Essays and Criticism
The Canterbury Tales: A Critical Analysis
Comprised of two dozen stories along with various prologues and epilogues, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales displays extraordinary diversity in genre, source materials, and themes. Although some critics have argued that the resultant text should be approached as a collection of distinct pieces, most would agree that there are unifying components and that these include certain thematic strands. At the very least, the specific tales told by the pilgrims as they wend their way to Canterbury generally reflect their respective positions within medieval society as well as their personal characteristics. The Knight's Tale, for example, is a high-toned chivalric romance appropriate to his station as a member of the nobility and to his character as a man of "troth and honor, freedom and courtesy" (I, A, l.46). As or more important, Chaucer employs the device of a narrative framework, the story of twenty-nine individuals committed to both a religious pilgrimage and to participation in a story-telling contest. Reinforced by exchanges between the contestants, shared motifs appear in their respective narrations. Of these running themes, relations between men and women (and, more specifically, the topic of marriage) is the most prominent topic, but additional motifs, such as financial duplicity, unite groups of characters and run through several of their tales.
In the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, the poet establishes a shared motivation for the pilgrims as a natural urge for spiritual renewal. He remarks that in England (as in all of European Christendom), when the "sweet showers of April fall . . . people long to go on pilgrimmages" (I, A, ll.1,12). Ostensibly, Chaucer's pilgrims are united by a religious objective, to visit and worship at the shrine of the saint Thomas Beckett in Canterbury. Yet at the same time, the interaction among the pilgrims is animated by the far less serious impulse of playful social intercourse. At the suggestion of the innkeeper Harry Bailey, a story-telling contest is organized among the convivial assembly of wayfarers who stop at his tavern. The essential spirit behind The Canterbury Tales is social and playful. The pilgrims generally interact with each other in a light-hearted way as befits a group of people on a holiday or vacation excursion. Drawn from diverse vocations, each pilgrim has the opportunity to rub shoulders with those...
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Comedic Inventiveness in The Canterbury Tales
One of the first things that students learn when they begin to study The Canterbury Tales is that Geoffrey Chaucer its author, is frequently called “the father of English poetry.” He was the first significant poet to write in the English language, as opposed to Italian, Latin, or French, which were the languages favored by educated people of his time, the late fourteenth century. The entire tradition of English literature, therefore, points back to Chaucer. He deserves respect, but, unfortunately, respect too often makes readers feel that they have to be reverential and solemn when considering The Canterbury Tales.
Over the centuries, Chaucer scholars have attempted to show that the book is not just a dry textbook and is actually quite a lot of fun, but their attempts consistently fall on deaf ears. English teachers see episodes like the flatulence scene in the “The Miller’s Tale” as the same gross-out comedy that Jim Carrey or Tom Green would use for laughs today. Students today are more inclined to view Chaucer’s low-brow moments as a senior family member struggling to be hip, like a grandfather wearing a shockingly loud tie to show that he still remembers fun. It is hard to think of the father of English poetry as working for attention because he had to.
But The Canterbury Tales is all about the struggle to keep audiences entertained. The central...
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Madame Eglentyne, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the Problem of Medieval Anti-Semitism
The history of the criticism of Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” affords proof, if proof be needed, that the attitudes and events of their own days affect how critics read literature, even literature of the distant past. As Florence Ridley notes, the question of anti-semitism in the “Prioress’s Tale” has in recent years become an important critical issue, to the extent that most contemporary readings of the text seem to involve, explicitly or implicitly, a response to this problem. The explanation is not far to seek. Critics cannot view the “Tale” after the holocaust in quite the same way as they viewed it before. Since the holocaust anti-semitism has become academically discredited: it is now one of the few generally acknowledged intellectual heresies. So for a critic today to expound the “Tale” and to ignore the question of anti-semitism would strike most educated people as displaying a detachment from life bordering on the irresponsible, if not on the perverse.
Most who have written on the problem of the anti-semitism in the “Prioress’s Tale” have been literary critics by calling. Few historians of Judaism or of anti-semitism, seem to have addressed the question. As a result some of the analysis, though painstaking and well intentioned, has been historically and philosophically confused. The sort of confusion that can arise is illustrated by John Archer’s article, “The structure of anti-semitism in the ‘Prioress’s...
