Last Updated on June 2, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8335
Geoffrey Chaucer’s best-known works are Troilus and Criseyde and the unfinished The Canterbury Tales, with the Book of the Duchess, the Hous of Fame, the Parlement of Foules, and The Legend of Good Women positioned in the second rank. In addition to these works and to ...
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- Critical Essays
Geoffrey Chaucer’s best-known works are Troilus and Criseyde and the unfinished The Canterbury Tales, with the Book of the Duchess, the Hous of Fame, the Parlement of Foules, and The Legend of Good Women positioned in the second rank. In addition to these works and to Boece (c. 1380; translation of Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, c. 523-524) and the Romaunt of the Rose, there exist a number of shorter and lesser-known poems, some of which merit brief attention.
These lesser-known poems demonstrate Chaucer’s abilities in diverse but typically medieval forms. Perhaps the earliest extant example of Chaucer’s work is “An ABC to the Virgin”; this poem, primarily a translation from a thirteenth century French source, is a traditional series of prayers in praise of Mary, the stanzas of which are arranged in alphabetical order according to the first letter of each stanza. Another traditional form Chaucer used is the “complaint,” or formal lament. “A Complaint to His Lady” is significant in literary history as the first appearance in English of Dante’s terza rima, and “The Complaint unto Pity” is one of the earliest examples of rime royal; this latter poem contains an unusual analogy which represents the personified Pity as being buried in a heart. “The Complaint of Mars” illustrates Chaucer’s individuality in treating traditional themes and conventions; although the poem purports to be a Valentine poem, and akin to an aubade, its ironic examination of love’s intrinsic variability seems to make it an anti-Valentine poem. Chaucer similarly plays with theme and form in To Rosemounde, a ballade in which the conventions of courtly love are exaggerated to the point of grotesquerie; the narrator says, for example, that he is as immersed in love as a fish smothered in pickle sauce. Finally, Chaucer’s poem “Gentilesse” is worthy of note for its presentation of a theme, developed in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and in “The Clerk’s Tale,” which posits that “gentilesse” depends not on inheritance or social position but on character. In sum, these poems, for most of which dates of composition cannot be assigned, represent a variety of themes and forms with which Chaucer may have been experimenting; they indicate not only his solid grounding in poetic conventions but also his innovative spirit in using new forms and ideas and in treating old forms and ideas in new ways.
Book of the Duchess
Of those poems in the second rank, the Book of the Duchess was probably the earliest written and is believed to have been composed as a consolation or commemoration of the death of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster and wife of John of Gaunt, with whom Chaucer was associated. The poem uses the technique of the dream vision and the device of the fictional narrator as two means of objectifying the subject matter, of presenting the consolation at a remove from the narrator and in the person of the bereaved knight himself. The poem thus seems to imply that true consolation can come only from within; the narrator’s human sympathy and nature’s reassurance can assist in the necessary process of acceptance of and recovery from the loss of a loved one, but that movement from the stasis of deprivation to the action of catharsis and healing can occur only within the mourner’s own breast.
The poem is told by a lovesick narrator who battles his insomnia by reading the story of Ceyx and Alcyone. Finally falling asleep, he dreams that he awakens in the morning to the sounds of the hunt and, following a dog, comes upon a distinguished young knight dressed in black who laments his lost love. In response to the dreamer’s naïve and persistent questions, the knight is eventually prodded into telling of his loss; he describes his lady in love-filled superlatives, reveals that her outer beauty was symbolic of her inner nobility, and acknowledges the great happiness they enjoyed in their mutual love. At the end of this lengthy discourse, when the narrator inquires as to the lady’s whereabouts, the knight states simply that she is dead, to which the narrator replies, “Be God, hyt ys routhe!”
The poem thus blends the mythological world, the natural world, and the realm of human sympathy to create a context within which the mourner can come to accept his loss. The dreamer’s lovesickness causes him to have a natural affinity with the knight, and, by posing as stupid, naïve, and slow-witted, the dreamer obliges the knight to speak and to admit his loss, a reality he must acknowledge if he is to move beyond the paralysis caused by his grief to a position where he is accessible to the consolation that can restore him. This restoration is in part accomplished by the dreamer’s “naïve” questions, which encourage the knight to remember the joys he experienced with his lady and the love which they shared. The knight is then able to be consoled and comforted by the corrective and curative powers of his own memories.
The poem thus offers a psychologically realistic and sophisticated presentation of the grief process, a process in which the dreamer-narrator plays a crucial role, since it is the dreamer who, through his seemingly obtuse questioning, propels the knight out of the stasis to which his grief has made him succumb; the cathartic act of speaking to the dreamer about his lost love renders the knight open to the healing powers available in human sympathy and the natural world. The poem, even as it is elegiac in its tribute to the lost lover, is in the genre of the consolatio as it records the knight’s conversion from unconsolable grief to quiet acceptance and assuagement. In establishing the persona of the apparently naïve and bumbling narrator, Chaucer initiates a tradition which not only has come to be recognized as typical of his works but also has been used repeatedly throughout literature. Probably the earliest English writer to use such a narrative device, Chaucer thereby discovered the rich possibilities for structural irony implicit in the distance between the author and his naïve narrator.
