WHAT THEY LEARNED: Whitney Mueller ’15

The French major grappled with differences between a written text and a visual theory in relation to two works by 16th century author François Rabelais.

French major and Greek minor Whitney Mueller put her language skills to the test in her senior thesis, “Mutatis mutandis: La perspective et les transformations spatiales dans Gargantua et Pantagruel.” “‘Mutatis mutandis is a bit of Latin meaning, roughly, ‘the things having been changed which needed to be changed,’” explains Mueller, “And the subtitle translates to ‘Perspective and Spatial Transformations in Gargantua and Pantagruel,” two works by 16th century author François Rabelais.”

Mueller was taken by the fact that the heroes of both novels were giants whose sizes seemed to be constantly changing. “It seems like one moment they are passing through human doorways or sleeping with human girls, and the next they are combing cannonballs out of their hair or traveling at godlike speed,” she says.

To further explore the issue of Rabelais’ depiction of space and size Mueller travelled to France over last winter break (thanks to funding from the CPGC, HCAH, and the Louis Green Fund) for more than two weeks. While there she was able to expand her thesis research with a visit a 16th century castle and by exploring the archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. “It was really a great opportunity to engage with various aspects of my topic that I couldn’t have dealt with effectively from Haverford and to reflect upon my thesis claims in a new light,” says Mueller, who hopes to eventually continue her study French literature at the graduate level after taking some time off.


What inspired your thesis work?

My work, specifically, juxtaposes Rabelais’s depictions of giants, humans, and places with the linear perspective developed in 15th century Italian painting and architecture—[which was] gaining ground in France in the 16th century—that organizes space around a human point of view. I owe a lot to Associate Professor David Sedley, who not only taught the class in which I first encountered Rabelais in the original French, but also introduced me to the theory of artistic perspective while I was working as his research assistant the summer before my senior year.

How or why could your work help other researchers?

With Rabelais, there is a lot of attention to the question of interpretation: his work is self-consciously absurd and has been claimed to resist understanding. This means that the weird things going on tend to get lumped together under the banner of “nonsense,” or set aside in favor of more allegorical aspects. One of my hopes has been to engage with the story at surface level, to try and find meaning in the work’s inconsistencies, and I think there is still plenty of room there.


 Illustration: An example of the giants’ shift in body size, on left where people are the size of Pantagruel’s foot, and on right where Gargantua is hardly twice the height of a human.

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.