91 pages 3 hours read

François Rabelais, Transl. Thomas Urquhart

Gargantua And Pantagruel

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1564

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Summary and Study Guide


The Life of Gargantua and Pantagruel is a series of five novels written in French by François Rabelais in the 16th century. The novel-cycle relates the adventures of two giants in hyperbolic, satirical prose. Using humor ranging from slapstick to irony, Rabelais explores serious themes such as the development of education and religious reformation. The books are noted for their colorful, rich literary style, bursting with puns, allusions, and social commentary. An early example of the novel as a literary form, the books have an episodic structure and a Picaresque narrative, taking the reader on many adventures and journeys.

Pantagruel, the first book of the series, was published in 1532. A commercial success, the book came under heavy critical fire for its use of scatological and sexual humor as well as its criticisms of the clergy. Rabelais published Gargantua, which features the life of Pantagruel’s father, in 1534, under the pseudonym Alcofribas Nasier (an anagram of François Rabelais) to avoid controversy. The third and fourth books return to the adventures of Pantagruel, as does the fifth, published posthumously in 1564 (Rabelais died in 1553). Critics have since questioned the authorship of the last book, claiming its narrative style is duller than the earlier works of Rabelais. Further, it had become common even in Rabelais’s lifetime, for other writers to publish under his name and parody his style. Critics speculate one such pseudo-Rabelaisian narrative may have been included in the fifth book. M. A. Screech, the translator of the edition used here, believes the book is “supposititious” or a faux-Rabelaisian work, but still has literary and historical value.

This study guide uses the 2006 Penguin Classics paperback edition of M. A. Screech’s translation of Gargantua and Pantagruel.

Plot Summary

In the first book, Pantagruel—from a line of “giants” in Utopia—is so big that his mother, Badebec, dies giving birth to him. When Pantagruel comes of age, his father Gargantua sends him to study at various universities in France. Pantagruel finally settles in Paris to finish his studies and meets Panurge, who becomes his friend and companion for the rest of the series. In Paris, Pantagruel becomes famous after settling an impossible legal case, but has to return to his homeland after the Dispodian King Anarch invades the Utopian city of the Amaurots. Pantagruel and Panurge defeat the Dispodians.

Gargantua describes the life of Pantagruel’s father, born from his mother Gargamelle’s ear. Grandgousier, Gargantua’s father, notes that the rustic early childhood education of Gargantua is setting him back, so sends him to Paris under the tutelage of Ponocrates. Gargantua too has to return home after King Picrochole of Lerne declares war against Utopia after a squabble between the bakers of Lerne and the shepherds of Utopia. Frere Jean, a brave and bawdy monk, helps defend the country and befriends Gargantua. Gargantua defeats Picrochole, and Grandgousier pardons the people of Lerne. To reward Frere Jean, Gargantua establishes for him the ideal monastery, the Abbey of the Thelemites.

The story of Pantagruel and Panurge continues in the Third Book of Pantagruel. Panurge feels a flea in his ear, or the stirrings of desire, and wishes to marry, but is scared of being cuckolded. He asks Pantagruel for advice, to which end Pantagruel directs him to many sources, including a mime, a doctor, and a poet. Pantagruel interprets all answers to indicate Panurge will be cuckolded. Panurge is dismayed. Pantagruel suggests they journey to consult the Oracle, La Dive Bouteille (the sacred bottle) for a final answer.

In the Fourth Book of Pantagruel, Pantagruel, Panurge, and Frere Jean sail away to meet the Oracle with the blessings of Gargantua. They come across a mercantile ship where Panurge picks a quarrel over a sheep and tricks the merchants into jumping to their death along with their animals. The group stops at many islands to rest and restock rations, such as the island of the squirrel-like Chidlings and the Island of the Papimanes, who revere the Pope. When Pantagruel fires cannons as a tribute to the muses near Ganabin, Panurge soils himself in fear.

The sea voyage continues in the Fifth Book of Pantagruel, where they visit Ringing Island, the island of many birds, and Quintessence, where a chess-ballet is performed for them. Their penultimate stop is Lanternland, where the people are lanterns. They choose a female Lantern to guide them to their destination, the island of the Dive Bouteille. Panurge quakes in fear as Bacbuc, the Dive’s high priestess, leads them to her sanctum. The Dive’s prophecy consists of just one word: “Trinck,” which Bacbuc explains implies Panurge should do what his heart says after a drink. Panurge speaks a rhyme in favor of getting married. Bacbuc bids the men goodbye in the name of God.

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