False Men in the Legend of Good Women
A decade or so ago, my emerging interest in what it might mean to approach Chaucer from a feminist perspective took me to a poem that seemed to focus most exclusively on images of the female: the Legend of Good Women . If I could argue from the evidence of this recalcitrant work, one that other feminist scholars had already despaired of understanding, I thought I might pin down the elusive author and determine whether he was or was not a friend of women. I have recanted some of the conclusions I drew when first looking into Chaucer's Legends, and the questions about women, feminism, and male authors that I am asking now are somewhat different. The story of how and why my reading of Chaucer's last dream-vision changed may serve to introduce the project this book comprises.
My first reading of the Legend of Good Women emphasized an overall design in the narrator's curious treatment of his ten heroines. If her traditional reputation is passionate and aggressive, even wicked in some way (like Cleopatra's, say, or Medea's), he domesticates the heroine's forcefulness and covers up her iniquity; where she is known for innocence and goodness (like Thisbe, Lucrece, or Hypsipyle), he hints at other flaws in her character, devalues her virtues, and punishes her model behavior. At the same time, the narrator reveals from the outset his own interest in the manly world of politics and war. In the opening Legend of Cleopatra , Antony's failed career is foregrounded, and the sea battle at Actium is lovingly detailed; as other readers have noted, the narrator's boredom with the stories of loving women he has been coerced into telling becomes ever more patent as the poem proceeds. Al-
though for the most part he obeys Alceste's orders to tell stories about "false men" (G.476) and debunks his heroes as well as his heroines, this narrator does not finally hide his identification with "us men" (920), and he even joins in their efforts to fool "ye women" (see, for example, 2559–61).
So overt are the biases of the narrator, I decided, that readers are prevented from trusting him and obliged instead to see how his selection and treatment of good women ironically define the double bind in which the female in his culture is caught: victimized if she follows the rules of love and lives up to medieval ideals of the feminine; unworthy, unloved, and unsung if she does not. The line between unreliable narrator and trustworthy author in this characteristically ironic Chaucerian fiction is less overt. I ventured to conclude that probably both the narrator and Cupid were to be regarded as unaware of the antifeminism inherent in their idealization of women, although I also suggested that there might be a further irony. The narrator might well be awake to the implications of his storytelling and thereby poking fun at Cupid by giving him a poem whose effect is just the opposite of what the tyrannical male god demanded. The narrator might be much closer to the author, then, but the object of the irony, I argued, is still the antifeminist tradition; the narrator merely dons the mask of the antifeminist to make his satiric point. Other critics had already argued that many of the revisions in the Prologue reveal Chaucer's concern with freeing himself from the limitations of courtly convention. I added that in his attempt to move toward "a poetry more of the world and less of the garden," the poet becomes more aware of and ironically exposes the imprisonment of women in that garden. I drew the line at imputing antifeminist sentiment to Chaucer as implied author because of the way I then read his treatment of women in other works; because I thought the blatant antifeminism of the Legends was unworthy of the subtle intelligence that is obviously Chaucer's; and because I failed to understand why an antifeminist work would impugn men, too, in the insistent way that this poem does.
Not long after completing this reading of the Legends, I was asked to participate in a debate about the poem at a meeting of the New
Chaucer Society, and for that purpose I decided to explore more fully the question of how and why the narrator did, as I had observed, impugn men too. As I noted, he deflates his heroes as well as his heroines and, following Alceste's instructions, attacks the male characters with increasing harshness; I saw this treatment originally as both mask and symptom of his overriding interest in his own sex. The more I looked, the more it seemed that the Legend of Good Women was best thought of as a poem about men, not women, and specifically about two kinds of oddly related men: those who can't seem to help loving women, for one reason or another, and those who can't stop trafficking in stories about women. Part of what makes both types "false men," I began to see, was their feminization. Since this is an issue I return to throughout this study, let me pause here to spell out in some detail how the Legends articulate the problem of feminized men: those who sometimes act as women are said to act and who are treated as women are often treated.