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Language Redeemed: “The Pardoner’s Tale”
There are several similarities between the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner, not the least of which is the intimate relation between the prologue and tale of each author. If it can be said that the basis of this relation between prologue and tale in the Wife’s case is that she denies and destroys reality to make her fictional life valid, perhaps it may then be said that the Pardoner in turn destroys fiction in order to complete the process of rendering everything subjective and meaningless. In this sense they are in league with each other, and we see this in several ways. Whereas the Wife may be seen as a figure who distorts reality through a carnal willfulness and weakness of which she is only partially aware, the Pardoner emerges as a highly astute figure who has developed his depravity into a powerful intellectual theory, which in his prologue and tale he attempts to impose on the pilgrimage in order to destroy it. Unlike other flawed characters in the company who, despite themselves, reveal the intellectual or moral basis of their corruption (which, in many cases, they do not fully understand), the Pardoner intentionally exposes his vice in the prologue in order to raise evil to a theoretical level on which he can confront good. For if, in fact, the various authors of the pilgrimage have shown themselves as imperfect, each would seem to have also shown the origin of this imperfection to be misunderstanding or moral weakness. The great challenge to a figure like...
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Language Redeemed: “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”
Whatever may be the interpretation she places on the “Miller’s Tale,” the Wife of Bath must have enjoyed it thoroughly. Her own prologue and tale are similar exercises in turning everything upside down, but with the Wife of Bath, Chaucer seems to be exploring similar questions under a different theme, a theme that the Wife herself identifies as experience and authority as alternative means of understanding the truth. In his important study Chaucerian Fiction, Robert Burlin has shown the central importance of this theme in all of Chaucer’s work, but nowhere is it as explicitly addressed as in the “Wife of Bath’s Tale”: “She was preserved illiterate, allowed only the puny weapon of her own ‘experience’ to contend with an armory of masculine ‘auctoritee’. No wonder, then, that the Wife uses any strategy that comes to hand to establish and defend her identity. No wonder, either, that she finds herself uncomfortably contrary, consistently obliged to assume the very position she is opposing.” Philosophically she is off to a bad start, however, since in the Middle Ages this somewhat complicated concept of authority and experience as the basis of human cognition normally regarded both elements as necessary for correct understanding. But the Wife is a dualist in all she undertakes; she divides, differentiates, and emphasizes conflict wherever possible.
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Perception and Reality in the “Miller's Tale”
The “Miller’s Tale,” if not the fabliau as a genre, presents us with a pattern of mistakes in perception, a sharp, dramatic contrast between the real and the imaginary, which confirms basic assumptions about our world at the same time that it raises important questions. Although our sense of the real begins with what is both actual and possible in perception, it is easy to confuse the two, or to underestimate one or the other. The relevant truism, of course, is that we usually think we know what’s there, but we often don’t. In fact, the main comic incidents in the “Miller’s Tale”—kiss, laying on of hot ploughshare, falling off the roof—belong to that type of slapstick comedy based on such confusion. Our response to the confusion derives from assumptions concerning perception, or, according to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, from the fact that the perceived world is an ensemble of routes taken by the body. The characters portrayed by the brilliant practitioners of this kind of comedy—Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers, or Jacques Tati—cannot discover these routes. Given a metaphysical ungainliness in such clowns, the ordinary routes of the body are like mysterious passages sought by legendary navigators. Inspector Clouzot cannot walk into a room without being ambushed by lamps and chairs, or becoming locked in mortal combat with a telephone.
In what follows, I shall give a much abbreviated summary of Merleau-Ponty’s ideas on perception, the...
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Chaucerian Themes and Style in the “Franklin’s Tale”
The “Franklin’s Tale” is not only one of the most popular of Chaucer’s tales, it is also one whose emotional and moral concerns lie at the centre of Chaucer’s thinking and imaginative activity. It is usually thought of as a tale about ‘trouthe’— or perhaps about ‘gentillesse’—but it is equally concerned with the ideal of patience and the problems of time and change, which are subjects of fundamental importance not in this tale alone but in the Canterbury Tales as a whole. What follows is intended to be not only a close discussion of the “Franklin’s Tale,” but also an attempt to indicate how a proper reading of it can help with a proper reading of the rest of the Tales—and indeed, of Chaucer’s work in general.