Hous of Fame
In contrast to the well-executed whole that is the Book of the Duchess, the Hous of Fame, believed to have been composed between 1372 and 1380, is an unfinished work; its true nature and Chaucer’s intent in the poem continue to elude critics. Beyond the problems posed by any unfinished work is the question of this particular poem’s unity, since the connections between the three parts of the poem which Chaucer actually finished are tenuous. In the first book of the poem, the narrator dreams of the Temple of Venus, where he learns of Dido and Aeneas. The second book, detailing the narrator’s journey, in the talons of a golden eagle, to the House of Fame, and the contrast between the eagle’s chatty friendliness and volubility and the obviously terrified narrator’s monosyllabic responses as they swoop through the air, provides much amusement. The third book, describing the House of Fame and its presiding goddess, demonstrates the total irrationality of fame, which the goddess awards according to caprice rather than merit. After visiting the House of Rumor, the narrator notices everyone running to see a man of great authority, at which point the poem breaks off.
Critical opinion differs considerably as to the poem’s meaning. Some believe it attempts to assess the worth of fame or perhaps even the life of the poet, in view of the mutability of human existence; others believe the poem intends to consider the validity of recorded history as opposed to true experience; yet other critics believe the poem attempts to ascertain the nature of poetry and its relationship to love. Although scholars have certainly not as yet settled on the poem’s meaning, there is agreement that the flight of the eagle and the narrator in book 2 is one of literature’s most finely comic passages. Beyond this, it is perhaps wisest to view the poem as an experiment with various themes which even Chaucer himself was apparently disinterested in unifying.
Parlement of Foules
In contrast to the Hous of Fame, the Parlement of Foules, composed around 1380, is a finely crafted and complete work in which Chaucer combines several popular conventions, such as the dream vision, the parliament of beasts, and the demande d’amour to demonstrate three particular manifestations of love: divine love, erotic love, and procreative love, or natural love. The fictional narrator is here a person who lacks love, who knows of it only through books, and whose very dreams even prove emotionally unsatisfying. The narrator recounts his reading of Scipio Africanus the Younger, who dreamed that his ancestor came to him, told him of divine justice and the life hereafter, and urged him to work to the common profit. Having learned of the nature of divine love, the narrator dreams that Scipio comes to him as he sleeps to take him to a park where there are two gardens, one the garden of Venus and the other the garden of Nature. The garden of Venus is clearly the place of erotic or carnal love; it is located away from the sun and consequently is dark, and it has an illicit and corrupt atmosphere. In addition to such figures as Cupid, Lust, Courtesy, and Jealousy, the narrator sees Venus herself, reclining half-naked in an atmosphere that is close and oppressive.
In contrast, the garden of Nature is in sunlight; it is Valentine’s Day, and the birds have congregated to choose their mates. In addition to the natural surroundings, the presence of Nature herself, presiding over the debate, helps to create an atmosphere of fertility and creativity. The choice of mates is, however, impeded by a quarrel among three male eagles who love a formel. Each eagle has a different claim to press: The first asserts that he has loved her long in silence, the second stresses the length of his devotion, and the third emphasizes his devotion’s intensity, pointing out that it is the quality rather than the length of love that matters. Since the lower orders of birds cannot choose mates until the eagles have settled their quarrel, the lesser birds enter the debate, aligning themselves variously either for or against the issues of courtly love which are involved. When the various birds’ contributions deteriorate into invective without any positive result, Nature intervenes to settle the matter, but the formel insists upon making her own choice in her own time, that is, at the end of a year. The other birds, their mates chosen, sing a joyful song which ends the dream vision. When the narrator awakes he continues to read, hoping to dream better.
The poem, then, presents love in its divine, erotic, and procreative forms. Although the narrator sees these various manifestations of love, he is unable to experience them since all are unavailable to him. He is, in some ways, thus akin to the eagles and in contrast to the lower orders of birds who obviously fare well, since at the end of the parliament they are paired with their mates and blissfully depart. The eagles and the formel, however, because of the formel’s need to deliberate upon and choose among her courtly lovers, are in a kind of emotional limbo for a year; in effect, they are all denied for a relatively long period love’s natural expression. Thus, even as the system of courtliness raises and ennobles love, the system also provides an impediment to the ultimate realization of love in mating. Although there seems to be a movement in the debate from the artificiality of courtly love to the naturalness of pairing off, this movement does not affect the eagles, who remain constrained, in large part because of their commitment to the courtly code. The poem examines, then, not merely the various faces of love but the nature of courtly love in particular and its seemingly undesirable effects upon its adherents.
The Legend of Good Women
Like the Hous of Fame, the The Legend of Good Women is unfinished; although the poem was intended to contain a prologue and a series of nineteen or twenty stories telling of true women and false men, the extant material consists of two versions of the prologue and only nine legends. The poem purports to be a penance for the poet’s offenses against the God of Love in writing of the false Criseyde and in translating the antifeminine Romaunt of the Rose.
