Monday, September 28, 2009

Chaucer's Multiple Personalities

The disparate nature of the Miller’s Tale, Nun’s Priest’s Tale and Franklin’s Tale demonstrate what makes Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales so ingeniously subversive—essentially, deliberate confusion of the reader.  Aside from the old English vocabulary that may be initially unsettling to an unfamiliar contemporary reader, Chaucer creates a veritable plethora of distinct voices to essentially hide behind.  Even the narrator is a character: the tenuously identified Host. Creating such a ragtag medley of individuals essentially undermines the reader’s critical eye by distracting him.  It is a reading experience emotionally similar to stumbling into a booming party filled with strange, unfamiliar yet strangely intriguing new people—the reader may very well forget himself completely in the process of meeting everyone.  Depending on the personality of the individual reader, such a scenario may sharpen or distract the judgmental eye, but ultimately it complicates maintaining objectivity while reading.

            The disparate voices of the characters telling the individual tales are just one part of what makes them so intriguing and their fragmentary book so overwhelming.  The most effective “weapon of mass distraction” lies in the engaging nature of the stories themselves.  The beast fable of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale tickles the funny bone in the inherent ridiculousness of picturing a rooster pimp-figure surrounded by his hen biddies; the Franklin’s Tale features exaggerated characters in magical situations so improbable that they would not be out of place in a daytime television drama, and the Miller’s Tale—well that one pretty much speaks for itself.  Ultimately, these devices may give an intelligent modern critical reader pause for self-reflection.  Do we recognize this as satire for our prior knowledge of Chaucer as a satirist?  Without meeting the author first, would he have a more effective edge in pulling the wool over our eyes, artfully, subtlely, and perhaps fully incognito?


Impressionable Youth

This being the first blog since I’ve started volunteering at Govan’s Elementary, it might be appropriate to write a few first words about the kids and how my first day might relate to themes in Chaucer. While my first day didn’t consist of working with the kids, and instead sitting in the back folding “decodables” (small reading booklets created by ripping several perforated pages out of a larger booklet, then folding and stapling them together), I was still able to pay attention to the manner in which the teacher interacted with the students and the way the kids behaved and interacted with each other. Two things in particular I found to be especially relevant to Chaucer in what I noticed on that first day. The first was a pretty obvious and certainly universal practice between first graders of beginning to recognize the differences between genders and start having notions about what it means to be “male” and “female.” Certainly at this point the kids have no definite conceptions of societal gender norms, but are still being influenced and impressed upon by their parents, the media, and what they do in school. At this point, what this accounts to is mostly just a general divide between the girls and boys: the children stick to those who are most similar to them and are interested in the same things. This is a generalization of course and the kids have no problem playing with the other gender, but the preference of playing with their own gender exists.
The other thing I noticed was more specific to the teacher I was working with and certainly doesn’t apply to every elementary school teacher, although I’m sure there are others with the same traits. The way he interacted with the students, however, was almost with a cynical sarcasm, a sense of humor that if he were working with high school students, would probably categorize him as one of the “cool” teachers, a funny and ironic teacher that subtly pokes fun at the students in a friendly way. As the children he is working with are all first graders, most of his humor goes right over their heads, but there seem to be one or two exceptionally bright students who catch on, who will laugh at a joke that he is making mostly just for himself, probably to keep himself sane amidst a class of hyperactive and untreated attention deficit kids.
Why this relates to Chaucer, and to the other books we have been reading for that matter, is the way in which humor is used often as a method of talking about serious issues, or satirizing people or institutions in order to achieve some other goal. In Chaucer, nothing is safe as his characters are drunken, sexual, crude targets of Chaucer’s wit and their social classes and the institutions they represent are torn apart for the corruption and hypocrisy within. Of course, this satire may not be obvious to everyone: the miller’s tale, for example, is a crowd pleaser filled with sex, bum kissing and farting that many will find funny simply for the sex, bum kissing, and farting and not because it is a part of a larger critique of the social classes of medieval England. Just like Huckleberry Finn, The Canterbury Tales will mean something different to different people who read it. Is this wrong or ineffective if people take a piece of fiction as something other than what it was intended to be? Certainly for people who “get it” a piece of satire is brilliant and important, but when something is taken the wrong way, it can have disastrous results. Misinterpretations of the written word have often led to unnecessary conflict (many times the misinterpretations of holy works), radicalism, and “idolization” of characters that aren’t meant to be taken at face value. Whether or not these are side effects of the works or are just an outlet for ideals already in place is up to debate.
How the gender roles the kids are developing relate to Chaucer is directly related to this sense of satire that Chaucer writes his tale with. Certainly there are many sexual stereotypes and gender roles throughout the work, but any educated reader will understand Chaucer’s greater purpose and the irony in which he writes about women treated as sexual objects and men who are only interested in women in lusty manners. However, someone who doesn’t understand this irony only sees the outer crust, the story as entertainment rather than social commentary, and the impressions the story makes on them will be completely different. This is simply an example of the question I asked earlier: where should the line of misinterpretation be too dangerous to let people cross? People are extremely impressionable, especially young people, so this seems an honest question.

Canterbury Tales instilling morals

            The Canterbury Tales are a series of short stories which Chaucer uses to depict corruption in the Church and the morals, or lack there of, of those participating in the pilgrimage.  Throughout the tales irony as well as immense imagery is used to prove points and convey the moral in each story. 

            In “The Miller’s Tale” humor helps to convey the story of a married woman who is wooed by others and is not faithful to her husband.  Nicholas is the first man who attempts to win over Allison; he is studying astrology, this trait is an innuendo, the stars are comparable to God’s secrets, which he probes.  The fact that he is ultimately unsuccessful with Allison is a direct result of his inquiring too privately into God’s private. 

            In “the Prologue”, the Franklin is described as “the patron Saint of Hospitality”, ironically, he is not saintly at all, rather, he lives a life of overindulging rather than one of few material possessions.  His tale also involves a sort of love triangle; Arverigus and Dorigen are married just a short period of time when Arverigus must leave.  Dorigen is in a state of depression and tells a squire (who is madly in love with her), that she will be his lover if he is able to remove the rocks which she thinks threatens her husbands return.  He eventually is able to do so and Dorigen is troubled with having to keep her promise, her husband agrees she must do so and in the end the squire is so overwhelmed by their true love he breaks off the deal. 

            The Canterbury Tales were implemented to keep the members of a pilgrimage entertained.  Each person would tell a tale and eventually, the best one would receive a prize.  Sidney notes that there are three general headings which poetry falls under; the “first he notes by turning to history itself that poetry was the first educator, second, he claims that poetry is able to present reality and human experience with reality in a more vivid and persuasive form, and third, he notes the moral value of poetry as a formative molder and enlarger of the human mind and character”  (3).  The Canterbury Tales fall into all three categories, it indeed tells of the corruption in the church at the time as well as presents reality and the moral in the stories and the point of the stories in general were meant to make people of the time aware of their actions and the consequences of them.  

Canterbury Tales: It Hits the Fan

I’ll be honest: while I was reading the three prologues and tales from Chaucer, I couldn’t help but think, and especially during the Miller’s tale, of South Park.
Now, South Park has come up a few times during discussion in our class (mostly by myself, I think), but I do think it’s a fair comparison. You have intelligent people choosing to make social commentary through comedy. And not only comedy; crude comedy. The Miller’s Prologue and Tale reminded me of the South Park episode called “It Hits the Fan,” in which the word “shit” is used over one hundred fifty times in about twenty minutes. The episode focuses around the characters’ excitement for the show “Cop Drama” to air the same word on network television. This leads to everyone in town thinking it’s okay to use this word in public until this curse word turns out to actually be cursed, and the main kids have to save everyone from the perils of using it too much, which involve a human-eating dragon. Throughout the episode, there is a counter in the corner tallying how many times the word is said. What’s most interesting though, is that Comedy Central decided to air the episode uncensored—well, with at least one curse word uncensored. Comedy Central wasn’t going to air it uncensored with only a few mentions of the word, but once the count neared two hundred, they decided to go ahead and air it uncensored.

Despite the record-breaking number of uncensored curses in this episode, there wasn’t very much controversy surrounding the airing of the episode, and Wikipedia page has this uncited quote:"if a drama or a serious show breaks the boundaries, it's 'bold' and 'artistic,' but if a comedy show like theirs tries it, it's just 'stupid, or shitty, or bullshit.'"

