The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 524

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“The Franklin’s Tale” is one of the stories in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, a work in Middle English that, though unfinished, is considered one of the masterpieces of English literature. Like most of The Canterbury Tales, “The Franklin’s Tale” is written in iambic pentameter couplets. It is 896 lines in length. Although the poet was working on The Canterbury Tales from the 1380’s until the year of his death, this story cannot be dated with any certainty. It is also a matter of conjecture as to where Chaucer meant to place “The Franklin’s Tale” within the larger narrative. However, expressing as it does Chaucer’s own ideals of behavior, clearly “The Franklin’s Tale” would have been a cornerstone of the completed work.

The story is told by an important, wealthy landowner, elderly but still vigorous, who delights in fine food and drink and prides himself on his hospitality. However, his tale does not focus on worldly pleasures but rather on moral issues, the demands of honor, the true definition of gentility, and the substance of an ideal marriage.

“The Franklin’s Tale” is set in Brittany. It begins with the marriage of a lady, Dorigen, to Arveragus, a knight who has taken great pains to win her. Arveragus takes the unusual step of setting up the marriage as a relationship between equals, with the sole proviso that in public his wife will treat him as her sovereign. In a long digression, the Franklin explains that mutual respect is the secret of a happy marriage.

Since Dorigen is as much in love with her husband as he is with her, Arveragus’s departure for a lengthy stay in England leaves her desolate. She spends much of her time looking seaward, hoping to see his ship, and worrying about the black rocks near the coast, an ever-present danger to approaching ships. When a young squire, Aurelius, declares his passion for Dorigen, she responds with a firm rejection and then tries to put him off with humor. If Aurelius could make the rocks disappear, Dorigen says, she would give herself to him. This plot element is familiar to folklorists as “a damsel’s rash promise.”

After Arveragus returns home, Dorigen forgets all about the conversation and the vow. However, Aurelius’s despair has worsened. Fearing that he may die, the squire’s brother takes him to Orléans, where there are clerks, or scholars, who are skilled in “natural” magic, that is, magic based on knowledge rather than on the black arts. One of these clerks feels certain that he can remove the rocks. Promising him a substantial fee, Aurelius and his brother take the magician with them to Brittany, where he fulfills his part of the bargain.

When Aurelius reminds her of her promise, Dorigen contemplates suicide but then decides to turn the matter over to her husband. Though deeply grieved, Arveragus tells his wife that she must keep her promise. Shamed by Arveragus’s high-mindedness, the squire releases Dorigen from her vow, and the clerk then refuses his fee, declaring that even a poor man is capable of noble behavior.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

In the prologue to his story, the Franklin claims that it is a retelling of a Breton lay. However, scholars have not been able to find such a source. Moreover, they point out that “The Franklin’s Tale” is quite different from lays modeled on those by Marie de France, the French poet of the late twelfth century who invented or at least popularized the genre. Her stories focused on extramarital relationships; there was no “natural” explanation for the supernatural events in them; and her aristocratic characters were types, while those in “The Franklin’s Tale” are highly individualized. Whatever Chaucer’s reasons for having the Franklin call his story a Breton lay, it would be more accurately classified as a moral tale.

The Franklin also prefaces his story with an apology for his linguistic limitations. He is a plain man, he says, not a courtier skilled in rhetorical devices. However, in telling his tale, the Franklin does utilize a number of rhetorical devices that are identified in medieval texts. One of them is the digression, like that early in the tale when the Franklin interrupts his story for a disquisition on marriage that continues for some thirty lines. Such digressions, in which a writer moved from the particular to the general and then returned to the particular, were used to make sure that readers or listeners did not miss the point of the story. Similarly, the Franklin frequently pauses for sententiae, proverblike truths such as the assertion within the digression on marriage that “On every wrong a man may nat be wreken,” in other words, that one cannot avenge every wrong.

In other ways, too, the Franklin demonstrates that he is more sophisticated than he pretends to be. His suffering suitors, Arveragus and Aurelius, and the lady they both adore are right out of the courtly love tradition so popular among the aristocrats of his time, and the Franklin has no difficulty reproducing the highly artificial language used by such characters. There is nothing of a country squire’s bluffness in their elegant discourse.

Moreover, though sometimes he summarizes events in simple language, at other times the Franklin parades his learning or perhaps parodies those who do so, as in his flowery description of December in Brittany. His use of classical allusions in that passage is just one of many instances in which the Franklin reveals himself to be a well-read man. Others include Aurelius’s long prayer to Apollo, which is filled with mythological references, and Dorigen’s lengthy soliloquy about women who choose death before dishonor, which alludes to twenty-two different incidents from myth and history.

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