In the prologues, Chaucer uses the techniques of the dream vision and the court of love to establish a context for his series of tales, which are much akin to saints’ lives. In fact, the poem seems to parody the idea of a religion of love; the poet, although he worships the daisy as the God of Love’s symbol, commits by his work heresy against the deity and must therefore repent and do penance by writing of women who were saints and martyrs in love’s service. The two prologues differ in the degree to which they use Christian conventions to describe the conduct of love; the “G” prologue, believed to be later than the “F” prologue, has lessened the strength of the analogy to Christian worship. The legends, however, are very much in the hagiographic tradition, even to the extent of canonizing women not customarily regarded as “good,” such as Cleopatra and Medea. Evidently wearying of his task, however, Chaucer did not complete the poem, perhaps because of the boredom inherent in the limited perspective.
Troilus and Criseyde
Of Chaucer’s completed work, Troilus and Criseyde is without question his supreme accomplishment. Justly considered by many to be the first psychological novel, the poem places against the epic background of the Trojan War the tragedy and the romance of Troilus, son of Priam, and Criseyde, daughter of Calchas the soothsayer. Entwined with their lives is that of Pandarus, friend of Troilus and uncle of Criseyde, who brings the lovers together and who, in consequence, earns lasting disapprobation as the first panderer. In analyzing the conjunction of these three characters’ lives, the poem considers the relationship of the individual to the society in which he or she lives and examines the extent to which events in one’s life are influenced by external circumstances and by internal character. At a deeper level, the poem assesses the ultimate worth of human life, human love, and human values. Yet the poem does not permit reductive or simplistic interpretation; its many thematic strands and its ambiguities of characterization and narrative voice combine to present a multidimensional poem which defies definitive analysis.
The poem’s thematic complexity depends upon a relatively simple plot. When callow Troilus is stricken with love for Criseyde, he follows all the courtly rules: He suffers physically, loves her from a distance, and rises to great heights of heroism on the battlefield so as to be worthy of her. When Troilus admits to Pandarus that his misery can only be cured by Criseyde’s love, Pandarus is only too happy to exercise his influence over his niece. By means of a subtle mix of avuncular affection, psychological manipulation, and veiled threats, Pandarus leads Criseyde to fall in love with Troilus. The climax of Pandarus’s machinations occurs when he arranges for Troilus and Criseyde to consummate their love affair, ostensibly against the stated will of Criseyde and in spite of Troilus’s extremely enfeebled condition. Until this point the poem, reflecting largely the conventions of fabliau, has been in the control of Pandarus; he generates the action and manipulates the characters much as a rather bawdy and perhaps slightly prurient stage manager. With the love scene, however, the poem’s form shifts from that of fabliau to that of romance; Pandarus becomes a minor figure and the love between Troilus and Criseyde achieves much greater spiritual significance than either had anticipated.
Although the tenets of courtly love demand that the lovers keep their affair secret, they enjoy for three years a satisfying and enriching relationship which serves greatly to ennoble Troilus; the poem’s shape then shifts again, this time from romance to tragedy. Calchas, having foreseen the Trojan defeat and having therefore defected to the Greeks, requests that a captured Trojan be exchanged for his daughter. The distraught lovers discover that the constraints placed upon them by their commitments to various standards and codes of behavior combine with the constraints imposed upon them by society to preclude their preventing the exchange, but Criseyde promises within ten days to steal away from the Greek camp and return to Troilus. Once in the Greek camp, however, Criseyde finds it difficult to escape; moreover, believing that the Greek Diomede has fallen in love with her, she decides to remain in the Greek encampment until the grief-stricken Troilus eventually has to admit that she has, indeed, betrayed him.
At the end of the poem, having been killed by Achilles, Troilus gazes from the eighth sphere upon the fullness of the universe and laughs at those mortals who indulge in earthly endeavor. In his bitter wisdom he condemns all things of the earth, particularly earthly love, which is so inadequate in comparison with heavenly love. This section of the poem, erroneously called by some “the epilogue,” has been viewed as Chaucer’s retraction of his poem and a nullification of what has gone before. Chaucer’s poetic vision, however, is much more complex than this interpretation supposes; throughout the poem he has been preparing the reader to accept several paradoxes. One is that even as human beings must celebrate and strive for secular love, which is the nearest thing they have to divine love, they must nevertheless and simultaneously concentrate on the hereafter, since secular love and human connections are, indeed, vastly inferior to divine love. A second paradox is that humans should affirm the worth of human life and human values while at the same time recognizing their mutability and their inferiority to Christian values. The poem also presents courtly love as a paradox since, on the one hand, it is the system which inspires Troilus to strive for and achieve a vastly ennobled character even though, on the other, the system is proven unworthy of his devotion. Criseyde is similarly paradoxical in that the narrator portrays her as deserving of Troilus’s love, even though she proves faithless to him.