I bring all this up because I feel that what they’re doing it similar to what Chaucer did back in the 1300s, with all three of the tales we read, to a certain extent. Through comedy, he points out contradictions in his society, and many are still relevant to our own today. For example, after the nun’s priest’s tale, the host points out to him that “if thou were seculer/Thouwolst ben a trede-foul aright/For if thou have courage as thou has might/Thee were need of hennes, as I wene/Yan, moo than seven tymes seventene. “ Theoretically, the fact that this man is a priest should mean that people don’t see him as a sexual being, but he clearly puts time into his physique and is a good-looking man. Is this wrong of him? Chaucer doesn’t necessarily say, but he does point out the irony in being a sexy priest.

Again, in the Miller’s Tale, the moral of the story, which he points out in his prologue, is this: “An housbonde shal nat been inquisityf/of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf/So he may fynde Goddes foyson there/Of the remenant nedeth nat enquere.” Supposedly, in a marriage, husband and wife promise to be honest with each other, loyal, and respectful. The Miller’s suggestion that in order to have a happy marriage, a husband should not look too deeply into the affairs of his wife is a grim one, but also a very real situation that still occurs today.

Though both of these comedies have parts that are purely silly, neither is without thought overall. Both have something to say; Chaucer certainly and skillfully pointed out many things that were happening in his country at the time, and the really brilliant thing about his work is that we can still read it today because these contradictions still exist. It is because of authors like Chaucer that shows like South Park exist, although they might seem complete opposites at first.

Poetry and "Pryvetee"

Sidney argues that poetry is the one art form through which humans can move towards a better understanding of self and of the world around oneself. As an English major, I am drawn towards the study of poetry and other forms of literature that constantly question my views of life and of myself; I believe in Sidney’s idea that reading and writing poetry can have a beneficial effect on one’s self understanding. Unlike Sidney, Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale” uses the word “pryvetee” to put human understanding on an unattainable level, claiming that humans cannot reach higher levels of understanding because they cannot interfere with God’s “pryvetee”, or his divine privacy. This view of the limits of human knowledge puts into a different perspective all that I am working and studying for and brings up the question of how this adherence to religion can be incorporated, if at all, into a Jesuit education like that found at Loyola.

I originally hated reading and writing poetry because of the lack of structure associated with the processes; I did not know how to read without a background sense of what was taking place and did not understand how one work of literature could leave so much to perspective. Through practice and learning I have overcome most of my fear of the literary form and can now read poetry for enjoyment and for understanding. I understand poetry because I can sense my own views intertwined with those of the poet. Poetry is universal in this sense because anyone can read a poem and find something to relate to, something that by one’s own terms is comprehensible. Writing poetry also requires recognition of self and even of others, for to write relatable poems, one must ask questions about oneself and attempt to answer them or further relay these questions through poetic depictions.

Sidney’s definition of poetry combines most of my beliefs with the idea that poetry is the means of accessing a sense of divine understanding through self knowledge. He claims that the best forms of poetry “were they that did imitate the inconceivable excellencies of God,” (86) that poetry should imitate God through its imitation of nature and of human experience and knowledge. Sidney bases this claim (that poetry can achieve the divine) through his belief in innate goodness, the belief that all humans have a tendency to act justly and morally. Through writing poetry, humans can tap into this inborn sense of morality and display both vice and virtue, further passing on the knowledge of morality and of self. Sidney therefore puts the poet on a level of authority that can be compared to the level of the Divine: “For he doth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, as will entice any man to enter into it” (92). Refined poems that give a sense of virtue are therefore equated with religious writings, or writings that “show the way”.

Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale” puts out the question of “pryvetee”, or God’s privacy. He claims through this tale that humans try to invade God’s pryvetee to reach a divine level of understanding but that humans ultimately are restricted to the human or bodily levels of pryvetee. The Miller warns the reader in the prologue of the tale to avoid those foolish attempts at trying to understand God and his pryvetee, to avoid the imitation of God: “An housbonde shal nat been inquisittyf/ Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf. / So he may fynde Goddes foyson there, / Of the remenant nedeth nat enquire” (67). In a sense, Chaucer therefore advises against writing poetry or at least the divine kind of poetry that Sidney praises, for poetry is an attempt to understand God and the Creation, or an attempt to grasp the incomprehensible.

What would Chaucer therefore say about education, especially about a Jesuit, liberal arts education like that found at Loyola? Loyola’s core program features both philosophy and literature or poetry, subjects that question one’s role in life and do not provide structured answers but rather allow for perspective. Because I am constantly seeking a way of learning, understanding myself, and finding my future life’s goal, I find myself well suited for Loyola’s Jesuit education program that focuses not only on history and philosophy (both of which Sidney believes can be incorporated into poetry) but on the use of the imagination. Chaucer’s view of human understanding through pryvetee advises for structure (through religious faith) rather than the use of the imagination, therefore advising against my learning and the forms of higher education.

Chaucer’s argument seems to bring up the question of fate. Should one accept the fact that “everything happens for a reason”, that God, his pryvetee, and his plan should not be questioned but just accepted? Accepting this idea along with the idea of pryvetee would end one’s search for self understanding and for higher levels of learning. I disagree with Chaucer’s view of understanding and his promotion of divine pryvetee because I think that people should be questioning and furthering their sense of self knowledge. What does one have to live for if one just accepts the basic structure of religion and does not attempt to learn? I think that Sidney’s belief in poetry provides a more positive outlook on life because it allows for one to have a life goal of self knowledge and therefore allows for possibilities.


In the Miller’s Tale, the reader is given the moral of the story before it begins. “ An housbond shal nat been inquisitif / Of Goddess privitee, nor of his wyf. / So he may finde Goddes foyson there, / Of the remenant nedeth nat enquere. “ (lines 54-57) The Miller warns the audience that a man should not look into the private matters of God, or the private matters of his wife.

This moral is exemplified in the story in many ways. Everyone in the tale who concerns themselves with another’s privitee suffers consequences. At first, the Carpenter seems to have an understanding of the conception of privitee, as he warns the young scholar not took gaze into the stars and try to understand God’s private business. “
The carpenter to blessen him bigan, / And seyde, ‘ Help us, Seinte Fridesqyde / A man woot litel what him shal bityde. / This man is falle, with his astromye, / In som woodnesse or in som agonye: I thoghte ay wel how that it sholde be! / Men sholde nat knowe of Goddess privitee.” (lines 263-268). While the Carpenter shows that he knows it is dangerous to try and understand the workings of God, he is unable to apply this same concept to his wife. He is extremely jealous, and obsessive over his wife and her whereabouts, and as a result looses her to the young scholar, and is made to look a fool and insane. While the tale uses vulgar and ridiculous humor to show the consequences of looking into someone else’s privitee, the strong message somehow remains intact, as you see that every single character must suffer the consequences of their actions, even if that consequence is kissing someone’s arse.
In the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the reader is also presented with a warning. This warning is to not believe or accept flattery from another. The Priest tells a story of chickens and a rooster, who dreams that he is going to die. Despite this fear and warning when confronted with a fox, the rooster is a victim of the Fox’s flattery and is soon captured. I found it interesting that the Priest choose to tell his tale using animals, whereas the Miller seemed to make a more direct attack on the Reeve.

Both of these tales brought up interesting debates. The Miller’s tale tells us not to concern ourselves with the private business of God, wives, or others, yet our current culture and society does just that. In a world of facebook, myspace, and twitter we are entirely obsessed with knowing the private business of others. We can see what they did over the weekend in pictures, read conversations between someone and their boyfriend, friend, or sister. With status updates we can be aware of what and where a person is. From a simple click you can learn someone’s favorite bands, favorite tv shows, favorite books. All without conversation.

Beyond our ability to look into the private business of our friends, we are obsessed with knowing the private business of others. We buy magazines filled with celebrities going about their daily lives, and become obsessed with their situations, pictures, and drama. focuses solely on celebrity gossip and looking into the lives of others. We have reality television, which is the epitomy of looking into the private business of another, as we quite literally look into the life of someone else from the comfort of our own living room.

What is it about our society that we feel the need to look into the private lives and business of others? Part of me feels that this desire has always existed, but the means for satisfying that desire have changed. Before facebook, before reality tv, a way to look into the life and mind of another was to read a book. What better way to get a taste for another’s life than to read their thoughts, and witness their life unfold. It seems to me that we have become greedy. Less satisfied with looking into the lives of fictional characters, and more into the lives of real people.

