Themes and Meanings

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The meaning and interpretation of “The Clerk’s Tale” is perhaps best seen in relation to how the tale fits in with the other tales of The Canterbury Tales as well as the tale as a separate entity. For one thing, the stories of The Canterbury Tales are told primarily for entertainment. Explicit morals are relatively few, and no single, unifying theme is laid down for the whole series. The storytelling is set up as a game and not for the purpose of preaching morals. It is not to be a set of exempla, but a contest.

The placement of the tales within The Canterbury Tales is important. The juxtaposition of the tales of the patient wife, “The Clerk’s Tale,” and of the tale of the unfaithful wife, “The Merchant’s Tale,” is not happenstance. Likewise, the relationship of the completely subservient wife Griselda in “The Clerk’s Tale” to the wife who had complete sovereignty over her husbands in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is not coincidental. In fact, it is hard to think of any one of these tales in isolation from one another.

In “The Clerk’s Tale” itself, Chaucer shows how a drastic imbalance of power in a marriage can lead to suffering for women and sinfulness for men. Like many authors of Chaucer’s day, he sees the popular story of the patient Griselda as a cautionary tale. While all Christians were taught to face life’s inevitable trials with patience and humility, since they were believed to have been sent by God for His own incomprehensible purposes, no human was justified in inflicting suffering on another just to see how well it was endured. Thus, Walter and Griselda represent extremes of behavior that teach a moral lesson in literature, but that, Chaucer apparently believes, should be avoided in real life. In testing the worth of a woman who is already his moral superior, Walter becomes increasingly evil himself. He can torment Griselda all he pleases because she is a poor man’s daughter. Had Griselda been a woman of noble birth, Walter would have risked that family’s retaliation if he had mistreated his wife. Griselda is so explicitly an exemplar of virtue that it is easy to accept the shift at the end of the tale from the literal to the parabolic mode. The tale is puzzling, for it is a story at odds with Walter’s own meaning. Virtue must serve an apparently wicked cause, and thus, for all the moral of the ending, it is not allegorical, for Griselda is an impossible role model: Her behavior is presented for admiration, not for emulation.

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