These paradoxes are presented against a classical background which contributes to the poet’s juxtaposition of several oppositions. The world of the classical epic provides the setting for a medieval courtly romance so that, although the characters exist in a pagan environment, they are viewed from the Christian medieval perspective which informs the poem. The poem’s epic setting and its romance form, then, like its pagan plot and its Christian point of view, seem thus to be temporally misaligned; this misalignment does not, however, lead to dissonance but instead contributes to the poem’s thematic ambiguity.
The characters also contribute significantly to the poem’s ambiguity. Criseyde, particularly, resists classification and categorization. The ambivalent narrator encourages the reader to see Criseyde in a variety of contradictory postures: as a victim, but also as a survivor, one who takes the main chance; as a weak and socially vulnerable person, but also as a woman who is self-confident and strong; as an idealistic and romantic lover, but also as a careful pragmatist; as a greatly self-deceived character, but also as a self-aware character who at times admits painful truths about herself.
Also ambiguous, but to a lesser degree, is Pandarus, whose characterization vacillates between that of the icily unsentimental cynic and that of the sensitive human being who bemoans his failures to achieve happiness in love and who worries about what history will do to his reputation. He seems to see courtly love as a game and to disbelieve in the total melding of two lives, but he betrays his own sentimentality when he indicates that he longs to find such love for himself.
Although his mentor seems not to take courtly love seriously, to Troilus it is the center of his life, his very reality. His virtue lies in large part in his absolute commitment to courtly ideals and to Criseyde. The solidity of that commitment, however, prevents Troilus from taking any active steps to stop the exchange, since such action would reveal their love affair, soil Criseyde’s reputation, and violate the courtly love code. In this sense, Troilus is trapped by his own nobility and by his idealism, so that his course of action is restrained not only by external forces but also by his own character.
In fact, the poem seems to show that both Troilus and Criseyde are ultimately responsible for what happens to them; the role of fate in their lives is relatively insignificant because their very characters are their fate. As Troilus is governed by his dedication to heroic and courtly ideals, Criseyde is governed by the fact that she is “slydynge of corage.” It is her nature to take the easiest way, and because of her nature she is untrue to Troilus.
From the poet’s point of view, however, Criseyde’s faithlessness does not invalidate for Troilus the experience of her love. Because of his own limited perspective, Troilus is himself unable to assess the worth of his life, his love affair, and the values to which he subscribed; the parameters of his vision permit him to see only the inadequacy and imperfection of earthly experience in comparison with the experience of the divine. The poet’s perspective, however, is the one which informs the poem, and that perspective is broader, clearer, and more complex, capable of encompassing the poem’s various paradoxes and oppositions. In consequence, even though Troilus at the end discounts his earthly experience, the poem has proven its worth to an incontrovertible degree; human life, even though inferior to the afterlife, nevertheless affords the opportunity for experiences which, paradoxically, can transcend their earthly limitations. Ultimately, then, the poem affirms the worth of human life, human love, and human idealism.
The Canterbury Tales
Although Chaucer never completed The Canterbury Tales, it is his most important work and the one for which he is best known. In its conceptual richness, in its grace and precision of execution, and in its broad presentation of humanity, The Canterbury Tales is unequaled. The poem occupied Chaucer for the last one and a half decades of his life, although several of the stories date from an earlier period; it was not until sometime in the middle 1380’s, when he conceived the idea of using a framing device within which his stories could be placed, that the work began to assume shape. That shape is the form of a springtime pilgrimage to Canterbury to see the shrine of Thomas à Becket. The fictional party consists of some thirty pilgrims, along with the narrator and the host from the Tabard Inn; each pilgrim was to tell two stories en route to Canterbury and two on the return trip, making an approximate total of 120 tales. There are extant, however, only the prologue and twenty-four tales, not all of which are completed; moreover, the sources of these extant tales (more than eighty manuscript fragments) contain considerable textual variations and arrange the tales in many differing orders. Thus, it is impossible for critics to determine the order which Chaucer envisioned for the tales.
The notion of using the pilgrimage as a frame device was a stroke of narrative brilliance, since the device provides infinite possibilities for dramatic action while it simultaneously unifies a collection of widely disparate stories. In response to the host’s request for stories of “mirth” or “doctryne,” the pilgrims present an eclectic collection of tales, including romances, fabliaux, beast-fables, saints’ lives, tragedies, sermons, and exempla. The frame of the pilgrimage also permits the poet to represent a cross section of society, since the members of the party range across the social spectrum from the aristocratic knight to the bourgeois guild members to the honest plowman. Moreover, since the tales are connected by passages of dialogue among the pilgrims as they ride along on their journey, the pilgrimage frame also permits the characters of the storytellers to be developed and additional dramatic action to occur from the pilgrims’ interaction. These “links” between the tales thus serve to define a constant fictional world, the pilgrimage, which is in juxtaposition to and seemingly in control of the multiple fictional worlds created in the tales themselves; the fictional world of the pilgrims on their pilgrimage thereby acquires a heightened degree of verisimilitude, especially because the pilgrims’ interchanges with one another often help to place them at various recognizable points on the road to Canterbury.