If the Miller’s Tale holds true, it won’t be long before we are all made a fool. The fact that the Miller’s Tale is still so completely relevant today, is what makes Chacuer so amazing. All of his Tale’s contain not only descriptions of the character of the time, and of people of that time, but of universal truth’s about man kind, and our desires and hopes.

Sidney: Poetry Missions

According to Sidney all humans, mainly us English lovers, owe a lot to poetry. He believes that in the absence of the written word the only form of literature that can survive is poetry (chants, sing-songs, word of mouth), while at the same time poetry is the catalyst for the creation of the written word. In my cultural anthropology class we are examining the lives of many “primitive” or “barbaric” tribes living on remote islands. They are classified as such mainly because of their lack of a modern industrially economic society and their dependence on a hunting-gathering lifestyle. If Sir. Philip Sidney was the anthropologist examining these tribes I would assume that he would believe these people to be climbing up the economic society ladder. These people chant, have important ritual sing-songs, and pass down stories from generation to generation by word of mouth. All of this Sidney would deem Poetry.
The way Sidney describes poetry in this piece is quite beautiful, calling it the first “light giver to ignorance.” (p. 83) He emphasizes that Poetry did a lot to educate and form early human peoples, or rather “primitive minds.”(p. 83) This idea mirrors the same idea that many missionaries had when going to convert these barbaric tribes. Western missions thought that by introducing Christianity to these tribes would save them from a life void of culture and sophistication. Poetry, for Sidney, is just as powerful as religion because the moral value of poetry influences society. It “purifies” intellect, “enriches” memory, and “enlarges” our capacity to think imaginatively. It is hard for me to imagine why Sidney’s Apology for Poetry would be banned because I happen to agree with him. Perhaps not entirely on the influence of Poetry, but on the influence of literacy, writing, and grasping onto something divine in cultures that previously had no idea such things existed.
Poetry also works as an international connector of cultures. Sidney points out that many different nations, although they are different all have poetry in common. He references that Turkey has no other writers but poets, Ireland even though their “learning goeth very bare”(p. 84) their poets are held in the most devout reverence, and “Even among the most barbarous and simple Indians where no writing is, yet have they their poets…their hard dull wits softened and sharpened with the sweet delights of Poetry.”(p. 84) This missionary-based style tactic of literature is reflective of Poetry’s divine qualities. The Ancient Greeks called God a Poet, a word of very high regard that comes from the word Poiein which is “to make.”
What is interesting is that Sidney seems to be celebrating the triumph of wittiness, cleverness, and creativity or perhaps the ability to “make”, rather than will or the use of logic. As we see in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales there is a tension between the clever characters and the ones who focus more on philosophy and knowledge. Using The Nun’s Priest Tale as an example, the fox uses his clever antics to lure Chauntecleer into the water while Pertelote’s advice is left unheeded. Sidney praises Chaucer in his Apology, saying he doesn’t know whether he should “marvel more, either that he in that misty time could see so clearly, or that we in this clear age walk so stumblingly after him.”(pg. 102)
There are the obvious reasons why tales such as Chaucer’s would be banned, the bawdy nature of the Miller’s Tale for example, but the underlying tenderness of this subject must be the implied call to action for people to stop using their heads so much and to gain common sense. Also, by women reading characters such as Alison and Pertelote might realize that they can gain mastery over the men in their lives, which I assume at the time would be a big no-no. Even today, in last week’s discussion, we reflected on the fact that men still have an issue with accepting their wife’s success. Many still would be offended or have their pride shattered if they were asked to be the stay at home parent, and relationships fail because of female success and male failure.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Worth of a Tale

Though I can see why each of our three selections from the Canterbury Tales might be considered controversial, especially during Chaucer’s time, they seem to span the spectrum. The Miller’s tale proves the crudest, as well as the most ridiculous (“But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers”). The Franklin’s Tale is questionable in a more meaningful way, because it features a relationship where a man and woman are equal (“Wommen, of kynde, desiren libertee … And so doon men, if I sooth seyen shal”) as well as magic (“This is to seye, to maken illusioun, By swich an apparence or jogelrye”) and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is relatively harmless, save the talking animals and slight obscenity.

What I find most interesting, however, is not the tales themselves, but the fact that each tale is about as sophisticated as its narrator. The Miller, a drunkard of low status, tells a tale that has no moral, features characters with no morals, and that functions primarily as a joke. The Franklin, a free man of slightly higher status, tells a tale that is thought provoking. Lastly, the Nun’s Priest, a clergyman, tells a tale that is somewhat absurd, but conveys a distinct moral at the end. This pattern seems to imply that the worth of a story has much to do with the worth of its narrator – yet who determines this “worth?” Is it fair to dismiss one tale as less significant than another simply because the teller is of a lower social class? Surely the Franklin’s tale has as much value as the Nun’s Priest’s and surely, despite its crudity, the Miller’s tale contributes something of value – whether it simply be that of entertainment. Indeed, one cannot claim that the Miller’s tale is less entertaining than the other two.

To clarify, I’m not attempting to argue that the Miller’s tale is particularly intelligent – I’m simply pointing out that sometimes lessons are learned in the least likely places and that we, as readers, should always be open-minded. For example, while tutoring at Guilford, I’ve been working with 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students. Though I like to think myself more intelligent than them considering my significant age advantage, I am frequently surprised (and humbled) by their stories. Even something as simple as the re-telling of a classic shows me something new. One of the questions I asked during a quizzing session had to do with the Chronicles of Narnia series. The boy I was quizzing went far beyond simply telling me who wrote it (the original question), to summarize it and expound on its Christian symbolism. Needless to say, I was impressed. Clearly this boy had just as much to teach me as I did him. Where I might have brushed an 8th grade sibling aside, deeming his ramblings unimportant, because I was this boy’s tutor I had to sit still long enough to listen. And that was enough.

I believe this open-mindedness is something that Chaucer valued: why else would he have let the Miller continue with his story? Though crude, the Miller's tale is not without value. Thus, perhaps the most important question that needs to be addressed is this: are we, like the “Hooste,” silencing one person’s story in favor of “Som better man [to] telle us first another?” Are we, in our intolerance, losing out on valuable knowledge?


Chaucer introduces quite the motley crew of pilgrims in his Canterbury Tales. And while his stories are often humorous, grotesque, and entertaining, they offer a great deal of commentary on social constructs as well as what drives the participants in a given society to act the way they do. The complexities of sex, honor, and vanity pervade the majority of the tales, but there is undoubtedly a method and a purpose behind Chaucer’s eccentric characters and their adventures.

The Miller’s Tale ultimately deals with a classic dilemma found in our society and our culture today, as it always has been. John, the carpenter marries a woman much younger than himself. The inherent tension and potential friction present in their circumstance alone provides material for a story even before the threat of a devastating “flood” and other men enter. After the initial sexual attraction and lust, trickery, and cruelty are through, the end of the story is clear: the carpenter is made a cuckold. But more importantly than this, he is made a cuckold publically. He is made out to be a fool by his young bride and her lover. This is the ultimate dishonor, disgrace, and embarrassment for the carpenter. His private life, his problems-his “dirty laundry”-is not simply exposed to him, but to all. The role of society and its impact on public life is pretty obvious, but it is important to recognize the role of society on private life as well because it certainly affects it. Society, or the members which constitute this given society, come into the private life of a man and partake in his embarrassment. The carpenter is shamed by Alison and Nicholas, but he is also shamed by his fellow citizens. His plight provides the material for their laughter and their pity (3849). And while one may be inclined to feel bad for the old man, it must not be forgotten that he inadvertently asks for this. He invites this dishonor upon himself when he marries a teenage girl and expects her to be satisfied with an old man. It seems that all the characters involved are at fault here, even the pathetic Absolon who goes after another man’s wife. All their actions, society will tell us, are wrong. The tale is an old one, but the story holds up through time because this situation is relatable to our world today. And no matter the time period, no good can ever really come from such a situation.