For the literary heroes of the Legends, heterosexual union is clearly presented not as a good or even attainable end, but as a serious, perhaps insuperable problem, a necessary yet perilous part of the quest for stable masculine identity and social bonds between men. What is most dangerous about heterosexual desire, according to the Legends, is the feminine position, itself a divided one—vulnerable, submissive, subservient and self-sacrificing on one hand, crafty and duplicitous on the other—that men in love or lust for a woman seem forced to assume. By this reading, the heroes of the first two legends, Antony and Pyramus, appear not as exceptions to the rule Cupid laid down, as "trewe" male lovers set apart from all the other tricksters, rapists, and cowards in the poem, but as early object lessons in the fate of men who give themselves wholeheartedly to a heterosexual passion or to the idea of one. In different ways, both are utterly unmanned by their submission to the service of Love. For the love of Cleopatra, Antony loses his reason, his freedom, and his interest in the public realm: "love hadde brought
this man in swich a rage, / And hym so narwe bounden in his las . . . That al the world he sette at no value."[*] The narrator similarly implies that Antony's motive in killing himself, after the defeat at Actium, is not so much the loss of Cleopatra as the loss of manly honor and prowess that he has suffered on account of love: "'My worshipe in this day thus have I lorn,'" he says, in the line just preceding the report of his suicide (660–61). The adolescent Pyramus is presented as a less tragic figure in that he has little manly "worshipe" to lose in the first place. From his unexplained tardiness in arriving at Ninus's tomb, we can infer that he is not as bold or appetitive or eager as Thisbe, nor as able and willing to leave the domestic sphere; as the narrator notes in his translation of the Ovidian story, "al to longe, allas! at hom was he" (824). Revealing his own fear of women and heterosexuality, Pyramus misreads Thisbe's bloody veil as a sign of her death; it more accurately represents, in this version of the tale, her confrontation with the feminine aggression and appetite figured in the lioness, forces that the nubile maiden also hides from but is not undone by. In his only speech in the legend, Pyramus is less concerned with the loss of Thisbe than with his own failure as a man to protect her (833–41), and his immediate response to this blow to manly pride is, like Antony's, suicide.
For both Antony and Pyramus, unbearable flaws in their masculine identity—as warrior/ruler in Antony's case, as sexually mature and independent adult male and defender of helpless women in Pyramus's—appear to have been caused or at least exposed by their faithful efforts to establish and maintain a heterosexual relationship. It seems plausible to conclude from their stories that these heroes consequently choose suicide not because they cannot live without the women they love, but because they cannot live with themselves in the emasculated state to which they have been reduced. But, ironically, their suicides confirm how they have been feminized by love, for suicide is defined by the poem, and the long-lived traditions from which it draws, as the last recourse for a woman who is raped, abandoned, or otherwise troubled by the vagaries of her inevitable heterosexual relations, or who, like Alceste, sacrifices
herself for her husband. Antony and Pyramus, the only two "good men" the narrator can find, serve then to introduce the real agenda of the Legends by representing the danger to men in love at either end of the masculine life cycle. Antony is the mature hero lamentably feminized and finally doomed by ungoverned heterosexual desire, Pyramus the boy who does not reach manhood because he rushes (admittedly not quite fast enough) into the dangerous path of love before he is equipped to negotiate the perils along the way (notably without his father's guidance, let alone approval).
If the first two Legends suggest that manhood is difficult both to attain and to maintain, the remaining stories extend the problem of feminization from those men who try to serve love to a number who are not so naively loyal to women or to the God of Love's ostensively woman-centered code. Most of the other heroes, older than Pyramus and wiser than Antony, seem to know that heterosexual union is sometimes a pleasant or necessary diversion—it confirms one element of their manhood and often saves their lives—but a dangerous state in which to settle down, a place in which the manhood they are supposedly proving is in fact deeply threatened. These others survive the mortal dangers of love by betraying and abandoning women, but the problems of feminization are not so easily solved.