The “Franklin’s Tale” begins by introducing a knight who has, in best storybook fashion, proved his excellence through ‘many a labour, many a greet emprise’ and thus finally won his lady who, likewise in best storybook fashion, is ‘oon the faireste under sonne’. ‘And they lived happily ever after’ is what we might expect to follow. And so far from trying to dispel the reader’s sense of the familiar in this situation, Chaucer takes pains to increase it. He refers to the actors only in general terms (‘a knyght’, ‘a lady’), and attributes to them the qualities and experiences normally associated with tales of romantic courtship (beauty, noble family, ‘worthynesse’, ‘his...
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Sense and Sensibility in “The Prioress’s Tale”
Chaucer’s Prioress has been the subject of lively literary debate for the better part of the twentieth century. Not content to let her go, in the words of Cummings’s poem, “into the now of forever,” modern critics have insisted that Madame Eglentyne face the now of the twentieth century and answer for her faults. Critics have reproved her vanity, chastized her worldliness, shaken their heads over her exaggerated sensibility, and even explored the hidden anal-sadistic focus of her tale. Where, we might ask, in all of this is Chaucer’s Prioress? The answer may lie in the fact that Chaucer’s fashionable Prioress and her litel tale were more fashionable than most modern critics realize. Her concern with emotion, tenderness, and the diminutive are part of the late fourteenth-century shift in sensibility, which, following the so-called triumph of nominalism, produced the flowering of English mysticism, a highly particularized, emotional style in the arts, and the ascendancy of the heart over the reason in religious matters. In both her portrait and her tale the Prioress reflects these developments as she focuses on the physical, tangible, often diminutive—mice, dogs, and little children—as objects of her “tendre herte” and symbols of her understanding of Christian doctrine; the same attitudes and assumptions about the centrality of the heart and of the emotions dominate her use of the rhyme royal stanza in one of the most sensitively...
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The Struggle between Noble Designs and Chaos: The Literary Tradition of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale
There is perhaps no better illustration of the processes of continuity and change in medieval literature than the relationship between Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” (1386?), first of the Canterbury Tales, and its literary antecedents, both proximate—Giovanni Boccaccio’s Teseida delle nozze d’Emilia (ca. 1340)—and remote—the Thebaid of Statius (ca. 92 AD). Moreover, a comparison of Chaucer’s poem with Statius’s epic and Boccaccio’s epic romance offers important clues to the meaning of one of the most problematic tales in the Canterbury collection.
To Boccaccio and Chaucer, and to medieval authors generally, Statius was the authority on the fall of Thebes, one of the most traumatic events of classical legend. Charles Muscatine, in the most influential, and perhaps the finest recent assessment of the “Knight’s Tale,” states, “the history of Thebes had perpetual interest for Chaucer as an example of the struggle between noble designs and chaos,” a struggle which Muscatine finds at the heart of the tale. According to Muscatine, “the noble life . . . is itself the subject of the poem and the object of its philosophic questions”, and the manifestations of that life, “its dignity and richness, its regard for law and decorum, are all bulwarks against the ever-threatening forces of chaos, and in constant collision with them.” In this reading, the significance of the “Knight’s...
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The Wife of Bath and the Dream of Innocence
The sad note some hear in the voice of the Wife of Bath can be interpreted as “die letzte Süsse in den schweren Wein,” a hint of sourness showing that, with age, her deep enjoyments have begun to turn. From the viewpoint of those who understand the Wife as a stock character, this sad note, if not attributed to critical ingenuity, is assimilated to the Wife’s type as a picturesque, individuating detail or as the bitter recognition, coming amidst our common celebration of the created world, that time holds us “green and dying.” Her “allas!,” then, would be “the song of the indestructibility of the people,” “of the finite with the vulgar interstices and smells, which lies below all categories.”
However, to maintain that the “absurdity” of such characters as the Wife “inveigles us into . . . conspiring with them to make them real and lifelike,” that she becomes lifelike by representing a class, and that Chaucer manipulates her “with an entire disregard for . . . psychological probability” seems to me to leave many parts of her performance in only the slightest connection with other parts. Assuming for the moment that the sad note is as close to her center as her willful gaiety and her insistence on fleshly enjoyment, I wish to throw in with those who believe that, in writing lines for the Wife, Chaucer was conceiving a human being.