Chaucer attempts to put forth a more endearing story with The Franklin’s Tale. The tale leads to acts of “kindness.” Initially tainted motives turn awry and eventually dissolve. Arveragus’s attempt at “honor” by succumbing to his wife’s promise ultimately influences and inspires the others to drop their respective claims over one another. But where is the honor in allowing your wife to be taken by a man she does not want because of a promise she made so that you may come home safely? By following an invisible code of conduct, by submitting to a verbal promise, Arveragus thinks that he is acting properly and honorably according to society. Chaucer wants his readers to think that this is a happy ending and that the individuals involved are virtuous and kind, but this is merely on the surface because the Franklin poses an important question at the close of his tale: “Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow? (1623). This is not an innocent question. Which of these individuals was most honorable in the end? This question should remind the reader that there was really no honor in these acts because they were founded in dishonorable and ridiculous circumstances. The attempted picture of chivalrous, courtly valor, of self-sacrifice does not work here. The quick ending is laughable- everything magically resolves itself and all is well. Even if the characters deem their resolution honorable or even note worthy, the reader recognizes its absurdity as well as the pride of the individuals involved.

Vanity, like pride, is a concept often attributed to society. There is a standard by which everyone holds themselves as well as each other up to. But in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, vanity nearly results in the violent death of a cock. Chauntecleer’s aesthetic value is indicated in the tale. References to his beautiful “coomb…byle…legges…toon…nayles…colour” (2859) are made, pointing out his exterior beauty. It is precisely this which gains him “sevene hennes” (2866). Flattery successfully lures Chauntecleer away from the safety of his home into danger. He is taken with himself, with his own good looks, and almost loses them all because of it. Society is likely a direct influence on how Chauntecleer sees himself. It is how he knows to judge himself, whether he should or not. Just as society invades the private lives of lovers, it also plants semi-deluded notions of honor and nobility in our minds. It tells us how we should see ourselves and each other. Everyone is very much aware of society and societal influences, but regardless of this knowledge, society is extremely influential and works on us both consciously as well as subconsciously. Chaucer knew this and he is able to play with what society is capable of doing.

Chaucer and Sidney: A Thumb's Up to Our First Amendment

So far, my classmates have mentioned some very interesting ideas about our selections from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. To be quite honest, reading these “tales”, along with Sidney’s Defense of Poesie got me thinking more about the historical context of these pieces rather than their content, which is usually the focus of a Literature class such as ours. Since this is a seminar about banned books, the reason “why” is always looming over my head as we read for this class. As interesting as our readings are, it’s impossible to forget the societies that these pieces arose from.

Chaucer’s Tales came at a time when the Clergy had much power and the regular working class didn’t. Chaucer himself was a bit higher up in society than the average guy (he was a messenger for VIPs and got to travel around Western Europe, which probably helped him write a pilgrimage narrative successfully). However, his tales parody almost every kind of person, from every class. Of course some people are clearly presented better than others, and some are obviously targeted (THE CLERGY…ahem).

I recognize the fact that Chaucer had something to say about his society, and he did so by having his pilgrims share “tales” that are more like parables, or even allegories. The Nun’s Priest’s tale has a clear “lesson” at the end, and though some others don’t say it, other tales have clear underlying “lessons” as well. So far my other classmates have mentioned these in detail, and given possible ideas about Chaucer’s intentions and ultimate meaning. However, I think that Chaucer’s ultimate goal wasn’t something literary. Though he may be considered the father of modern English literature, I feel his Canterbury Tales were mainly influenced by his society and its limitations.

I only remembered one thing about Chaucer’s Tales from when I studied them in high school—that the Nun was absolutely repulsive. She truly was to me; all I could think about was how similar she was to my mean old crusty nuns who were currently teaching me writing, theology and social studies. Looking back on it now, I realize that Chaucer was making a connection between the ideal and reality: that nuns, as hard as they tried, sometimes had vices that even God couldn’t get rid of. Chaucer was commenting on a class in society that was basically untouchable (after all, no one could EVER say anything bad about the religious!) because they were representative of a religion that was not separate from the state. Chaucer used his brilliance in writing to comment critically on society by disguising his true intentions and making fun of all classes, and not just one.

I’m assuming this book was banned because though Chaucer poked fun at everyone, the Clergy isn’t stupid. Also, some of Chaucer’s tales are a little slapstick and use some religious references loosely (Using the story of The Great Flood to get a guy to sit on his roof in a barrel? Really?). And this is where Sidney comes in. He quite aptly titled his Defense of Poesie. Though it was written almost 100 years after Chaucer died, he defends a writer’s right (ha-ha) to produce fiction. And, yeah, it’s obvious to almost anyone that Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are a little more than fiction. But without the ability to write about society, and people, and general discrepancies with common ideas, there would be very little chance for change. I think Chaucer’s Tales is a great example of a writer taking a chance and critiquing commonalities that others might be afraid to.

Like Mary said, society always tends to favor the beautiful. Chaucer uses the Nun’s Priest’s tale to highlight this. The Miller’s and Franklin’s tales are geared more toward societal norms rather than natural, biological preferences (after all, preferring beauty is a part of the natural process of procreation), but they still show the ridiculousness of some aspects of society people take for granted. Sidney realized the importance of fiction and satire, and his Defense is something that even our U.S. Constitution specifically recognizes. Sadly, these works probably offended some people, so it made the cut for our banned books class. But someone somewhere thought they were important enough, otherwise they wouldn’t be being studied today.

Distrust of Knowledge in Chaucer and Modern Times

Throughout both the Miller’s Tale and the Franklin’s Tale, there is a juxtaposition of—and tension between—those with scientific knowledge and those without it. Chaucer seems to portray the knowledgeable in a negative way, as though they are inherently untrustworthy. In the Miller’s Tale, “hende Nicholas” is described as a “poure scoler” from whom people seek advice and knowledge of the future (lns 8190-3199). He takes advantage of the simple carpenter (John) who trusts in his scientific prediction of the second great flood (like that of Noah’s time). Nicholas and the carpenter’s young wife (Alison) successfully have an affair, and in the end, the carpenter looks comically insane, having fallen to the ground in his tub with no water in sight. The reader is left feeling as though Nicholas should have known better than to abuse his knowledge in such a way.
In the Franklin’s Tale, we are told of Dorigen, who jokingly tells the young squire Aurelius that the only way she would break her vow to her husband is if he “remoeve alle the rokkes, stoon by stoon,/[t]hat they ne letter ship ne boot to goon” (lns 993-994). Aurelius then takes this comment made in jest and plots to tear Dorigen away from her husband by seeking the skills of a “tregetorue” who possesses advanced knowledge of the rotation of planets and, presumably, the tides (lns 1141, 1273-1284). Aurelius has successfully “won” Dorigen’s virginity, by manipulating nature in unnatural ways—something Dorigen laments in line 1345: “It is agayns the process of nature.” The reader sympathizes with the duped Dorigen and her honorable husband, Arveragus.
These two tales made me reflect on the privilege of knowledge and the responsibility that comes with it. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, we are also confronted with this issue. Jim is constantly without knowledge and is frequently taken advantage of because of his ignorance. We were all deeply troubled in the scenes of his escape in which Tom Sawyer kept from Jim the fact that he was a free man, instead forcing him to suffer through some ridiculous notion of adventure. By deceiving Jim, a man ignorant through no fault of his own, Tom Sawyer becomes, to the reader, a bit of a monster.
There are examples of this in our own world, as well. The first that comes to mind is my experience at the Caroline Center, an educational center for women in Baltimore. I worked with women studying for their GED, tutoring them in each of the areas tested: math, reading comprehension, and grammar. In most of the women’s experiences, they had been entirely let down by the school systems in which they were supposed to be getting educated. One woman told me about a high school math class in which the teacher would sit in the front of the room and refuse to offer any guidance. Another told me about another math class in which her teacher left a month into the year, only to be temporarily replaced every few weeks, so that nothing got done. For these women, it wasn’t that they weren’t willing to learn; it was that no one had taken the time to teach them.
As if that weren’t bad enough, in many instances, these women’s families were completely unsupportive of their dedicating three hours a day for three days a week to the program. There were many reasons why their families thought there were better things for them to do, not the least of which being an economic objection—that by not working those nine hours, they were losing out on nine hours’ worth of pay. Beyond this monetary concern—which I realize was no trivial matter for most—was, I suspect, a general distrust in and disbelief in the value of knowledge.
In the world these women were surviving in, knowledge was not a prized possession. It didn’t stop a random bullet from killing your brother; it didn’t keep your heat on in the winter. The schools didn’t want them and weren’t helping them, so they left before graduation in favor of minimum wage jobs around the neighborhood. What their families couldn’t see—and what they women were only just coming to realize—was that knowledge was the pathway out of the cycle in which they lived. For them and their children, siblings, and parents to ever break out of the oppressive bubble in which they were living, they needed to fight like hell and trust in something they never had before—the power of knowledge.

exposing the flaws of humanity

When reading "The Miller's Prologue and Tale," "The Franklin's Prologue and Tale," and "The Nun's Priest's Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue," from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, I could definitely see why the tales might be banned. The characters described in the tales have glaring flaws, but so do the tale tellers themselves. I think that the idea of humans being innately flawed, however truthful this notion may be, makes people in general feel uncomfortable. It forces them to consider their own flaws, which is typically a discomfort they'd like to glaze over or ignore. This, in my opinion, is a possible reason as to why the tales were banned that would not have been fomrally stated.