All of the remaining heroes are presented as characters caught up—like women—in the plots of other men (weak fathers, jealous uncles, and warring rulers), constrained by forces beyond their control and unable to rule their own destinies. Those few males who are circumstantially freer, apparently more in control of their lives, are presented as even more inescapably in bondage to an internal force, the irrational effect of what is characterized as innate, gratuitous male lust. Tereus rapes Philomela because of an unexplained, unmotivated, perhaps involuntary, and clearly brutalizing desire;
Tarquinius rapes Lucrece on account of a somewhat more explicable passion, as male competition routed through women (who has the most faithful wife?) fuels the fires of his lust and violence. The male characters' status as victims and pawns—like women, again—of external and internal forces beyond their rational control is also emphasized and aggravated by the frequent reversal of roles, anticipated in the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, where Thisbe is more aggressive, more eager, and even more manly than her lover, or at least as capable of taking care of herself in the woods. While the narrator downplays the unfeminine characteristics of his heroines to make them fit his model of "good women," most of them (including Dido, Ariadne, Phaedra, Medea, Phyllis, and Hypermnestra) are or could be in positions of material power over their lovers. The sexual anxiety that this circumstance generates in men is brought into the open in the plot of the last story, the legend of Hypermnestra, when Hypermnestra's father gives her a knife on her wedding night and commands her to kill her husband (who is also his nephew) in their nuptial bed. But Chaucer's women are themselves already mutilated creatures, not castrating agents. Hypermnestra is said to be congenitally unable to wield a blade, and she and all the women of the narrator's subversive tradition are uninterested in using their past and present powers except to rescue men from life-threatening situations, usually in the hope of marrying them afterwards.
The hero, then, is initially feminized by circumstances, fate, or innate weakness; and he finds that the strategies he can subsequently employ to escape this status in fact only confirm it. To secure a more powerful woman's assistance, for instance, a hero is often forced, like any victim, to play up his weakness. Aeneas weeps and threatens suicide; Theseus begs and bribes and makes false promises; and Jason is as "coy as is a mayde" (1548), while his friend Hercules serves as his pander. Tarquinius and Lucrece's husband Colatyne leave their post in the Roman camp to steal into the "estris" (1715), the inner spaces, of Lucrece's chamber (recalling Troilus's hideout in Book III); in that domestic enclosure, Tarquinius's proper masculine reason and honor is defenseless against "his blynde lust" (1756). Tereus, inflamed by the vulnerable beauty of Philomela, uses his "wiles" (2294) to take her from her father's protection; and again the feminizing quality of his lust is illustrated by the underscored
interiority of the space where the rape occurs, in a "derke cave" within a forest (2310–12). After prostituting himself to win (with little effort) the lady's undying affection, or removing himself to a feminine place where he can indulge in his lust, the hero must then attempt to recover his masculine position—his independence, nobility, and devotion to more important issues—by eschewing the heterosexual union in which he is dependent on a woman. And yet, for the heroes of the Legends, abandoning a woman, like the earlier process of seducing one, is emasculating in one way or another: men's infidelities and betrayal of women in this poem always involve them again in lies and storytelling, wiliness and other duplicities, ignoble escapes out of windows, and the complete failure of the chivalric obligation to protect the lady herself.
By the end of the poem we might well conclude that feminization is hard to avoid in this world because the rules of patriarchy are incompatible with the rules of love, and that men are caught in the consequent contradiction as they try to establish stable gender identity. Whereas patriarchy devalues the culturally feminine and insists on the difference between men and women as well as the power of men over women, the heterosexual love idealized by the laws of Cupid values traits associated with femininity such as irrationality, self-sacrifice, submission, and service, and thus diminishes in theory both the difference and the power differential between male and female. The problematic lack of difference that such a conception of love entails is clarified and developed in various ways: note, for example, that the women in the poem who give themselves utterly to men are in fact attracted not by otherness and virility, but by the male's temporary or apparent sameness , his passivity, coyness, vulnerability, and dependence (and even, in the case of Jason, his looks)—those very characteristics that also signal the heroes' feminization. When women are raped, there is no suggestion of their sexual arousal or complicity—Lucrece is not even conscious. What might be construed as the women's unconscious desire, like the men's, to remain connected to one of their own sex cannot be gratified for long by the hero, who for his part must necessarily be unfaithful if he is to demonstrate his manhood, his dominance and difference. Moreover, the actual, fatal loss of gender differentiation that a successful heterosexual union would bring about, if two actually became one, is perhaps hinted at in the essential similarity
of the most innocent and true lovers in the poem, Pyramus and Thisbe, who speak in one voice, both "wex pale" and are separated only by the cold wall their fathers have built, in vain, to keep them apart.
