Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545

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....

(The entire section contains 545 words.)

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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 same level as chastity, thus suggesting that a woman who is made equal to a man must adhere to the same ethical standards as a man. Arveragus evidently adheres to that notion, for he insists that Dorigen keep her word.

It has long been assumed that at least four of the stories in The Canterbury Tales constitute a “marriage group,” whose subject is the question of sovereignty in marriage. While in each of the other stories either the husband or the wife is dominant, “The Franklin’s Tale” presents an Aristotelian via media, or middle way, which is Chaucer’s idea of what a marriage should be. However, it can be argued that the Franklin does not necessarily speak for Chaucer. The author may wish the reader to see what the Franklin does not seem to notice, that when Dorigen has to turn to her husband for a decision, she has relinquished her equal status and assumed the role of the submissive wife. On the other hand, Chaucer may see a good marriage as one that permits an alternation of sovereignty, consisting of the natural ebb and flow of strength and weakness, foolishness and wisdom, in even the most well-meaning human beings.

In “The Franklin’s Tale,” as in the rest of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer expresses his firm moral convictions, but at the same time he reveals his compassion for human beings, enslaved as they are by their emotions, driven as they are to foolish words and actions. As the Franklin points out, “in this world, certein, ther no wight is/ That he ne dooth or seith somtyme amis,” in other words, there is no human being who never does or says something wrong. Clearly Chaucer is at one with the Franklin in suggesting that gentilesse is the secret of harmonious relationships among human beings.

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