Consider the Miller's tale first. The flaws that are brought to the surface include lust, lying, and insensitivity. The lust is between Nicholas and Alisoun, who disrespect Alisoun's husband to indulge in their sexual fantasies of one another. Many people can most likely identify with this feeling of lust, but would be uncomfortable to admit it--especially in a society dominated by Christian ideals. Similarly, the lying comes into play when Nicholas tricks Alisoun's husband in order to sleep with her. We, as humans, have all lied in our lifetimes, but see it as something to be embarassed about. That would be another element of discomfort that might motivate people to ban
The Canterbury Tales. Finally, the insensitivity is seen when Nicholas and Alisoun rudely toy with Absolon. This is something a reader might relate to from childhood, humiliating someone who is in a vulnerable position, and resenting it in hindsight. For me, personally, these are the kinds of things that make me feel uncomfortable.

When thinking of The Franklin's tale, new flaws are represented in
Dorigen, who secures a new lover in fear her husband will not return safely from England. She shows the flaw present in many humans, who act in a disloyal manor in order to avoid being alone. Understanding and realizing this flaw is difficult for those struggle with it, because they don't want to take the necessary means to change it...for that would mean being alone, the one thing they truly. Thinking of these kinds of things makes it uncomfortable for the reader if he or she can relate to Dorigen, but also--the sexual explicitness of this tale would make most uncomfortable. I can see why the Franklin's tale would be banned, as well, even though it does have a happy ending.

Although the Nun's Priest's Tale is about animals, the flaws of pride are still very relateable to humans. The effect of having too much confidence, we see in Chanticleer, who is taken advantage of by the sweet-talking fox. For most people, thinking of how easy it is to be tricked by an astute rhetorician might make them feel rather uncomfortable, especially in the time which
The Canterbury Tales were written. Being forced to come to terms with the negative effects of being too egotistical is something we might not want to face.

In general,
The Canterbury Tales are a little bit distressing to read--perhaps I feel this way doubly as much because of how difficult it was to read old time English, but even if it were written in modern parlance, I would still feel uncomfortable reading them. Their message is to expose the flaws in humanity through the story-tellers, but also through the happenings in the stories themselves. I think that the way they shed such a negative light on human character makes a reader feel uncomfortable, even if he or she is considering that The Canterbury Tales are meant to be a satire. No one really likes to think about what is wrong with themselves or those around them--perhaps that's why The Canterbury Tales were banned.

Physical Appearance

Every time I read The Canterbury Tales, I am amazed at the way in which characters are described most concretely in the way that they look. Physical appearance becomes a way to know people, understand them, and even judge them, which is weird in the case that we, as readers, do not see Chaucer’s characters. The most attractive characters are the most prized, the most admirable, or the most desirable; the ugliest characters are the most corrupt, the most offensive, or the least desirable.

Even the animals in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” are valued as characters based on their physical appearances. Describing the main character, the rooster, Chauntecleer, Chaucer writes,

His coomb was redder than the fyn coral,

And batailled as it were a castel wal;

His byle was blak, and as the jeet it shoon;

Lyk asure were his legges and his toon;

His nayles whiter than the lylye flour,

And lyk the burned gold was his colour.

(lines *4049-4054)

The rooster’s value is placed on his appearance. His feathers are described as “golden,” his “byle” as black, shining like a jet, and his nails as more white than the pure “lylye flour,” and from this description, Chaucer concludes that “This gentil cok hadde in his governaunce/ Seven hennes for to doon al his pleasaunce,” (lines 2865-2866) implying that this perfect physical appearance allows the rooster to select any of the “seven hennes” at his “pleasaunce”. His good looks are associated with his talent; Chaucer writes that he is the loudest and most accurate rooster, comparing him even to a church clock. The beautiful is also the best, and so he gets all the girls, even though as the story progresses his hubris gets him into trouble, and even though Pertelote, the best looking hen, who I might add is similarly described as physically attractive, patronizes him for being so afraid of his bad dream.

Alisoun, the objectified prize of the “The Miller’s Tale” is described, as Chauntecleer and Pertelote also are, in great physical (and dare I say sexual) detail. Chaucer writes,

Hir mouth was sweete as bragot or the meeth,

Or hoord of apples leyd in hey or heeth.

Wynsynge she was, as is a joly colt,

Long as a mast, and upright as a bolt.

A brooch she baar upon hir lowe coler,

As brood as is the boos of a bokeler.

Hir shoes were laced on hir legges hye.

She was a prymerole, a piggesnye,

For any lord to leggen in his bedde,

Or yet for any good yeman to wedde.

(lines 3261-3270)

Alisoun appears to be the epitome of man’s sexual fantasy. Her “mouth”, the “brooch” that sits “lowe” on her “coler”, and the boots that “lace” up her “legges” showing her every curve make her worthy of “any lord to leggen is his bedde,” but also she is a valued person, a good wife, worthy “for any good yeman to wedde”. The entire story rides on her desirability; it is a story of three men wanting to physically have her, possess her, and touch her as well as their interactions with each other. She is beautiful so she can have her pick of her suitors, even if her pick is more than one, even if her pick mortifies her husband.

Chaucer wrote a long time ago, but I think that the bias he exaggerates still lives. In Intro to Gender Studies, we called it the “Beauty Bias,” the way that those our society defines as pretty are just treated better. It is something people rarely notice, because for the most part, we receive the same bias for our entire lives, for better or for worse. Traits that are not at all related to appearance are somehow judged from appearance.

For example, I am going to use my sister, Annie, who I think is pretty dang cute. First of all, she encounters general friendliness that I would not say all people encounter. There is a Moe’s right by her new apartment in College Park, Maryland that she has been to maybe four times since she moved in on August 7th. When she walks in, after she hears the normal, “Welcome to Moe’s!” whoever is working begins to make, not only what she usually gets, but her husband, Ryan’s order as well, asking her to make sure they are doing so correctly. A friend of her husband’s was shocked to find that Annie is actually quite quiet and pretty nerdy; he assumed that she must be fun, outgoing and maybe even a little crazy just because, as he admitted, she is cute and loved by all Ryan’s fraternity brothers. When Annie and our brother, Mike, applied to work at Planet Hollywood together one summer, Annie got the job over Mike. This may not seem as though it has anything to do with physical appearance, but not only is Mike two years older, he had much more work experience, and his interview was substantially longer. Annie said that she walked into the interview, the guy said, “oh, I see you used to model?” As she nodded he looked her up and down and said, “Okay, you’re hired”.

It is odd to think that we judge personality on something utterly unrelated, physical appearance. Chaucer uses it to inform the audience of vital information; oftentimes, entire stories are dependent upon the assumptions made from characters’ physical descriptions. Honestly, the realization that Chaucer’s method is similar to something that we do every single day brings up more questions than answers. Is typecasting beneficial to literature? Where does the Beauty Bias come from? Is it something that could or should be stopped? What does it mean to say that our society makes judgments purely based on people’s level of physical attractiveness? What is physically attractive to our society? Maybe I’m just hypersensitive to this phenomenon because I am preparing for Beauty of Women’s Love Your Body Day on Wednesday, but I find this idea to be disturbing. It seems to me that in American culture we have only one beauty ideal, which leaves what—90% of the population to be treated as inferior? What do we value if we cannot even see past the beauty bias?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Influence of Stereotypes

These select stories from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales exemplify the imposition of stereotypes on an individual’s perspective. Each story demonstrates a sense of labeling characters through the narrator’s perspective. We, as readers, are thrown into the mind of the narrator, making us completely dependent on the words of the narrator and his opinion of others. As the concept of “trouthe” ironically plays a central role in “Franklin’s Tale” , I slowly begin to question how trustworthy his opinion can be. The narrator states “Heere may men seen an humble, wys accord/ Thus hath she take hir servant and hir lord—/Servant in love, and lord in marriage” (lines 790-3). As a reader we are forced to view the story through the narrator’s eyes, but are we forced to hold the same opinions?