If the poem suggests that there is something wrong with the laws of love, it also reveals a serious problem in the rule of the fathers. Fathers are, in theory at least, men who have negotiated that treacherous path of heterosexual desire. The institution of patriarchal rule should facilitate the next generation's passage to adulthood: hence a father must at once protect his daughters and pass proper standards of manliness on to his sons. But the contradiction in this charge is brought out in the Legends by the fact that all the men of the fathers' generation fail in one way or another to see their offspring to sexual maturity, whether through absence, incapacity, or malevolence. Cleopatra's story, as told by this narrator, opens pointedly "After the deth of Tholome the kyng" (580), and so too we are reminded early in the linked stories of Medea and Hypsipyle that Aeson, the father of their common seducer, Jason, is dead. Living fathers, like Anchises and Pandeon, are sometimes too weak to protect their sons and daughters; or, as is more often the case, they cause active harm, intentionally or not, to the next generation. Thisbe's and Pyramus's fathers inexplicably prohibit love and so indirectly cause their childrens' deaths. Aeetes unwittingly seals his daughter Medea's doom when he bids her to sit at the table with Jason. Theseus passes on his good looks and his false ways with women to his son, Demophon, while Jason and Lyno are both objects of schemes by jealous uncles. In the latter story, we also see a strong suggestion of incest in Egiste's bizarre speech to his daughter, Hypermnestra. In the same breath the father vows his love and threatens to kill the girl if she refuses to murder her bridegroom-cousin, Lyno, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is the story of a Lear-like father who cannot let his daughter grow up and sleep with another man. The public, institutional consequences of such unresolved Oedipal situations—of the patriarchal failure to help sons become men—reach epic proportions in the legend of Lucrece, where the narrator frames his story with reminders that Tarquinius's irrational lust brings an end to the whole line of Roman kings (1680–84, 1862–64).
Turning briefly to the figure of the dreamer/narrator himself as he is characterized in the Prologue , in retrospect we find arguably
sufficient explanation for his only partially concealed antipathy toward women and his complex anxieties about the infectious feminization of men as lovers and fathers alike. The narrator of the Legend of Good Women presents himself in the well-known opening lines (F.1–209, G.1–103), before the dream-vision, as a bookworm who is drawn from his fanatic devotion to reading by only one "game" (F/G.33), the cult of the marguerite. His situation emphasizes both the literary man's prior lack of interest in actual heterosexual love and his professional obligation to take part in an elaborate courtly word game, here one in which the explicit substitution of the daisy for the lady at once covers over and underscores the unimportance or irrelevance of real women. The dream that follows suggests the multiple anxieties of the figure of the court poet in such circumstances, including his fear of a tyrannical male ruler who (perhaps anxious to demonstrate his own superior status and potency) blames his servant for writing antifeminist poetry and also calls attention to that servant's inability to perform as a lover: "Thow . . . art therto nothyng able," the God of Love says (F.320, G.246). The figure of the poet is further feminized by the intervention of a powerful, aristocratic woman who speaks the kind of rational words that he for some unexplained, but psychologically and historically plausible, reason cannot. His indifference to real women can perhaps turn to active antipathy when he is, in effect, treated like a woman himself, not recognized as a man by the male ruler and blocked from proving his manhood either by loving an actual female or by ignoring the subject of women altogether. As in the case of the heroes of the Legends, the only strategy the narrator can use to escape the censure and embarrassment revealed in the dream actually requires one type of stereotypically feminine (and uncourtly) behavior: wiliness and
duplicity, as he apparently submits to and then subtly betrays Cupid's purposes and instead writes to his own ends.