The Powers of Silence:
The Case of the Clerk's Griselda
To take a stand would be to upset the beautiful balance of the game.
Richard A. Lanham, "Chaucer's Clerk's Tale : The Poem Not the Myth"
To most Chaucerians, it is by now either commonplace or irrelevant to point out that the Clerk's Tale , like so many of Chaucer's poems, situates a strong female character in what one modern editor describes as "a context of masculine authoritarianism." Recognizing this situation does not seem to resolve the interpreters' fundamental confusion about the Tale's meaning. This confusion, in fact, is one of the few things that a number of critics can agree upon: whatever its specific significance, this poem appears to many to be bound up with its ambiguities and contradictions, the insolubility of its many problems. The force of gender conflict in the Tale is thus at once recognized and neutralized; if Chaucer takes no definitive position on the victimization of women that he so clearly depicts, then we need not raise charged and difficult questions about misogyny and great Western art, and we can instead contemplate
"the beautiful balance of the game," a playful, aesthetic foreclosure of the problems of sexual politics and gendered poetics.
Here I want to recharge the question of the impenetrability of the Clerk's Tale with further consideration of the nature of "masculine authoritarianism" in the poem. The text offers readers a fundamentally equivocal—and hence rich and compelling—confrontation with patriarchal power, a confrontation necessitated and implicated by the literary project foregrounded in all the Chaucerian fiction I have examined thus far: the representation of a male author telling, with great verbal skill and studied, multivalent ambiguities, the story of a female character. In the first part of my discussion, focusing on the female character and her multiple, slippery significations, I argue that the tale of patient Griselda addresses central questions about women and power and articulates a clear paradox. Woman's insubordination is, as our lexicon suggests, a derivative of her subordination. In the second half of the chapter, focusing on the representation of the male author, I ask again what kind of men, in Chaucerian fiction, choose to tell such stories about women, and why and how such men might well prefer to play games and make jokes rather than take a stand.
"This is ynogh, Grisilde myn."
From one point of view, the plot of Griselda's story demonstrates how a woman may rise to the highest position of hegemonic power, becoming the honored wife of a wealthy lord and a coruler of his kingdom, through her archetypally acceptable behavior: utter submissiveness and essential silence. Griselda is a complicated figure of both class mobility and the classless (or cross-class), feminized ideals of Christian thinking. She succeeds in rising from poorest peasant to ruling aristocrat—and at another level even serves, the Clerk reminds us, as an allegorical figure for the patient Christian soul—by living up to her culture's image of perfect femininity, by willfully accepting and even reveling in the powerlessness of her position. To some modern readers, of course, Griselda may not
in this way represent a positive model of female power, but rather the kind of prescriptive antifeminist propaganda for which the medieval period is well known. Even from the naturalistic point of view that the Clerk sometimes at least insists on, the happy ending brings the heroine the dubious reward of permanent union with a man whom the Clerk, embellishing his sources, has characterized as a sadistic tyrant, worst of men and cruelest of husbands (although not, he suggests, unrealistic or atypical in this regard). The Clerk's peculiar handling of the Griselda story both supports and complicates such responses by exploring the implications of Griselda's paradoxical position as a woman: the fact that she attains certain kinds of power by embracing powerlessness; the fact that she is strong, in other words, because she is so perfectly weak. The Tale suggests on one hand that Griselda is not really empowered by her acceptable behavior, because the feminine virtue she embodies in welcoming her subordination is by definition both punitive and self-destructive. On the other hand, the Tale reveals that the perfectly good woman is powerful, or at least potentially so, insofar as her suffering and submission are fundamentally insubordinate and deeply threatening to men and to the concepts of power and gender identity upon which patriarchal culture is premised.
The Clerk's Tale specifies early in the plot that even legitimate exercises of direct power only endanger a woman's well-being. Immediately after his description of Walter and Griselda's marriage, the Clerk, following his sources, points out how swiftly and remarkably the good peasant girl is transformed into the perfect noblewoman. In the space of a few stanzas (393–441), we learn that after her marriage Griselda is beloved by Walter's people and famed in many regions; people travel to Saluzzo, we are told, just to see her. Not merely a paragon of "wyfly hoomlinesse," she also serves the public interest (the "commune profit," 431) by acting in her husband's absence as a peerless adjudicator who settles all disputes with her "wise and rype wordes" (438). The passage seems in its own right to document Griselda's innate "virtue"—but the root of the word "virtue" itself, from the Latin for "male person," signals what
the Clerk's Tale subsequently affirms: a virtuous woman , the stuff of folk tales and saints' legends, is a contradiction, a semantic anomaly, a threat to the social order and to the stability of gender difference and hierarchy.