One could argue that while reading the story a reader is entitled to hold their own opinions, but how much leeway do readers have? Chaucer’s attempt to demonstrate equality within a marriage was unheard of during his time. This risky literature is pushing the envelope of the stereotype of marriage. The real question is whether or not Chaucer wanted to write this to disprove the stereotype of his time, or to make an example out of Aurelius and Dorigen. As the story continues, the opinion of the narrator influences the reader’s perspective and outlook on marriage and the people involved.

These readings seemed to fit in perfectly with what was happening at my service learning. Last Monday was my first day at Govans Elementary School. I was introduced to my supervisor, Mr. Pugh. As I entered the chaos of his room, I quickly saw the respect they held for Mr. Pugh, a math teacher. The children began to take their seats, and Mr. Pugh turned on some classical music (to help calm them down and get them into ‘learning mode’). Before Mr. Pugh even began to teach math, he made sure to go over the topic of gossip. He later told me that the children were extra noisy today because of rumors happening within the classroom.

I was amazed to see Mr. Pugh taking on the role of ‘guidance counselor’ but he did a great job of covering the influence of gossip on the life of a student. He also made it a point to use me as an example, and he asked if I would share a story about gossip within my life as a college student. Being placed on the hot seat, all that came to mind was the game “telephone”. I told the students about how the smallest twist of words could lead to a completely different story. The kids really grasped the concept, and Mr. Pugh told me that he would use that example in the future.

After leaving my service learning, I really began to think about the role of gossip in my life. I looked around at my classmates, and the ‘fables’ of their past came to life. I truly began to think about my perspective on my peers, why do these fake stories hold so much weight on how we view each other? When is it acceptable to trust the stories? Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales helped highlight the issue of stereotypes and the concept of trust buried deep within the stories.

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.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Mission Accomplished?

Aristophanes’ Lysistrata presents an apparent contradiction to a modern day, post-women’s-liberation-movements female reader.  Lysistrata and her posse assert feminine power by arguably antifeminist means, luring the troops home with the promise of sex.  Aside from a few male respects paid to females, like the Laconian Envoy’s concession—he claims he has “never seen a woman of more gracious dignity” than Lysistrata (43)—it may be argued that the womens’ tactics ultimately served to exacerbate the male instinct to objectify the ‘weaker’ sex.  Throughout her rousing speech to the aroused throngs, Lysistrata ignores lewd commentary about the ‘fine body’ and ‘lovely bottom’ of the goddess Peace.  The ladies’ strategic plan was an effective gain for the pacifist cause, but can the modern self-actualized woman comfortably concede, “mission accomplished”?


Some comfort may be taken in the blatant fun poked at the male ‘one track mind’ throughout the work.  The comedic seduction scene between Myrrhine and her charming husband Cinesias (31-38) portrays Cinesias in a less-than-flattering, somewhat ridiculous light. He is dramatic to the extreme, descrying each minor delay in his sexual release as torturing or killing him: “This woman will kill me with her blankets!” (37).  In his desperate pleas to Myrrhine, Cinesias invokes Apollo, the Greek god believed to drive the sun-chariot, an invocation that has a twofold significance—not only does it reinforce his own firmly rooted beliefs in male power and entitlement, it also counters the invocations to the virgin huntress Artemis made by the women throughout the play (Artemis is Apollo’s twin sister in ancient Greek myth).  The subtle invocations of brother and sister figures create an undercurrent of equality and desexualized male/female relations.  Naturally Cinesias remains wholly oblivious to this, and pitiably, wrongly self-assured, even without encouragement.  Myrrhine explicitly tells him that she cares about him against her better judgment enough to get him a bed, a move the reader knows to be yet another passive aggressive delay-tactic; he interprets this as blind devotion on her part (35).   These moments may expose Aristophanes’ awareness of the ridiculousness of the play’s self-contradictory feminist-and-antifeminist central mission, or it may simply be indicative of him writing in the context of patriarchal ancient Greece.


The shocking events of the play are supported by blatant sexual imagery and explicit diction. It may just be me having my mind in the gutter, but innuendo seemed to pervade nearly every page of this play.  Even the most innocent tangential story about an incident in the market conjures images of sex, and even rape: Cleonice describes a Thracian warrior “brandishing his lance” panicking a fig-selling woman and “gobbling up all her ripest fruit” (23).  Lysistrata’s speech that follows is rendered all the more strikingly asexual by comparison: she deploys a conceit of yarn to illuminate her politics.  It is notable that even this more objective, less objectifying image is often associated with diminutive females—is there anything more dainty than knitting?  Perhaps her choice of imagery was one of the reasons her strong point about weeding out the disingenuous was wholly lost on the Magistrate (24).  But this is giving him too much credit—his line makes it plain that he didn’t hear a single word, since it came from a woman’s lips.  Ultimately, it seems that in his own way, Aristophanes champions Lysistrata for employing the one realistic means of bringing males to—ahem—attention in the context of female-dehumanizing ancient Greece.

female empowerment in Lysistrata

            I want to start by saying the play is indeed comical, as I’m sure was it’s intent.  With that said, I didn’t know whether to be offended by or proud of the women in the play.  While withholding sex is comical and certainly did work, in the back of my mind I was somewhat disturbed that the play implies that sex is the only quality women have to offer and there would be no other way to have an impact on society without using sex as leverage.

            While I was reading the play I was reminded of an argument I’m sure everyone is familiar with; women are obviously not suitable to be in positions of authority, i.e. the presidency, because there emotions would get in the way and hinder them from thinking clearly.  I think the play not only nullifies this argument but also shows that when emotions are involved things are done more efficiently.

            The women decide to refuse sex to their husbands in hopes to persuade the men to search for peace.  The women admit that they are lonely and at one point it is even mentioned that some women fear they will miss their chance to find a husband.  The emotions that are shown here; fear, loneliness, melancholy, are all feelings that inspired the women to withhold sex and in turn peace was sought. 

            The women in the play are quite inspiring.  The women are harassed by the men, fall victim to violence, and are verbally abused, and in turn they torment the males.  “Lysistrata” is a great female empowerment tale. 

Lysistrata: Main character? Women: Stronger than men?

Well I’m not sure what I expected when I picked up Lysistrata, but it certainly wasn’t this. I have to admit that I laughed out loud several time while reading it, and most of my marginal notes say something along the lines of “haha” or “oh no she didn’t!”

But I had to wonder, at the end of the play, which is named after the woman who begins the sexual strike these woman go on, why Lysistrata seems to disappear so abruptly a few pages before the play’s end and without any final word on the matter. In her last moments in the play, she facilities the compromise, perhaps a little cluelessly (“What rampart, my dear man?”), and her final word is “then each man will go home with his wife.” It bothered me because, as the title character, I assumed that she would begin and end the play, but it seems that once the men agreed to come to an agreement as the women were demanding, the men once again, and literally this time, took center stage and all of the women were not heard from again. I’m not sure if Aristophanes is pointing this out to criticize it or not, but my guess is not. The women in this play are depicted as strong, but only strong enough to resist their husbands—and even this they struggle with and some try repeatedly to go home. Such a passive cry for peace is certainly effective (and has been in real-life history), but in Lysistrata, it doesn’t give much credit to these women.
I’m not convinced the men or the women in this play were really changed after having to go a whole week without having sex with their spouses, and I’m not sure Lysistrata cares too much. The play sets up this difference between men and women, that men want war and women want peace, but in the end both simply appease the other to keep a happy home.

Although the image of the men of Greece all running around with uncontrollable erections is certainly funny, I think that in this play it only sets up a situation in which men believe all their theories about the inferiority and wickedness of women are being proven true. Even Lysistrata herself talks critically about her own sex (“we are good for nothing then but love and lewdness,” “it’s the female heart and female weakness that so discourage me”), seeing one woman pretend her pot was her pregnant belly and that she was going into labor was funny, but we’re laughing at them, not with them.

