François Rabelais essentially determined the fate of French literature, the French literary tongue, and, no less than Cervantes, the fate of world literature; yet; asserts Bakhtin, he has been the least understood, most enigmatic and isolated of the great Renaissance writers. To overcome this failure, Bakhtin removes Rabelais from within the framework of official culture—the mainstream of great French literature—and reviews his work as a continuation and consummation of a rich and varied history of folk humor. From this source Rabelais drew his system of images and derived his unique charm. In all stages of its development this folk culture opposed that of the ruling classes, created its own world and potent idiom. Bakhtin's encyclopedia study offers a fresh approach to Rabelais, particularly as the author renounces certain literary tastes and concepts, reconstructs artistic and ideological perceptions of Rabelais' writing. For Rabelais was an innovator of radical proportions; his images did not conform to any sixteenth-century norm or canon and were “opposed to all that is finished and polished, to all pomposity, to every ready-made solution....”
The author introduces Rabelais by means of the oral tradition of popular-festive laughter. Laughter, says Bakhtin “celebrates its masses, professes its faith, celebrates marriages and funerals, writes its epitaphs, elects kings and bishops.” Thus saturnalia, carnival, clowns and fools imposed their own protocol and ritual upon the marketplace. Rabelaisian laughter, the author points out, is rooted in ancient ritual and spectacle. Rabelais so clearly reveals the peculiar and difficult language of the people of the marketplace that he illuminates the culture of folk humor in all ages.
The grotesque, excessive, and often repulsive images of the human body that dominate Gargantua and Pantagruel Bakhtin understands as deeply positive reflections of the “material bodily principle” in which death is viewed as a concomitant of birth or regeneration. Bakhtin remarks shrewdly on the deeper content of the banquet images in Rabelais—that a meal shared in company cannot be melancholy since it symbolizes, by the taking in of dead matter, victory over death and the material world; thus funeral feasting is by no means incongruous. Bakhtin makes similar observations on the nature of the grotesque and offers an amusing analysis of Rabelais' famous lists (list of swabs).
Attending closely to Rabelais' language, Bakhtin points out that his exceptional linguistic freedom coincided with the Renaissance struggle at an intersection of many languages, idioms, jargons, and dialects. Much of Rabelais' language was taken from oral sources and entered the syntactical system of literature for the first time.
Rabelais and His World is a deeply appreciative analysis of the little-known tradition of folk humor as it preserved the creative and various life of the people and was brought to fulfillment over a thousand years or so in Rabelais' work. Bakhtin's grasp of the difficult images and language of Rabelais' work in extraordinary, and his exhortation, and his exhortation to “hear the chorus of laughing people” in the culture of the Middle Ages and of the renaissance is brought to us in a carful and complete translation.