Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Franklin concludes his narrative by asking who his fellow pilgrims think was most generous—the knight, the squire, or the clerk. This question would have prompted the pilgrims to make some interesting comments, and certainly the question of merit and class is one of the major themes of the story. Before he embarks upon his tale, the Franklin bemoans the fact that unlike the Squire, his own son is a wastrel indifferent either to virtue or to the ideal of gentilesse, which the Franklin here associates with high social status, with behaving as aristocrats should behave, with courtesy, compassion, generosity, and a keen sense of justice. By including the clerk in his question about generosity, however, the Franklin seems to eliminate social status as a prerequisite for someone’s possessing gentilesse. This reflects Chaucer’s view, as stated in his short poem entitled “Gentillesse”: that one’s position in the social hierarchy has very little to do with whether or not one has gentilesse.

Another obvious theme in “The Franklin’s Tale” is the definition of honor. In the medieval mind, a gentleman’s honor was displayed in his being brave, truthful, and loyal, but for a lady, honor was defined as chastity. Therefore it would seem that Dorigen must choose to remain faithful to her husband, ignoring the promise she had rashly made to Aurelius. However, the Franklin places truthfulness, or keeping one’s word, on the...

(The entire section is 545 words.)