I think that in the end, the joke is on the women. They go home happy wives, and though the magistrate says that they should all “avoid like mistakes for the future,” they’re also drunk. Only a page earlier, he suggests that, “out envoys should always be drunk.” I wondered how long it would be before another war would start and the women were once again unhappy with their husbands at home. Funny as it is, there is certainly a lot to think about in this play, and though it is hard at times to figure out Aristophanes’ intentions, I also don’t think that this stands in solidarity with women as it might seem at first glance.

Lysistrata as the Punch-Line

Aristophanes’ risqué play showed to the world, perhaps, a side of the proper ancient Greek women that was most often kept quiet—the free-spirited, lusty, wine-loving kind of ladies. His play’s namesake protagonist, Lysistrata, whose very name means “destroyer of armies,” is more concerned with overthrowing the brutish, war-mongering male politicians than with tending the house or serving a husband. And there’s really only one problem for the modern reader—Aristophanes isn’t trying to empower women, and neither is Lysistrata.

Lysistrata is a fairly independent woman. She never mentions her own lover, husband, or kid, nor her own lusty desires, as the other women tend to. She has the gumption to gather up a group of powerless women and initiate a coup d’état. And on top of this, she’s successful. But once peace has been attained for Greece, Aristophanes swiftly removes Lysistrata from the play—the whole closing scenes, she’s mute. It left me missing the strong-willed woman I had come to root for throughout the play.

This sudden removal of the empowered woman protagonist reminded me that—as silly as it might sound—Lysistrata isn’t calling the shots here. Aristophanes is using her female attributes against her; he’s staging a comedy to expose the ridiculousness of petty Greek wars by having the most ridiculous scenario he can construct: women solving the political crisis at hand. Even Lysistrata highlights how absurd other women act: “…it’s the female heart and female weakness that so discourage me.”

Aristophanes lived in a world in which war was constant. Different cities within Greece were always picking fights with other cities. Complicated alliances and rivalries existed so that there was no peace; many citizens didn’t even know what wars were for anymore. So, looking at “Lysistrata,” it’s easy to see why and how he constructs his artful anti-war commentary using sex, something every man and woman wants, and women, whom no one would suspect of doing anything mildly “masculine,” like involving themselves in politics. Lysistrata is little more than a kid playing dress-up--cute for a while, but in the end, she's got to put back on her own clothes and take up her former role.

Aristophanes makes war out to be ridiculous by utilizing women and sex. Even our strong female protagonist thinks women are valuable only when manipulating their husbands. He does it so swiftly and fills it with such entertainment that I almost took my eye off of what was happening--women having power was the punchline to the whole joke. Yes, it’s a comedy, and yes, it shouldn’t be taken as some kind of manifesto. But, there is that old saying: every joke is half of the truth.

The Body as Means of Control

Over this past summer, one of my more feminist friends bet me that I couldn’t name a single Hollywood film in which two women have a conversation about something other than men. Luckily, I was able to win the bet, but her point was well taken: I could only name a small handful of films where this was true. Therein lies the true problem behind Lysistrata, a film seemingly about powerful females who break the conventions of power in a male-dominated society. However, this is unfortunately not quite the case. While it is true that the women are able to take over the poorly guarded treasury in order to stop the flow of money towards the war effort, the real power behind Lysistrata’s actions lies with the withholding of sex the women impose on their war-hungry husbands. It is only when the men have gone days dragging along their never-subsiding mega-erections that they finally give in and allow for peace to take hold. Thus only through the use of their bodies as sexual object do the females exert any real power or have any influence on their husbands. After the strike ends, the females will return to their traditionally subservient roles as housekeepers and life will go on as normal, only now the Peloponnesian War will have ended.
Thus the question is raised: is the use of the body as means of control a positive or negative thing for womankind? Some may say that this is simply falling back on stereotypes and that a truly strong woman will be able to exert power without using sex whatever, but is this necessarily always the case? If a male-dominated society will only view a woman as sexual object, then a woman taking advantage of this narrow-minded outlook to manipulate men is simply seeing what she has and using it. Without delving into the moral repercussions of sex as a means of manipulation, one can't fault an generally oppressed group using any means they can to their advantage. While Aristophanes was certainly no feminist, his characterization of Lysistra and company is a little more questionable - while he may portray the women by their stereotypes, he nonetheless makes them the protaganists who eventually succeed in their aims. Thus the question of how the play is to be read is still not entirely clear and more often than not depends on who is doing the reading.


It wasn’t hard to pick up on the crude nature of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and understand why this has been banned. I agree completely with Katie’s argument. Although it seems that Lysistrata is a powerful role model for her female companions in reality she is exacerbating a stereotype in order to get what she wants. By first glance the reader will take this story as it appears; a group of women fed up with their husbands’ demands and the war led by a strong, independent woman. A closer look reveals that the main concern of the women is their husbands’ absence and inability to have sex with them when they desire it most. They are just as sexually frustrated as the men.
It seems as though Aristophanes is poking fun at women, making a claim that the only way women are able to get ahead in public society is because of their sexuality. Lysistrata does not do much to help this cause but instead she objectifies women more than the men do in this play, an example being when she brings the goddess Peace in while she is making her final argument to the men. The men are clearly not listening to Lysistrata’s demands but rather focusing on how beautiful Peace’s body is. At the top of page 43, Lysistrata states the demands of the women in a large, detailed paragraph and Magistrate ignores her entirely, “(devouring the goddess with his eyes) Good god, this erection is killing me!” (pg. 43). I also noticed that there was a lot of “big talk” between the two sexes. The men would speak of beating the women, knocking down the gates, and dousing the women with fire but any violence between the men and women rarely occurred.
In the scene where Myrrhine “seduces” Cinesias he uses their child as a bribe to bring Myrrhine down the stairs. It is obvious at this point in the story that both the men and the women are playing to each other’s weaknesses. Cinesias is playing with Myrrhine’s heart by bringing in her child and Myrrhine is tantalizing Cinesias’ privates by constantly running to and from the bed. By the conclusion of the work peace is resolved. I find it funny that the chorus of Athenian men believes that they are victorious in all of this, “as in honour of a victory won!” (pg. 47). It is here that Aristophanes may be poking fun at his own sex a bit, that no matter how peace came about the men still take credit for achieving it thanks in no part to the women. I don’t believe that Aristophanes is trying to paint Lysistrata as a credible female figure, but instead use her to demonstrate the stereotypical “man-eater” women are depicted as.

Does Lysistrata Really Take a Stance for Females?

Aristophanes’ play, Lysistrata may seem to demonstrate a story about a bold, independent woman ready to transform society, but when examining the play a little closer it becomes clear, that Lysistrata’s argument only helps confirm that women fit a certain stereotype.

In the final scene of the play Lysistrata makes her point by bringing in Peace, a naked female. This is the one part of the play where she is able to present her case and make her point, instead she brings in a naked girl. Not only does this naked female distract the men from listening to Lysistrata’s main concerns, but Peace now serves as a bribe. The men are sexually frustrated and this gesture does not even the playing field, it only sets Lysistrata at a lower level of merit.

Also by bringing Peace, Lysistrata demonstrates that she is ok with the degradation and objectification of women. This can also be seen when Lysistrata welcomes Lampito “how well and handsome you look” (4) Lysistrata then proceeds to open Lampito’s robe baring her breasts. I found this very ironic because the females are putting each other on display as they objectify each other.

Even though Lysistrata takes place during a war, the battle between the men just hides in the background because there is much controversy involving Lysistrata. This play may seem to be a battle between the sexes, but the true controversy lies within the female sex as they battle the stereotypes given to them by each other and the males. Even though Lysistrata may “blush for our sex” (1) she also claims “men will have it we are tricky and sly” (1). Her personality may depict her as a leader, but it’s just a facade because Lysistrata is doing nothing to transform society; all she is doing is bringing attention to the sexually frustrated women.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Lysistrata: A Critique of Women

Lysistrata was probably originally banned for its depiction of the male race as animalistic and easily susceptible to females and to lust. But at the same time, it is not necessarily a feminist theatrical work; Aristophanes’ play was most likely banned later on for its degrading treatment of women. The play does not readily promote women’s rights but actually portrays women as merely having a physical influence over men, an influence based only on the sexual appeal of their bodies. The female characters in the play do not even try to prove otherwise, for they see no problem in using their physical appearances to their advantage. Although written by a man, the play shows that women themselves help to demote their role in society; in using sex and seduction to their advantage, women allow men to further see them as merely physical objects of worth. Aristophanes’ depiction of the male and female roles raises this common historical argument regarding women and their own maltreatment of their rights.