Walter, it appears, recognizes part of this threat right away. Griselda's public virtue, her ability to exert a power at once masculine in kind and superhuman in degree, would seem to vindicate the sovereign's willful choice of an unsuitable bride beyond his wildest dreams; people soon say, according to the Clerk, that Griselda is literally a godsend. But Walter's decision to torture and humiliate her as a wife and mother comes, according to the narrative, after she has been acclaimed as a saintly ruler, and so the narrative sequence implies on the contrary that such virtue in a woman only provokes male aggression. A woman's public powers, even if they are conferred upon her through her husband and divinely sanctioned, cannot be integrated with her proper identity as a female and a wife. Griselda's supposedly unusual and seemingly innate ability to rule wisely and well, to pass good judgments and speak in ways that men admire and respect, to assume, that is, the power and position normally assigned to the best of men, fails to empower her or enable her to escape her subordinate gendered status. Her situation may in this way remind us of a point made by modern feminist analyses of history: the occasional existence of a strong, wise, and successful female in a position of power is the exception that proves the rule; the token Virgin Mother or queen or bourgeois female entrepreneur does not alter the material position of most women or the conventional definition of the feminine. To prove her "wommanhede," Griselda must suffer and submit; the more obviously unsuitable part of her virtue—her allegedly inherent but nevertheless unnatural manliness and power—must be punished and contained.
One reason why Griselda's public virtues must be controlled, why the good woman of any social class must be defined as silent and submissive, seems patent. If a peasant woman can so easily rule as well as a noble man—or even better—then Walter's birthright and the whole feudal system on which it depends are seriously threatened. This realization is surely part of the Clerk's meaning when he remarks, near the end of the tale, that it would be "inportable," or intolerable, unbearable, if real wives behaved like Griselda. His comment seems intended to heighten the pathos and abstraction of his portrait of Griselda and to express yet again his alleged sympathy with her situation as a woman; it also suggests, however, his sympathy with Walter and his understand-
ing that it is precisely Griselda's saintliness, her superhuman—or inhuman—goodness, her feminine ability to be just what he asks her to be, that (rightly, or at least understandably) enrages her husband. For as the tale goes on to disclose, if Walter is at first shown up, defeated, and made powerless by the position and authority he hands his wife, which she so effortlessly and successfully wields, he is again all but undone by the self-abasement that he then demands and that she, ever obedient and adaptable to her situation, so easily and successfully performs. Galled by the unbearable way in which this woman eludes his tyranny by refusing to resist and define it, he can only torture her again and again, seeking to determine her elusive identity as well as his own, to find the Other in Griselda, someone he can master in order to find himself.
The series of seemingly unmotivated trials proving Griselda's worth also emphasizes that the better Griselda is, the more she must suffer, or that the more she suffers the better she must be. While this principle is consistent with medieval Christian thought, we shall see at the close of the tale that one logical conclusion of this potentially fatal prescription for female virtue proves troubling. The end of the heroine's suffering must in a sense spell the end of her virtue, and what voice Griselda has is silenced, her story finished, when Walter finally stops torturing her. And what makes Walter stop, after the third trial, may be his eventual understanding of the paradoxical sense in which this woman continues to win, in venerable Christian fashion, by losing so fully and graciously to a tyrannical man.
The last scene of the tale becomes crucial to our understanding of the complex interaction of the subordination and insubordination of the female; Griselda almost beats Walter to the draw. She has been called back to the palace to clean it up for Walter's second wedding, and, as the nobles sit down to dinner, Walter calls the old wife over to ask how she likes his beautiful new one. But in the preceding stanza we have learned that Griselda is already busy praising the girl and her brother "SO wel that no man koude hir prise amende" (1026). When Walter, who hasn't apparently noticed what she's up to, foolishly invites her to come center stage for a moment, in her rags, Griselda seizes the opportunity to protest and celebrate, at the same time, her own treatment at Walter's hands. First she wishes him well of his lovely young bride; at the same time that she once again accepts and cooperates in her own abasement here, she subtly praises herself, born again into better circumstances, and engages in the competition between women, even between mother and daughter, that her culture enforces. She goes on to warn Walter not to
torment the maiden as he has tormented "mo" ("others"), as she tactfully puts it; Griselda predicts that the well-born creature could not endure what the poor one could. Her strategy recalls her earlier move when she responded to banishment with the longest, most pathetic speech in the poem (814–89), but this time Walter knows better than to let his patient wife have the floor for more than one stanza. He is at this point said to "rewen upon hire wyfly stedfastnesse" (1050), and while the chief sense of "rewen upon" is "to feel pity or compassion for," we may also think of the more familiar sense of the verb, one which was also current in Middle English: "to regard or think of . . . with sorrow or regret, to wish that (something) had never taken place or existed."
