And trusteth, as in love, no man but me.
Legend of Good Women , 2561
To the extent that feminist discourse defines its problematic as "woman," it, too, ironically privileges the man as unproblematic or exempt from determination from gender relations.[9
] Jane Flax, "Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory"
This analysis of feminization in the Legends brought me to conclusions different from my earlier ones. I did not find myself retracting the observation that this poem is not performing traditional antifeminist satire, or that it criticizes the less subtle forms and traps of misogyny inherent in certain already tired discursive conventions. However, it became dear to me that I needed to think harder about my naive assumption that a literary critique of the socio-gender system and its constraining effects on masculine identity and the male writer has anything to do with a pro-woman position. This book records the results of that effort. The Legend of Good Women is usually thought to represent Chaucer's return to a genre he has outgrown, but focusing on the problematic of "false men" marks the late dream-vision as central, not marginal, and affords a point of entry into the particularities of this poet's apparently lifelong engagement with the woman question. By turning in the next chapter
to questions about his most infamous female character, in the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale , I aim to establish the priority of two issues: first, my prevailing concern with (the representation of) women, although my explicit topic is as often as not men, the masculine imagination, and the male author; and second, my equal regard for Chaucer's fictions and for the fictions of Chaucer formulated by the modern critical reception of the texts, which is nowhere more interesting than in response to the Wife of Bath. The rest of the book moves from the early dream visions through Troilus and Criseyde and then concludes with five more of the Canterbury Tales that seem most pertinent to my inquiries. Attending to the representation of gender difference and gender relations throughout these works, with an ongoing regard for the feminization of both male characters and male figures for the poet, I have found myself no longer interested in defending Gavin Douglas's well-known dictum that Chaucer was "euer, God wait, wemenis frend." What then, I have inquired, is the nature and function of a late twentieth-century feminist analysis of these canonical, male-authored late medieval texts?
As I have pursued this question, I have become convinced that in Chaucer studies, the uncertain footing of any feminist approach to pre-modern works has been made even more slippery, ironically, by the unusual ease with which a prima facie case for the importance of women as characters and Woman (and gender, where the feminine is the marked position) as topic can be made. Under the influence of recent mediations in the practice of literary criticism, a growing number of scholars—including, as I have said, myself at an earlier point—have concluded in one way or another that the representation of women in Chaucerian fiction testifies to the poet's open-mindedness and even intentional subversion of traditional antifeminist positions. This view is sometimes part of a move to make Chaucer studies more theoretically au courant and to draw analogies between various contemporary approaches and Chaucer's insights and methods. There has been no systematic and thorough attempt to posit the evolution of the protofeminism that many have identified in Chaucer and his poetry. However, if the implications of separate studies were brought together and extended, it would be possible to see that they sketch a developmental poetics in which the female
voice itself, as speaker instead of spoken about, gradually enters Chaucerian fiction, while, as one recent critic sees it, Chaucer "abandoned his career as a poet of women."
I claim, however, that the attempt to recuperate a feminist Chaucer who does not threaten the humanist Chaucer, based on the assumption that Chaucer is sympathetic to women's problems and that we hear in his poetry either a female voice or an écriture féminine (in the vernacular of the fourteenth-century East Midlands), is misguided. Such efforts, moreover, have so far prevented feminist critics from making much difference in the way we read and theorize about Chaucer and have contributed to the difficulty of finding or creating the larger audience that our work might address. While I have moved beyond my early efforts to determine Chaucer's sexual politics, it has remained important to me to interrogate readings that recover Chaucer as a protofeminist or continue to adulate him as a humanist because such readings may stand in the way of the necessary activity of making new models for feminist interpretations of Chaucer and other male authors.
I have stressed, then, that in the very real continuity of concern throughout Chaucerian fiction with the representation of women, I hear not a swelling chorus of female voices entering the text and speaking for and about themselves, but something of a monotone making known both feminine absence and masculine anxiety. As I listen, what often sounds like a woman's voice, what is spoken in the name of women inflected by different and highly realistic, sometimes subversive dialects, always enters and leaves Chaucerian story not as the enunciation of an autonomous speaker, but as an urgent problem for the gendered identity of male characters, male narrators, and (?male) readers. The problem is always represented in large part as a problem of the feminization of men. The repetitive return to the fraught depiction of women and of male speakers, characters and narrators alike, who in various ways resemble those women in turn documents the dubious nature of gender difference: the fact that men and women are similar and dissimilar, depending on how, why, and when we are looking at them, or that all human beings have both feminine and masculine characteristics.