A denial that the Wife’s “make-up . . . is subtle or complex” seems to me to...
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Chaucer’s General Prologue as History and Literature
The “General Prologue” is often called a picture of its age and, frequently in the next breath, a satire. In English Lit. this usually draws a stern lecture about confusing the distinction between literature and history, but in this essay, unobserved by my sophomores, I propose to talk about the “General Prologue” as a picture of its age and then, tentatively, about some uses such history might be put to by historians and literary students.
The “General Prologue” has an obvious historical interest as a series of discrete bits of information about dress, customs, etc.; but if it is to be considered as a more general historical formulation, there is a question of coherence. Is Chaucer’s fictional society sufficiently coherent to warrant taking it seriously as fourteenth-century sociology? The best reason for an affirmative answer is rather vague. It is simply the strong sense most readers have that Chaucer is sampling, that his pilgrims are representatives. There are certainly omissions from his roll, but he does give good coverage to the middle segment of society. The nature he is imitating is social in a sense that is worthy of a sociologist’s regard. To put it rather grandly, Chaucer’s imitation has the same general ontological status as the sociologist’s model; both are representative fictions. This analogy serves my purpose by temporarily converting the literary fiction into a series of hypothetical propositions which may be...
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The Play of the “Miller's Tale”: A Game within a Game
The last line of the Miller’s “Prologue” has been variously interpreted as indicative of Chaucer’s aesthetic intentions both in the tale itself and in his works as a whole. In it, the narrator, after warning his readers of the kind of tale to follow and disclaiming responsibility should any of them subsequently “chese amys,” adds a final rider: “and eek men shal nat maken ernest of game.” The phrase itself is sufficiently commonplace to be classified as proverbial, and variations of it occur four times elsewhere in the Tales: January finally settles on one delectable young girl as his bride “bitwixe ernest and game”; Griselda, bereft of her daughter, never mentions her name either “in ernest nor in game,” and Walter, despite the murmurs of his subjects, continues to try his wife “for ernest ne for game”; the Host is relieved that wine can resolve the differences between the Cook and the Manciple and “turnen ernest into game.” But in these instances the implied polarities are unequivocal. Only in the Miller’s “Prologue” does the phrase seem to contain tantalizing ambiguities and to mean more than a prefunctory tag. Some critics differ on whether the narrator is advising the more squeamish of his readers to skip the tale for the immorality of its action, the vulgarity of its speech, or for both reasons. Others, inasmuch as they consider that Chaucer’s “game” always has serious intent, appear to regard the statement as...
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Criticism and the Old Man in Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale”
Probably the main trend in contemporary Chaucer criticism is to look for a symbolic level of meaning in a poet whom most of us were taught to regard as a supremely realistic recorder of medieval life. Of course, realism and symbolism are not necessarily antithetical modes of expression, and a lot of misunderstanding will be avoided if we recognize that the choice is not one of either-or, a realistic Chaucer or an allegorical one. It is rather that we are beginning to see another dimension in Chaucer, something that should not surprise us in a great poet. It goes without saying that symbolic interpretation is subject to abuse by the ingenious critic who can persuade himself and others to see the Emperor’s clothes. Nevertheless, it can hardly be denied that we are in the midst of a reappraisal of Chaucer as an artist that is certain to influence the way in which he will be presented in the classroom.
Instead of talking generally about the reasons for such a new appraisal and its theoretical justification, I would prefer to discuss a particular instance that may illustrate this trend—a case history in practical criticism—the interpretation of a passage that everyone who has ever taught Chaucer has almost certainly dealt with at one time or another. One may then draw one’s own conclusions about the uses and abuses of modern critical theory in the teaching of Chaucer.
One of the great moments in Chaucer comes in the “Pardoner’s Tale”...
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The Knight: The First Mover in Chaucer’s Human Comedy
In recent years there seems to have been general agreement that the “Knight’s Tale” is a “philosophical romance” which raises the problem of an apparently unjust and disorderly universe. By this reading the “Tale” emerges as a philosophic theodicy culminating in Theseus’ speech on cosmic order. The latter implicitly denies the final reality or rule of an arbitrary Fortune, but at the same time stoically accepts the inscrutable workings “in this wrecched world adoun” of an eternal cause. The “Tale” is thus seen as the Knight’s—and Theseus’—somewhat wistful “consolation of philosophy,” the affirmation of an ultimate order that actual experience seems, often sadly, to deny.