The pilgrimage frame also permits the creation of an exquisitely ironic tension between the fictional narrator and the poet himself. The narrator is Chaucer’s usual persona, naïve, rather thick-witted, and easily and wrongly impressed by outward show. This narrator’s gullible responses to the various pilgrims are contrasted to the attitude of the poet himself; such use of the fictional narrator permits the poet not only to present two points of view on any and all action but also to play upon the tension deriving from the collision of those two perspectives. The device of the pilgrimage frame, in sum, allows the poet virtually unlimited freedom in regard to form, content, and tone.
The context of the pilgrimage is established in the poem’s prologue, which begins by indicating that concerns both sacred and secular prompt people to go on pilgrimage. Those people are described in a formal series of portraits which reveals that the group is truly composed of “sondry folk” and is a veritable cross section of medieval society. Yet the skill of the poet is evident in the fact that even as the pilgrims are “types”—that is, they are representative of a body of others like themselves—they are also individuals who are distinguished not simply by the realistic details describing their external appearances but more crucially by the sharply searching analysis which penetrates their external façades to expose the actualities of character that lie beneath.
“The Knight’s Tale”
The tales begin with a group which has come to be seen as Chaucer’s variations on the theme of the love-triangle and which consists of “The Knight’s Tale,” “The Miller’s Tale,” and “The Reeve’s Tale.” Like Troilus and Criseyde, “The Knight’s Tale” superimposes a romance against the background of the classical world as it tells of Palamon and Arcite, knights of Thebes who are captured by Theseus during his battle with Creon and sentenced to life imprisonment in Athens. While imprisoned they fall in love with Emily, over whom they quarrel; since Palamon, who saw and loved her first, thought she was a goddess, Arcite, who saw her second but who loved her as a woman, insists that his is the better claim. Several years later, Arcite having been freed and Palamon having escaped from prison, the knights meet and again quarrel, agreeing to settle the matter with a duel. When Theseus comes upon them he stops the duel and decrees that they must instead meet a year later with their troops to decide the matter in a tournament.
For this tournament Theseus erects a magnificent stadium with temples to Venus, Mars, and Diana. When the stadium is completed and the time for the tournament has arrived, the three members of the love-triangle pray for the assistance of their particular gods: Palamon asks Venus for Emily or for death; Arcite asks Mars for victory; and Emily asks Diana to permit her to remain a virgin or, failing that, to be wedded to the one who most loves her. These various petitions cause a quarrel between Venus and Mars which Saturn resolves by announcing that Palamon shall have his lady even though Mars assists Arcite to victory. Arcite, in consequence, wins the tournament, but in the midst of his victory parade, his horse rears, and he is mortally injured. From his deathbed Arcite summons both Palamon and Emily and commends them to each other, but they continue to grieve during the next several years. Finally, Theseus summons Palamon and Emily to him and tells them that since grief should end and life go on, they are to marry and thus make joy from sorrows.
The poem’s plot, then, concerns the resolution of the love-triangle typical of romance. This plot, however, is in the service of a more serious conflict, that between order and chaos. Theseus serves as the civilizing instrument, the means by which order is imposed on the anarchy of human passion. In actuality, by assuming control over the hostility between Palamon and Arcite, Theseus reshapes their primitive emotional conflict into a clearly defined ritual; by distancing it as well in time and space, Theseus forces that conflict into a shape and an expression which is socially acceptable and which poses no threat to the culture’s peaceful continuance. Theseus thus makes order and art out of raw emotion and violent instincts.
“The Miller’s Tale”
The love conflict which in “The Knight’s Tale” serves to develop this cosmic theme is in “The Miller’s Tale” acted out on the smaller scale and in the more limited space of the sheerly natural world and thus serves no such serious or noble end. Again there is a triangle, but the romantic discord among the aristocratic Palamon, Arcite, and Emily becomes in “The Miller’s Tale” the bawdy comedy of the fabliau as it arises from the interaction of the young clerk Nicholas and the effeminate dandy Absolon, both of whom desire Alison, the young wife of John, an old and jealous carpenter. At the same time that the amorous Absolon serenades her nightly and sends her gifts in an effort to win her, Alison agrees to give her love to Nicholas as soon as he can create the opportunity. In fact, however, no elaborate stratagem is needed to make possible the encounter Alison and Nicholas both desire. Since Alison’s husband is away all day working, and since Nicholas as a student who boards with the couple is at home with Alison all day, there really are no obstacles preventing the lovers from acting on their passions immediately. Alison’s insistence, then, that Nicholas devise a plan whereby they can give rein to their passions, reflects an important stylistic and thematic connection between the tale and “The Knight’s Tale.” In the latter tale, Theseus controls the passions of Palamon and Arcite by postponing their encounter and dictating its arena; the distancing in time and space results in a civilized, restrained expression of their passions. In “The Miller’s Tale,” by contrast, the distancing Alison demands parodies the conventions of romance and courtly love. This distance in actuality simply ennobles base instincts, for Alison and Nicholas inhabit not a courtly world but a natural one, and their intellectual, spiritual, and romantic pretensions constitute only a thin veneer covering their healthy animalism. By using distance as a means of ennobling base instincts, “The Miller’s Tale” parodies not only the world and the theme of “The Knight’s Tale” but also its poetic treatment.