Walter must indeed regret Griselda's surpassing wifely steadfastness, because whichever way he turns, it all but defeats his lordly urge to dominate. When in the next stanza he tells Griselda, "'This is ynogh, Grisilde myn,'" we are reminded that he said this once before, when she gave her initial promise (365), and in retrospect the repetition may underline for Walter the dangers inherent in the way Griselda from the beginning sought to exceed his demands for wifely subordination. In setting the conditions for their marriage, he asked only that she would do what he wished, and never contradict his will. She promised far more: a perilous merging of wills ("But as ye wole youreself, right so wol I" ), which would in fact imply her full knowledge of his will and thus destabilize the power differential and difference between them; and a surrender of her own life ("In werk ne thoght, I nyl yow disobeye, / For to be deed, though me were both to deye, "[363–64]), which again would defeat his intention to keep her, alive, under his thumb. When, at the end of the story, he sets the limit to her excessive self-abasement, which is beginning to be coupled with the self-assertion it always entails, we cannot be sure whether he intends to call a halt to her suffering or to her emergent powers of subversive speech—powers paradoxically dependent on his continued oppression of her. When he goes on to seal Griselda's lips with kisses, her reaction is telling. She is so stunned, the Clerk says, that for a moment she cannot hear Walter's astonishing concession that she has finally proved herself in his eyes: "She herde nat what thyng he to hire seyde; / She ferde as she had stert out of a sleep" (1059–60). Griselda's temporary deafness and stupor represent, I suggest, her unwillingness to hear that the nightmare is over. She knows
that any power she has lies only in continuing to excel at suffering, that she can speak only to assent to being silenced, and that the promise of a happy ending precludes her potential for martyred apotheosis, and forces her to awaken into the reality of her material, gendered powerlessness.
In the second half of this chapter I shall explore what happens after this climactic moment, in the multiple endings of the Clerk's Tale , as the Clerk himself confirms Griselda's powerlessness at many levels, but let me conclude this section by underscoring some implications of the reading I have just offered. Griselda has threatened to escape Walter's tyranny by willfully refusing to resist it, and it is possible to argue that he keeps testing her because given his view of selfhood and power, her behavior can only seem to him unmotivated, implausible, irritating, and even inhuman. As the Clerk says after the second trial, Walter "wondred" at his wife's patience; if he hadn't known better, he would have thought that she took some perverse or treacherous delight in seeing her children murdered (687–95), and modern readers have frequently complained that Griselda was not a good enough mother. In one way Griselda's behavior is certainly both perverse and treacherous, not because she fails to protect her children against paternal infanticide and thus to live up to ideals (and realities) of motherhood, but because she lives up all too well to certain ideals of womanhood and thus makes manifest their latent powers. Walter cannot and does not solve the mystery or negate the threat that her perfect womanly behavior poses; he merely stops trying to do so and stops giving his wife the chance to act in ways that he cannot understand or control.
Just as she remains a mystery and a threat to Walter, so too Griselda remains an unresolved problem for the Clerk and for his audiences. The Clerk's Tale suggests, and generations of modern interpreters confirm, that Griselda is a "humanly unintelligible" entity, as one critic puts it, comprehensible and coherent only at the allegorical level that the Clerk at once entertains and undermines. In an unusual way, the inhumanity and perhaps inhumaneness of Griselda's perfect femininity confirms that the human is often posited as equivalent to the masculine in the symbolic order that reaches from the western European Middle Ages into more recent centuries. At the same time, the problem she presents—the un-
intelligibility of the perfectly good woman, or perhaps of any woman—is the most threatening thing about her. Griselda's embodiment of the archetypally feminine position thus not only insists on the absence and silence and powerlessness of real women in history but also marks again the limits of power for masculine authority (Walter), for the male author (the Clerk), and for the audience attempting to fix the meaning of the female character in the tale.
