"The Franklin's Tale" is one of several pilgrims' tales centered on marriage—specifically on what kind of marriage leads to the most satisfying life—and several pilgrims have differing ideas about what aspects marriage should be based upon. Although scholars debate whether the Franklin's tale is meant by Chaucer to "settle" the dispute about the nature of marriage (elaborated on in the tales of "The Wife of Bath," "The Clerk," and "The Merchant"), clearly the tale itself, which argues for mutual respect, love, and "gentiless," comes closer to the other marriage tales to what we in the twenty-first century would see as an ideal marriage.
Chaucer depicts the Franklin as an upper-class commoner, just below the aristocracy, whose goal in life is:
To liven in delight was ever his won,
For he was Epicurus's own son
That held opinion that plain delight
Was very felicity perfite. (2.35–38)
As a man who loves "plain delight" above all things, the Franklin is likely to view all aspects of life, including marriage, as subject to that goal, and the discussion of marriage within his tale is consistent with that goal.
The Franklin begins his tale with what would have seemed at the time to be an unorthodox, even heretical, description of the marriage "contract" between the knight and his lady:
Of his free will he swore her as a knight
That ne're in all his life he day or night
Ne should upon him take no mastery
Against her will, ne kith nor jealousy,
But her obey and follow her will in all...
Save that name of sovereignty,
That would he have for shame of his degree. (2.745–51)
The knight has promised to give up his sovereignty over his wife, keeping it in name only for the sake of his status as a knight. In Christian doctrine during the Middle Ages (and later), the proper role of husband and wife is that of master and subordinate, and the Franklin's tale actually subverts this doctrine. But there is a saving grace.
The lady, recognizing the love and honor of the knight, who is willing to flatten the hierarchy of traditional marriage to marry her, promises that she, too, seeks harmony rather than dominance:
'Sir, since of your gentilesse
You proffer me to have so large a rein...
I wil be your humble, true wife—Have here my truth
Til that my hearte burst.'
Thus been they both in quiet and in rest. (2.754–60)
These marriage partners, then, have agreed to a marriage based on equality in all things except in name. The knight is able to appear to have sovereignty in public, and his lady has committed to be a loving and humble (not subordinate) wife, a marriage leading to a life, expressed in the description of the Franklin, of "felicity perfit."
"The Franklin's Tale" serves as counterpoint to the tales in which marriage is based on jealousy ("The Clerk"), unremitting cruelty and tyranny ("The Merchant"), and domination of partner over another ("The Wife of Bath"). Even though the Franklin's depiction of the perfect marriage violates that of orthodox Christianity at the time, it seems to us as the most appropriate expression of a healthy, long-lasting marriage.