19: The Physician's Tale Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624

This is the only story which is not linked to the others by dialogue among the pilgrims.

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Virginius, a noble knight of Old Rome, had the loveliest daughter anyone could imagine. She was Nature's perfect work; and Virginia's virtue was a thousand times greater than her beauty. She was particularly prudent with regard to preserving her chastity. To protect her purity, Virginia often pretended to be ill so that she wouldn't be vulnerable to the wantonness prevelant at dances, feasts, and revels.

One day, when Virginia goes to pray at the temple, a very famous judge called Appius observes the maiden and immediately determines to ravish her. Conspiring with a fellow called Claudius, Appius persuades the man to testify falsely that Virginia is really a slave girl, born into Claudius' house and stolen from him in the night when she was very young. Virginius is summoned to the court to hear the charges but is given no chance to testify or to call witnesses. The lascivious Appius rules that Virginia is to be immediately returned to Claudius, her rightful owner.

The heartbroken Virginius goes to his home immediately and lays the situation before his beloved daughter. Both are aware of Appius' evil intentions and Virginius tells his daughter that he must kill her rather than allow her to be dishonored in this way. She asks if there is any other way to save her. Her father replies in the negative.

Requesting a little time to grieve, Virginia faints with shock and sorrow. When she recovers, Virginia declares her thanks to God that she is permitted to die a virgin. Begging her father to sever her head gently, Virginia again falls into a swoon. Virginius cuts off the head of his unconscious child and bears it to the judge.

The furious Appius commands that Virginius be hanged, but at that exact moment, 1,000 citizens burst into the court to save the valiant knight. Appius is then thrown into prison where he commits suicide; Claudius is exiled; and all the others involved in the conspiracy are hanged.

The Physician concludes by admonishing his listeners that their sins, no matter how jealously guarded, are known to God; and that God will punish wickedness in every man without regard to rank.

Discussion and Analysis
This legend of a girl saved from dishonor when her father kills her is an echo of the preceding tale told by the Franklin. Although Dorigen was a married woman, she mentions stories like the Physician's, and she herself contemplates suicide rather than succumb to sexual dishonor. The characters in both these stories are pagans. The similarities between the two stories is deliberate on Chaucer's part; it is one of the devices he uses to unify the whole of The Canterbury Tales.

While this story of the pitiable Virginia is intended as an exemplum containing as it does a model of virtue for the listener to imitate, Virginia's chastity does not benefit her. She dies because of it and no eternal reward is mentioned. In the story that precedes this one, however, Dorigen's virtue is rewarded with release from her odious promise. St. Cecelia, in the tale which follows, dies a virgin also, but her reward is eternal life.

Chaucer took the story of Virginius and his daughter from Le Roman de la Rose, making a noticeable change only in the killing of Virginia. In the original, Virginius beheads the maiden in public, while Chaucer makes the killing a private matter.

That virtuous women prefer death to sexual dishonor is the obvious theme of this tale. It may also be observed that the horrible outcome points to the horror which results when justice is corrupted. Virginius represents true justice while Appius personifies justice corrupted.

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