Aristophanes’ character of Lysistrata, for which the play was named, initially comes off as a strong, sensible woman for her desire to overrule the men and find a way to end the war. Unfortunately, her motives and way of going about this goal are prime examples of the anti-feminist movement. Her main argument behind the women’s abstinence movement is that she does not like to see her fellow females left lonely at home while their husbands fight: “…instead of enjoying the pleasures of love and making the best of our youth and beauty, we are left to languish far from our husbands, who are all with the army. But say no more of ourselves; what afflicts me is to see our girls growing old in lonely grief” (24). This motive proves that Lysistrata is not concerned so much with the war but with the absence of the husbands, claiming that the women left behind can only grow old and lonely and therefore basing the happiness of the female population on the status of the men. Lysistrata’s plan to appeal to the physical temptations of the men further takes away from the portrayal of women’s rights, for Lysistrata assumes that the only influence that the women can have over their husbands is the influence of their bodies. She does not even bother coming up with a plan that focuses on the intellect of the women, proving that she herself does not believe in the equality, both mentally and physically, of women and men. Lysistrata, although willing to make a societal change, ultimately succumbs to the historical female role of an object of pleasure and reproduction.

Although the women get their way (and the men eventually sign a treaty of peace), their success is based solely on their bodies, not on their minds. The woman of Peace herself is a symbol of physical temptation, proving that the women do not try to persuade the men with their intellect and that the men do not even view the argument of the women in an intellectual sense: “LYSISTRATA: … Now, where is the gentle goddess Peace? (The goddess, in the form of a beautiful nude girl is brought in by the Machine.)…MAGISTRATE (devouring the goddess with his eyes): Good god, this erection is killing me!” (43). The figure of Peace, although literally a symbol of peace and a means to end the war, is also a symbol of the way that both men and women view the feminine role in society as a role based only on physical appearances. The women do not win the argument because of their intelligence but because the men want to end the war and once again lay with their women. The worst part is that the female characters do not even have a problem with this.

war and sex: the power of women in Lysistrata

Lysistrata depicts the complexities of war and sex as well as the influential power the latter has over man. In comparison, war and sex are opposites. War yields death while sex can potentially bring about life. War is unnatural while sex is very natural. But both war and sex have been integral components throughout the history of mankind. For years men have waged war and, of course, sex is not a novel concept or construct. Lysistrata portrays women in a powerful role, namely in control of their sex and sex in general. They have authority over the men. When the absurdities of war have taken their men away, the women use sex as a weapon in order to obtain peace. By withholding sex, women come to essentially control their men. The men eventually succumb to the women and yield in their determination to carry out a war. This is interesting because in Ancient Greek tradition, the women are placed in a domestic role where they yield to their husbands. But Lysistrata turns the table and leaves the men at the mercy of the women.
In wartime, life is taken away. Not only are men (and women) killed, but if the men are away at war such as in this case, no new babies will be born and society overall will suffer. But in peacetime, life flourishes and society is perpetuated and renewed. Toward the close of the play, the women, specifically Lysistrata, determine the manner in which the women will return to their husbands. The women decide details and dictate how everything will be conducted: “…you will exchange oaths and pledges; then each man will go home with his wife” (45). The men want to reunite with their wives as quickly as possible, but the women will not have it until the men carry out their wishes according to their instruction. Women, through their sex, are portrayed as a driving force within society. Sex essentially controls everything in this case. It can end wars. Women can end war and are sources of power within Lysistrata.


“Lysistrata” by Aristophanes helps to show both the reality and misconceptions of the relationship between desire and rationality.
The play beings with a group of women who are discussing how to create peace in a time of war. Their answer is to control the men by withholding sex. From the very beginning, the women make it known that just as the men, they have their own desires for sex, and are at first very unwilling to make the sacrifice. “Cleonice: Anything, anything but that! Bid me go through the fire, if you will,-but to rob us of the sweetest thing in all the world, Lysistrata darling!” In this quote, Cleonice states that she rather walk through fire than give up her sexuality. This shows that like men, women can reason through their passions, thinking first of their desires, and then of the rational.
As the play goes on, Lysistrata is able to convince the other women that her plan is the best course of action, and it works. All of the men are at first controlled by their desires, and beg the women to succumb to their needs. Lysistrata is able to understand that it is through controlling desire, that peace can be achieved. In this liberating play, Lysistrata claims that war ist just as much business as a man. Through the use of sarcasm and quick conversation, Aristophones is able to create a quick paced emotional scene as Lysistrata must argue defending her own competence and rationality, using the power of desire to make herself heard.
“May gentle Love and the sweet Cyprian Queen shower seductive charms on our breasts and our thighs. If only we may stir so amorous a feeling among the men that they stand as firm as sticks, we shall indeed deserve the name of peace-makers among the Greeks. “ She must use the power of sexual desire in order to have the men of the time hear women’s concerns with war. She argues that women are left at home alone, with no physical satisfaction, only to have their husbands returned to them old, looking for a younger love. She demands that the war be ended to have their husbands returned to them and their loneliness ended. In effect, Lysistrata is achieving more physical contact and connection, by denying physical contact and connection. In taking away the physical act, it increases the men’s desire for it, allowing for the overall goal of peace to be successful.

Hobbesian Portrayal of Males in Lysistrata

While reading Lysistrata, I felt very troubled by Aristophanes' depiction of male figures. Not only are they driven solely by impulse, but they are portrayed as being brutish, lustful, and abusive. They employ a mentality that everything we choose to do is only a result of our natural desire to relieve physical yearnings, which includes everything from sexual yearnings to hunger. In essence, these male figures show no depth whatsoever. They reminded me of Thomas Hobbes' description of humans--physical objects that are more of machines than thinking, feeling beings. Hobbes believed that a person's actions are a direct result of a desire for satisfaction, strictly mechanical.

When the Chorus of Old Men first speak of the women's plan to abstain from sex until the men declare peace, their reaction is a typical testosterone-induced statement. "...And on the blazing pile burn with our hands these vile conspiratresses, one and all...!" they scream thoughtlessly, never stopping to wonder why the women might have chosen to act this way. This kind of reaction is a stereotypical portrayal of men, making it seem like all males are violent and ever-ready for the next gory battle. Shortly thereafter, a leader of the chorus suggests, "Suppose one of us were to break a stick across their backs?" This pondering makes men seem insensitive, animalistic, and brutally violent, driven solely by impulse. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes portrays people in this way, as well, theorizing that we as a whole act only as a result of our desire to relieve desires and make our uncomfortable emotions disintegrate. The men in Lysistrata do so by making violent suggestions, allowing them to release their anger verbally and rid themselves of the unease that goes along with being angry.

Not only are the males portrayed as being violent toward women, but they are also condescending. They use terms like, "you dirty slut" to address the opposing sex. Perhaps they do this in order to relieve their worry that the women actually had the upper hand in the situation; by demeaning them with this derogatory language they feel they are preserving their dominance. This is another Hobbesian theory represented in Lysistrata--that people will act in ways that promote their personal well-being, including actions that would promote the individual's power and dominance.

The males in Lysistrata are also portrayed as lustful and totally unable to resist their sexual pinings. For example, Myrrhine's husband is willing to do just about anything to have alone time with her. He practically begs her for sex, trying to persuade her from her stance by saying "And Aphrodite, whose mysteries you have not celebrated for so long? Oh! won't you please come back home?" When Myrrhine says, "No, least, not till a sound treaty puts an end to the war," he quickly complies. With the hopes of relieving his urges, he says "Well, if you wish it so much, why, we'll make it, your treaty." This scenario in Lysistrata is another instance where Hobbes' theories are represented fully in the male characters. Hobbes believed that everything we choose to do is strictly determined by our natural desire to relieve the physical pressures that impinge upon our bodies. By the way that the males give in to the women's protest so quickly because they know it would mean instant sexual gratification, they completely embody Hobbes' theories.

Personally, I believe that males deserve credit for being emotional and expressive in the way that females are. The way that Aristophanes portrays them in Lysistrata seems cliche' and inaccurate, but also belittling. Not only are they depicted as superficial and insensitive, but they are also made to seem impulsive and thoughtless. I would like to think that men would be represented as being at least semi-understanding of the pleas and thoughts of women without having to be deprived of sex to make them interested. The whole theme of this play, although quirky and amusing in the moment, angered me after I let it sink in.