Quite recently a study has suggested that the “Tale” “depicts its human world in a more critical light” than has hitherto been acknowledged. The author challenges the view that Theseus is the spokesman for the poem’s concept of order by pointing to the problematic nature of Theseus’ actions and to the inadequacies of his philosophic outlook. Nonetheless he continues to regard the “Tale’s” central theme as the assertion of a divine order; but instead of finding this theme directly figured forth by Theseus, he sees it embodied in the symmetrical structure of the “Tale” itself. The poetic form is thought to be the vehicle for a philosophic idea.
At first glance, it seems surprising that either the Knight or Theseus, both...
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Chaucer as Satirist in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales
Many people nowadays acquire an early and excessive familiarity with the “General Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales, which later blunts their sharpness of perception. Since the “Prologue” is read at school, necessarily out of its literary historical context, its methods of satire seem to have an inevitability and rightness which preclude either surprise or analysis. This natural tendency to remain uncritically appreciative of the “Prologue” has been partly confirmed by various works of criticism, which, though admirable in many ways, effusively reiterate that “here is God’s plenty”: they thus awaken an enthusiastic response to the vitality and variety of the characterisation in the “Prologue,” at the cost of making the exact manner and tone of Chaucer’s satire quite indistinct. Despite the bulk of Chaucerian criticism, there is still need for a detailed and disciplined examination of Chaucer’s style and methods of satire, which would include a careful consideration of Chaucer’s work against the background of classical and Medieval satire. Such a study would be of considerable scholarship and length: it is the purpose of this short article only to make a few general points about Chaucer’s methods of satire.
It is sometimes taken for granted that the satirist speaks in his own voice, and that any reference to his opinions and feelings are a literal record of his experience. This assumption perhaps requires testing and...
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Commentary: The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
It is the nature of the beast fable, of which the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is an example, to make fun of human attitudes by assigning them to the lower animals. Perhaps no other form of satire has proved so charming throughout literary history. From Aesop’s fables through the medieval French mock-epic Reynard the Fox (upon a version of which the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” relies for its slight plot), down to La Fontaine and Br’er Rabbit, the beast who acts like a man has enjoyed general popularity. In the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” one of the most charming of poets has given the genre a superbly comic expression. Yet much of the tale’s humor lies neither in its plot nor in the equivalence of man and beast, but in the extraordinary dilation of the telling. For while Chaucer was endowing his feathered hero and heroine with many of the qualities of a courtly lover and his lady, he was also embellishing his tale with an ample selection of the rhetorical commonplaces of Western civilization. To analyze the effect these have on the story it is necessary to investigate briefly what rhetoric is.
The art of expressive speech and writing or, more narrowly, of persuasive speech is a fair enough definition of rhetoric. But considered as a set of formulas for expressing a recurrent idea or situation, rhetoric may amount to little more than cliché. It is also possible to think of rhetoric, as one...
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The Nun’s Priest in The Canterbury Tales
Among the best liked and most widely known sections of The Canterbury Tales is the Nun’s Priest’s story of the regal Chanticleer and the lovely Dame Pertelote. For a long time critics have realized that this tale skilfully reflects facets of its teller’s character, but only recently have detailed attempts been made to suggest just what sort of person Chaucer intended his audience to visualize as the Nun’s Priest. Since Chaucer did not include in the “General Prologue” a portrait of this Pilgrim, whatever view one takes of the Nun’s Priest must be based on the comments to and about him by the Host, on his own short comment to the Host, on the Narrator’s brief remark about him, and on the superb tale which he relates to the company. This is to say that any acceptable portrait of Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest must of necessity derive primarily from the personal interplay during the Canterbury pilgrimage.
Recent criticism has presented the Nun’s Priest to us as a brawny and vigorous man with stature and muscles which justify his serving for the duration of the pilgrimage as one of three bodyguards for the Prioress and the Second Nun. This view is based, first, on an acceptance as direct description of the Host’s extreme comments in the Nun’s Priest’s Epilogue concerning the physical prowess of the priest; and, second, on the existence of documents which show that contemporary travel was particularly dangerous for women, even...
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