN GARGANTUA AND PANTAGRUEL FOR A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF THE TIME HE LIVED IN AND HIS OWN SELF











SHAONI RAKSHIT
B.A, THIRD SEMESTER, COMPARATIVE LITERATURE, 3.2: LITERATURES OF THE EUROPEAN RENAISSANCE











When it comes to the subject of the dissection of the European Renaissance, one of the first names to do the rounds of the intellectual corpus is that of Francois Rabelais. One of the most prominent figures of the French (and European) Renaissance, Rabelais has dabbled in genres like grotesque realism, fantasy, and satire. Such is his imprint on the world of literature, that the word ‘Rabelaisian' exists in the Merriam Webster dictionary, defining the word as: "of, relating to, or characteristic of Rabelais or his works. 2: marked by gross robust humor, extravagance of caricature, or bold naturalism."1
His pentalogy of novels - Pantagruel, Gargantua, The Third Book of Pantagruel, The Fourth Book of Pantagruel, The Fifth Book of Pantagruel - is the work he is most associated with, and it is not without reason. A well layered series of novels, there are multiple plotlines that are tweaked by Rabelais to converge as per his creative and intellectual liking.
Rabelais expertly explores the discourse on Renaissance society and the aspect of dislocation experienced by Humanists like himself through Gargantua and Pantagruel. Through the aid of mediums like hyperbole and humour, a satirical fashion is adopted by Rabelais as he analyses the facets of the age he lived in. Additionally, he incorporates in this analysis, his own dilemmas concerning Humanism. By delving into such an introspective text, there is a certain discernment that is gained about not just the larger corpus of the pentalogy of novels, but also Rabelais' personal understanding of the time he had observed in his work.
Prior to taking apart Gargantua and Pantagruel for inspection, it is crucial to understand Rabelais' psyche that prompted his individual use of satire as a theme. Born at the cusp of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Rabelais was introduced to a vast tumult of ideologies that he had to abruptly confront. The aforementioned topic of dislocation comes to the forefront as our scholar is made to face an increasing amount of change: be it due to Copernicus' propositions that questioned the way the world was viewed or the inclination towards Humanism. In such a sea of change, Rabelais caught hold of the shore that satire provided him. Through satire, Rabelais could effectively veil the questions he was posing and ask them all the same. Humour acts as the very prop that Rabelais' satire needs: grotesque and scatological comedy is used to depict incidents and characters. Due to the lowbrow nature of the humour, the writing may be seen as crude at best - but never controversial. The text is meant to provoke laughter as it ridicules the statures of the then European society.
It is following this self aware vein of critical satire that Rabelais goes on to issue a disclaimer - in the Prologue to the First Book, i.e Gargantua - of sorts to the viewers of his work:
"Good friends, my Readers, who peruse this Book,
Be not offended, whilst on it you look:
Denude yourselves of all depraved affection,
For it contains no badness, nor infection:
'Tis true that it brings forth to you no birth
Of any value, but in point of mirth;
Thinking therefore how sorrow might your mind
Consume, I could no apter subject find;
One inch of joy surmounts of grief a span;
Because to laugh is proper to the man."2





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Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary , 11 th Edition (Barnes & Noble, 2017)
Francois Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. John Michael Cohen (Penguin, 1955), 47
Additionally, however, he reinforces the analytical disposition of the text by claiming that "a man of good sense, ought to always believe what anybody tells him and whatever he sees in print."3 This coerces the reader to sit up and take notice of the motifs being portrayed, instead of merely brushing them off in the name of light hearted humour. This works to solidify the base of the entire premise as now you have been directed by Rabelais to perceive his work in the manner he visualized it to be received.
It