Nicholas’s seduction plan plays upon both the strengths and the weaknesses of the carpenter’s character. Telling John that another flood is coming, Nicholas convinces the carpenter that he must hang three barrels from the rafters in which Nicholas, John, and Alison can remain until the waters rise, then they will cut themselves free to float away. The carpenter’s pretensions to spiritual and theological superiority cause him to accept this prophecy unquestioningly, but at the same time his genuine love for his wife causes his first reaction to be fear for her life. When all three on the appointed night have ostensibly entered their barrels, Nicholas and Alison sneak down to spend a night in amorous play.
At this point the plot is entered by Absolon, who comes to Alison’s window to serenade her; pleading for a kiss, he finds himself presented with Alison’s backside. Bent then on avenging his misdirected kiss, he brings a hot colter and asks for another kiss; presented this time with the backside of Nicholas, Absolon smacks it smartly with the red-hot colter, causing Nicholas to cry out “Water!” which in turn causes the carpenter to cut the rope on his barrel and crash to the ground, injuring both his person and his dignity. Whereas in “The Knight’s Tale” the three major characters ultimately obtain what they desire most—Arcite, victory; Palamon, Emily; and Emily, the man who loves her most—“The Miller’s Tale” reverses this idea; John, the jealous carpenter, is cuckolded and humiliated in front of the entire town, the fastidious Absolon has kissed Alison’s “nether ye,” and Nicholas has lost a hand’s-breadth of skin from his backside. Only Alison remains unscathed, but then, she must spend her life being married to John.
The poem thus parodies the romance tradition, the idealistic notion that civilized or courtly processes can elevate and ennoble fundamental human passions. Even as it transfers various themes, mechanisms, and perspectives from “The Knight’s Tale,” “The Miller’s Tale” transforms these and reflects them negatively. The generic differences between the two poems, however, demand that content and tone differ. “The Knight’s Tale,” combining epic and romance, deals seriously with serious considerations, whereas “The Miller’s Tale,” by virtue of its being a fabliau, has as one of its purposes the humorous depiction of human shortcomings.
“The Reeve’s Tale”
“The Knight’s Tale” and “The Miller’s Tale” are different tales which have structural similarities; “The Reeve’s Tale,” which completes the poem’s first thematic grouping, shares with “The Miller’s Tale” the fabliau form but the two differ considerably in tone. The Reeve’s story results from his outrage at the Miller’s story, which has belittled carpenters; in angry retaliation the Reeve relates the popular fabliau concerning the two students who, cheated by a dishonest miller, exact revenge by sleeping with both his wife and his daughter. The plot, which hangs in part upon the device of the misplaced cradle, has as its end the unsophisticated students’ triumph over the social-climbing miller. The tone of “The Reeve’s Tale,” therefore, is bitter and vindictive, told, the Reeve acknowledges, solely to repay the Miller.
Chaucer uses the romance and the fabliau, the two forms with which he begins his series of tales, again and again in the course of the poem. Other romances are the unfinished “The Squire’s Tale,” which has an Asian setting; “The Man of Law’s Tale,” which blends romance and a saint’s life in the story of the unfortunate Constance; and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” “The Clerk’s Tale,” and “The Franklin’s Tale,” which will be discussed together as “the marriage group.” The genre of the fabliau is also further represented in “The Shipman’s Tale” of the debt repaid by the adulterous monk to his lender’s wife, and in “The Friar’s Tale” and “The Summoner’s Tale,” stories which are attacks on each other’s professions and which are told to be mutually insulting.
Use of Saint’s Lives
Another popular genre Chaucer employs in his collection is that of the saints’ lives, a type used in “The Second Nun’s Tale” of St. Cecilia and in “The Prioress’s Tale” of the martyred Christian boy slain by Jews. While both tales conventionally concern “miracles of the virgin,” the tale of the Prioress is of particular interest because of the nature of the storyteller. Although she is supposed to be a spiritual being, a guardian of other spiritual beings, she is described in the same manner as the heroine of a courtly romance; moreover, although her description points to sensitivity and charity, her moral sensibility is clearly faulty. She worries over a little mouse but tells a violent tale of religious intolerance. Moreover, the ironies implicit in the engraving on her brooch—“Amor vincit omnia”—are extensive, as are the ironies deriving from the conflicting perspectives of the narrator, who naïvely admires her for all the wrong reasons, and the poet, who clearly sees her as possessed of many shortcomings.
“The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”
Another popular genre in the Middle Ages was the beast-fable, a form which Chaucer uses brilliantly in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” The story concerns Chauntecleer and Pertelote, a cock and hen owned by a poor widow. When Chauntecleer one night dreams of a fox, he and Pertelote have an extended discussion on the validity of dreams. Believing that dreams are caused by bile or overeating, Pertelote advises the use of a laxative; Chauntecleer, however, holding a different opinion, tells a story wherein a dream is proven prophetic. At this point the fox appears, whom the Nun’s Priest likens to such other traitors as Simon and Judas Iscariot. Even as he insists that his antifeminine statements are not his own but the cock’s, the Nun’s Priest clearly believes that woman’s counsel often brings misfortune and points with relish to the fox’s sudden appearance as proof of this belief.
