[(essay date 2002) In the following essay, Staples surveys criticism of Pantagruel, focusing on the role and treatment of women in the novel. Staples is highly critical of most modern scholars, arguing that many readings of Pantagruel adopt the same stance as the novel, effectively ignoring or erasing the presence of women.]
The men save up this kind of entertainment, which originally presupposed the presence of a woman who was feeling ashamed, till they are "alone together."We can only laugh when a joke has come to our help.--Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious
In his article "Freedom of Interpretation: Bakhtin and the Challenge of Feminist Criticism," Wayne Booth ponders the question: "What might it mean to say, as many have said before me, that Rabelais's great works, Gargantua and Pantagruel, are flawed by their sexism--or in the earlier language, their antifeminism?"1 In light of this question, this chapter studies the readings of male critics regarding the function and treatment of women in Rabelais's texts, and more specifically, in the much-studied scene of the Parisian lady in Pantagruel.2 Particularly interesting are Wayne Booth's readings of the scene, though other critics are important to show what I consider to be a systematic blindness concerning questions of misogyny and gender on the part of Rabelais's male readers. Freud's essay on the tendentious joke is used for a possible explanation of the position of the male critics; Carla Freccero and Jane Gallop, in their readings of Booth and Freud respectively, provide both the ammunition for a counterargument to the male critics and the inspiration for a possible venture into the boys' playground.
Natalie Zemon Davis, Joan Kelly, and Constance Jordan, among others, have written at length about the querelle des femmes and the place of women in both medieval and Renaissance society, and their work has shown that there were indeed positive depictions of women during Rabelais's time. Davis, for example, states in her chapter entitled "Women on Top" that "in hierarchical and conflictful societies that loved to reflect on the world-turned-upside-down, the topos of the woman-on-top was one of the most enjoyed. Indeed, sexual inversion--that is, switches in sex roles--was a wide-spread form of cultural play in literature, in art, and in festivity." She later adds, in summary of her argument, "The woman-on-top flourished, then, in preindustrial Europe and during the period of transition to industrial society." Both Kelly and Jordan show the querelle des femmes within its historical context and give numerous examples of the authors and the arguments, with all their ambiguities and contradictions, from both sides of the polemic. François Rigolot writes that "the debate between 'feminist' and 'antifeminist' forces, known as the querelle des femmes, concerned woman's physiological and theological inferiority, and Rabelais' symbolic representations of gender identity and sexual difference appear firmly grounded in that tradition, no matter how unacceptable its terms may be to modern sensibility."3 If it is true that the querelle des femmes forced writers from medieval times...