This understanding of a fundamental similarity between male and female is consistent with orthodox medical and scientific views that prevailed until the late eighteenth century. As Thomas Laqueur has observed:
For several thousand years it had been a commonplace that women have the same genitals as men, except that, as Nemesius, bishop of Emesa in the sixth century, put it: "Theirs are inside the body and not outside it." Galen, who in the second century A.D. developed the most powerful and resilient model of the homologous nature of male and female reproductive organs, could already cite the anatomist Herophilus (third century B.C.) in support of his claim that a woman has testes with accompanying seminal ducts very much like the man's, one on each side of the uterus, the only difference being that the male's are contained in the scrotum and the female's are not.
Belief in the genital homology of male and female did not translate into assumptions of their social, political, or moral equality; the female's insufficient heat accounted medically for the internalization of her organs of reproduction and her natural inferiority. Moreover, the paradigm of homology equated the male with the human, and female difference was not inquired into. For example, Laqueur points out that until 1797 no one thought to reproduce illustrations of female skeletons: "Up to this time there had been one basic structure for the human body, the type of the male." While it is usually assumed that the perceived similarity and mutability of biological gender were tightly controlled in premodern thinking by a firm sense of natural and proper hierarchy, Chaucerian fiction seems to call this assumption into question. Chaucer seems to insist, as some of us might put it today, that gender is socially constructed and historically experienced as protean, provisional, intermittent, and discontinuous, and his poetry explores the consequent difficulty that men face in securing masculine identity and dominance.
This concern with the instability and incompleteness of gender difference undermines the uncomplicated assumption that we can hear
women speaking when the author describes or impersonates a woman. Chaucer, it could be argued, is the last to imagine and give voice to something we can categorize with useful certainty as a female speaker, for the poems attributed to him are among the first to problematize the notion of singly gendered subjectivity, even as they may in various ways imply that in all the orthodox prescriptions of gender roles by which experience is given social meaning, women's voices are precisely those that have been silenced. In Chaucer, moreover, the foregrounded problem of representing the silenced woman characteristically intersects the problem of poetic authority in general and the self-authorization of the individual poet's voice in particular. According to certain authoritative discourses of the Middle Ages (not unlike some postmodern discourses in this regard), writing itself occupies a feminine position in a culture that insists on the inherent and necessary inferiority and absence, both materially and symbolically, of women. As we see in the Legend of Good Women , the figure of the male poet in Chaucer dreams of impotence, of being treated like a woman—marginalized, for instance, in the court, or misread by future audiences—and yet he is obliged to write about women in order to compete with other men and enter into a privileged discourse. In response to this position, he employs a striking and, in certain obvious ways, effective strategy: he underscores and imitates the charge, exploits the negative, subversive powers of nonrepresentability assigned to the female, the feminine, and the poetic—and then shows, or works to show, that there is still a masculine position to be taken within writing.
Representations of the vicissitudes of masculine identity in a patriarchal culture, then, do not necessarily entail abandoning its potential privilege. In Chaucer, moves to reclaim the boldly destabilized notion of integral maleness, to occupy the space that has been opened up by the inversions and subversions of courtly love in particular and thus to manage the woman question, characteristically implicate an equally insistent re-essentializing of gender and a re-marking of gender difference—for women especially. If the difference of the female is not fully clear and plausible, it has to be repeatedly reconstructed. To this end the female character is always redefined as other than the male characters and speakers in the texts in a variety of predictable ways: she is generically fixed and fully engendered; in every instance she is dead, or mutilated, victimized, violated, anesthetized, abandoned, mystified; or she lacks art, or she lacks desire. The figure of the male poet, by contrast, is drawn
beyond gender; he is represented as variously asexual (or postsexual), alive, creative, playful, uncertain, neutral, or empty to the point of vanishing, and yet full of desire. In other words, the poet exploits his insight into the indeterminacy of gender difference and the social construction of gender relations as part of his efforts to produce himself as multiply, resistantly, and evasively as possible. Moreover, he repeatedly represents other men and other male poets as having foundered over the problems of feminization and gender instability entailed in loving or desiring a woman and/or telling her story. At this early stage in the history of English poetry, the figure of the poet constitutes his own authority by entering into classical and earlier medieval traditions of discourse about women and sexuality and negotiating the problems of doing so more successfully than others have done. If Chaucer abandons his career as a poet of women, then, it is not once but repeatedly, always as a gesture of one-upmanship in a world where writing about women is what literary men do, and always to take up the problem of "false men" and "true women" again in the next text. The figure of the poet in Chaucer tells us that no one can write woman even as he does so. In this way, Chaucerian fiction is representative of the Western literary canon at perhaps its most interesting and certainly its most subtly problematic for late twentieth-century women readers and feminist scholars.