The encounter between the fox and the cock reveals the weaknesses of both. Relying hugely on flattery, the fox persuades Chauntecleer to relax his guard, close his eyes, and stretch his neck, providing the perfect opportunity to seize Chauntecleer and race off. As the widow and her household set chase, Chauntecleer advises the fox to tell the pursuers to turn back because he will soon be eating Chauntecleer in spite of them; when the fox opens his mouth to do this, Chauntecleer escapes. Although the fox tries to persuade Chauntecleer to come down out of the tree, Chauntecleer wisely declares that he will not again be fooled by flattery and that no one should prosper who closes his eyes when he should watch. The fox, as one might expect, disagrees, declaring that no one should prosper who talks when he should hold his peace.
The poem thus uses the beast-fable’s technique of personifying animals to the end of revealing human truths; it also uses the conventions and the rhetoric of epic and courtly romance to talk about the lives of chickens, thus creating a parody of the epic form and a burlesque of the courtly attitude. The poem is also, to a degree, homiletic in treating the dangers inherent in succumbing to flattery; each character suffers as a result of this weakness, the cock by having foolishly permitted himself to be captured, and the fox by having gullibly permitted himself to be hoodwinked by one pretending affinity.
“The Wife of Bath’s Tale”
Having begun the discussion of The Canterbury Tales with an analysis of the group of tales concerned with the love-triangle, it seems fitting to end the discussion with an analysis of those tales referred to as “the marriage group.” “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” “The Clerk’s Tale,” “The Merchant’s Tale,” and “The Franklin’s Tale” bring to that group several perspectives on women and the relation between the sexes. The Wife of Bath, in complete opposition to the traditional view of women, presents one extreme point of view which advocates sensuality and female authority. An excellent example of what she advocates, the wife is strong and lusty and insists on dominance in her marriages. In her lengthy prologue to her story she takes issue with patristic doctrine concerning chastity and female inferiority and uses scriptural allusions to buttress her opinions. Her prologue thus provides a defense of women and of sensuality.
Her tale, an exemplum illustrating the argument contained in her prologue, concerns a knight who must, in order to save his life, find out what women desire most. Despairing over his inability to get a consensus of opinion, he one day comes upon a “loathly lady” who offers to give him the answer if he in turn will do what she requests. Gratefully agreeing, he learns that women most want “sovereynetee” and “maistrie” over their husbands; he is less pleased, however, to learn that her request is that he marry her. Having kept his promise, the knight on their wedding night is understandably distant from his new wife; when pressed for an explanation, he notes that she is ugly, old, and lowly born. She in turn explains that nobility comes not from wealth or birth, that poverty is virtuous, and that her age and ugliness ensure her chastity. She gives the knight a choice: He can have her ugly and old but faithful, or young and pretty but untrue. The knight chooses, however, to transfer this decision and consequently the control of the marriage to her, whereupon she announces that she will be not only young and pretty but also faithful, thus illustrating the good that comes when women are in control.
“The Clerk’s Tale”
The Wife’s tale, and the wife herself, with her heretical opinions concerning marriage and sexual relations, outrage the Clerk, who tells a tale to counter the Wife’s; his tale reinforces the doctrine that male dominance on earth conforms to the order of the divine hierarchy. His story treats the patient Griselda, who promises her husband, Walter, to do everything he wishes and never to complain or in any way indicate disagreement. When a daughter is born to them, Walter, who is an Italian marquis, tells Griselda that since the people are complaining about her low birth, he must have the child killed, to which Griselda meekly agrees; Walter, however, sends the child secretly to a relative to be reared. When a son is born, Walter again does the same thing, again to test her obedience, and again Griselda is perfectly submissive. Twelve years later Walter secretly sends for the two children and tells Griselda that since he is divorcing her in order to marry someone else, she must return to her father. Moreover, he insists that she return to her father just as she had left him, that is, naked, since Walter had provided her with clothes. Griselda, with great dignity, requests at least a shift as recompense for the virginity which she had brought to him but which she cannot take away with her. When asked later to come and make arrangements for Walter’s new bride, Griselda cheerfully complies, although she does, at this point, give some indication of the great price she has paid for her obedience and her faithfulness to her vow; she asks Walter not to torment his new wife as he tormented her, the bride-to-be having been tenderly reared and therefore not so well able to withstand such adversity. Walter, finally satisfied as to Griselda’s steadfastness, restores her as his wife and reunites her with her children. The Clerk concludes by noting that it is hard to find women like Griselda nowadays.
