Friday, September 25, 2009

Sex, Suicide, and Pride in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

If you are to put together the pieces of the plot of The Miller’s Tale from the successful trickery of the Carpenter in the beginning, to the insult of Absolon in the middle, and the resolution of the tale where Nicolas receives his punishment; it becomes clear that the idea of not intruding upon another’s private life is not a moral in the classical sense, but rather a moral made to mock those of courtly love stories such as the Knight’s Tale that the Millere is refuting in a sense. Thus the Millere’s praise of secrecy and the need to protect this immoral behavior is meant to be an elaborate joke against the chivalric code of honesty, chastity, and virtue in love with the statement of the moral being, “An housbonde shal nat been inquisityf/ Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf”. The tale seems to imply that those who inquire about the secrets of God or of their spouse are bound for disaster as Nicholas, Absolon, and the Carpenter all suffer insult and physical ailments when they try to know what they should not know. The only person to escape the story unscathed is the only person who does not ask questions: the carpenter’s wife, which may not sit well with male readers to see that the wife who cheats on her husband is the only one to miss out on the humiliation, while all of the men who chase after her are disgraced. Not to mention the fact that church clerk is pursuing a married woman which could be a statement on church corruption.

The Franklin’s tale has the elements of a traditional love story in that there are the husband and wife who must be separated and then there is the other man who loves her and yet this story is both progressive and regressive. The couple is willing to have a marriage in which husband and wife are on equal plane. This is quite modern and unheard of in any other work that I have read during this period. Then when the courtly love figure enters the narrative with Aurelius who desperately seeks Dorigen’s affections to no avail; then the story becomes troublesome and quite regressive. When he completes the impossible task she gave him in exchange for being his lover, she then is left in a state of turmoil where she would rather commit suicide than break her chastity. She should be faithful to her husband and yet she does not want to break her promise. What’s troublesome is how long the text delves into this suicidal lament that seems inappropriate in what is otherwise an interesting story. She says, “That unwar wrapped hast me in thy cheyne,/ Fro which t’escape woot I no socour,/ Save only deeth or elles dishonour”. It’s as if Chaucer wanted to write something modern and then he decided to fall into this strangely morbid middle to end with everything being resolved all too easily for everyone involved. This one may not be so controversial in content compared to the Miller’s tale but for me it is controversial in style and pacing.

Compared to the other Canterbury Tales, this little tall tale about a prideful cock named Chauntecleer who is a victim to a sly fox who captures the attractive animal with flattery. I might be missing the point to this narrative because it did not seem ban-worthy to me. It’s a bit reminiscent of a children’s fable with talking animals and a very topical moral. This one being that you should not be so prideful and stuck on yourself.

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