The tale is one with which critics have long grappled, since it presents seemingly insurmountable interpretive problems. The story can hardly be taken as realistic, even though the Clerk, through his efforts to give Walter psychological motivation, attempts to provide verisimilitude. Although the poem may be intended as allegory, to illustrate that one must be content in adversity, it seems also to have a tropological level of meaning, to illustrate the proper attitude for wives. The narrator’s own uncertainty as to whether he tells a tale of real people, a saint’s life, or an allegory, contributes to the difficulty one has in assessing the poem’s nature and purpose. It is obvious, though, that the Clerk’s intended corrective to “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is perfectly accomplished through his tale of the impossibly patient Griselda.
“The Merchant’s Tale”
At the end of his tale the Clerk appears to switch directions; he advises that no husband should try what Walter did, and that furthermore wives should be fierce to their husbands, should provoke their jealousy, and should make them weep and wail. The Merchant picks up this notion and echoes the line in the first sentence of his own remarks, which are intended to counter the Clerk’s presentation of the saintly wife. The Merchant’s own unhappy marriage experience adds a painfully personal coloration to his tale of the old husband and the young wife.
His story of May, Januarie, and the pear tree is well known in the history of the fabliau. Immediately after wedding the sixty-year-old Januarie, whose lovemaking she considers not “worth a bene,” May meets and falls in love with Damian, who loves her in return. When Januarie becomes temporarily blind, the lovers plot to consummate their love in the pear tree above Januarie’s head. Pluto and Proserpina, debating how men and women betray each other, decide to restore Januarie’s sight but to give May a facile tongue. Consequently, when Januarie’s sight returns and he sees May and Damian making love in the pear tree, May explains that her struggling in a tree with a man was an effort to restore his sight, which is obviously as yet imperfect. Placated, Januarie accepts her explanation, and they are reconciled.
The three tales thus present varying views of woman as lascivious termagant, as obedient saint, and as clever deceiver; marriage, accordingly, is seen as a struggle for power and freedom between combatants who are natural adversaries. It remains for Chaucer in “The Franklin’s Tale” to attempt a more balanced view, to try to achieve a reconciliation of the oppositions posed in the tales of the Wife of Bath, the Clerk, and the Merchant.
“The Franklin’s Tale”
“The Franklin’s Tale” is a particular kind of romance called a Breton lai, which conventionally is concentrated, imaginative, and exaggeratedly romantic. While the tale is interesting in its depiction of an integrity which rests upon absolute commitment to the pledged word, the intricacies of the poem’s moral issues are ultimately resolved, in a rather disappointing fashion, by something akin to a deus ex machina. The tale, nevertheless, has been seen traditionally to function as the reconciliation of the marriage group because of the more balanced relationship portrayed between Arveragus, a knight, and Dorigen, his wife. The couple agree that he will show no sovereignty except for that semblance of it which may be necessary for his dignity, and that their effort will be for freedom, harmony, and mutual respect in marriage, rather than for mastery. In this regard, they represent an ideal example of marriage which is totally antithetical to those of the preceding marriage tales; in Dorigen and Arveragus, Chaucer seems to be exploring the possibility that chivalric ideals and middle-class virtues can be compatible in marriage. Whether the poet really believes this is possible, however, is placed in question by the tale’s romance form and by its contrived ending.
While Arveragus is away on knightly endeavors, Dorigen mourns and grieves, worrying particularly about the black rocks which make the coastline hazardous. When Aurelius, who has loved her long, pleads for her attentions, she explains that she will never be unfaithful to her husband but adds, in jest, that if he will remove the rocks she will love him. Two years after Arveragus has come home, Aurelius, made ill by his long-frustrated passion, finds a magician who, for a large fee, creates the illusion that the rocks have vanished. Asked then to fulfill her end of the bargain, the horrified Dorigen contemplates suicide to avoid this dishonor, but her miserably unhappy husband, declaring that “Trouthe is the hyeste thyng that man may kepe,” sends Dorigen to fulfill her promise. Pitying them, Aurelius releases her from her promise and is in turn released from his debt by the magician; the tale ends by asking who was the most generous.
Although Dorigen and Arveragus have a marriage based on respect, honesty, and love, and although they share a moral sensibility and agree on the importance of honor to them individually and to their marriage, the artificial resolution of the plot by totally unexpected elements—the decisions of both Aurelius and the magician not to press their just claims—would seem to suggest that the poet himself dared not treat in a realistic fashion the unpleasant and probably disastrous results of the plot which he had created. In effect, he established an ideal marriage situation, set up a test of that marriage’s strength, but then decided not to go through with the test. In placing his attempted solution of the marriage problem in the form of a Breton lai, in failing to pursue to the end the very questions he himself raises, and in providing a typical romance ending, the poet seems to indicate that any real solution to the problems pertaining to women and to marriage are not going to be so easily attained.
The Canterbury Tales, then, represents one of the earliest collections of short stories of almost every conceivable type. In addition to being a generic compendium, the poem is also a compendium of characters, since the pilgrims who tell the stories and the people who inhabit the stories together constitute the widest possible representation of character types. In framing his collection of tales with the pilgrimage, Chaucer permitted himself an eclecticism in form, content, and treatment which was unprecedented in English literature. There are those who would eagerly affirm that the grace of vision which permeates The Canterbury Tales makes the work not only one which was unprecedented but also one which has not since been equaled.