Grisilde is deed, and eek hire pacience.
Viewed as a poem about either a woman's subversive silence or her silenced subversion, the Clerk's Tale thus affirms two conclusions about the history of masculine and feminine power in Western culture. It suggests that "maleness," as Catharine MacKinnon has put it, has often been perceived as "a form of power that is both omnipotent and nonexistent, an unreal thing with very real consequences." It also explains why Woman, identified as absence, is a fearsome ideal for both real women and masculine presence. Turning the focus of my reading to the Clerk now, I want to suggest that the oft-noted and characteristic ambiguity of the tale is most fruitfully read as a reflex of his position as a male storyteller, which turns out to be much the same here, where the narrator is an unbeneficed cleric writing in a specifically religious mode and explicitly translating from Latin, as when he is a secular court poet translating from the vernacular. To support and flesh out this claim, it is possible to compare the subtle Clerk of the Canterbury Tales with one narrator who exemplifies the coyness, insecurity, and playful evasiveness that we see in the narrators of all the earlier dream-visions and Troilus and Criseyde: the poet of the Legend of Good Women .
The Clerk's Tale and the Legend of Good Women are not, as far as I know, frequently compared, but the comparison is in fact indirectly suggested within the Canterbury Tales , where the Legends are invoked in the preface to the Man of Law's Tale , a poem that, in the most common ordering of the Tales, comes right before the Wife of Bath's Tale , to which the Clerk in turn is responding. The link between the Man of Law's Tale
and the Clerk's Tale is reinforced by the fact that both are female saints' lives, potentially or actually bracketing the Wife's monstrous tale of feminine misrule. The Clerk may emphasize this point with his two allusions to the Man of Law's heroine, Constance: one when Walter finally admits that Griselda is "constant as a wal" (1047), and one when the Clerk says that we should all be, like Griselda, "constant in adversitee" (1146). And even if we read the tales in another order, or discount the dramatic interaction between tellers altogether, the analogies between Griselda in the Canterbury Tales and the female saints of the Legend of Good Women are obvious. All these women are represented as archetypally passive. They put the love of a man above all other responsibilities, even above life itself. As a direct consequence of this love they endure great suffering. (The heroines of the earlier poem almost all die; Griselda's survival, at least until the Lenvoy de Chaucer proclaims her demise, may thus indicate either a flaw in her goodness, or the story's need, like Walter's, to keep her alive in order to punish and contain her perfection.) The unremarked similarities between the men who tell this kind of story, the narrator of the Legend and the Clerk of Oxenford, are equally obvious and perhaps more subtly interesting, and three prominent features of their performances warrant comparison: the ostensive circumstances under which they tell their stories, the changes they make in their sources, and their closural strategies.
In both the Legend of Good Women and in the Canterbury Tales , the audience is made privy to specific circumstances or preconditions, outside and prior to the narratives of good women, that occasion each act of storytelling and hence oblige us to speculate about the dramatized motives and attitudes of both the poet/dreamer of the earlier poem and the Clerk of Oxenford, and to see each narrator's voiced personality as part of the meaning of his fiction. In the Canterbury Tales , not in a dream but in the framing matter of his tale, the Clerk, like the narrator of the Legend , is commanded to tell a story—"Telle us som murie thyng of aventures" (15)—by the Host, a figure who like Cupid in the dream assumes godlike powers of judgment and behaves like a tyrant. The Host first makes fun of the Clerk's unaggressive, even effeminate behavior: "Ye ryde as coy and stile as dooth a mayde / Were newe spoused, sittynge at the bord" (2–3). He reminds the Clerk that he agreed to submit to the Host's authority when he entered into the "pley" (10). The Clerk's professional status is also underscored by the Host's prohibitions against an overly didactic or boring tale in the "heigh style"
associated with learned clerks (18). In the Wife of Bath's Prologue (separated from the Clerk's Tale only by the Friar's and Summoner's Tales ), clerks in general, again like the poet/dreamer of the Legend of Good Women , have already been associated with and castigated for their literary antifeminism. The Clerk appears to accede more meekly to the tyrant's commands than the dreamer does, just as we would expect from the quiet, virtuous, willing learner introduced in the General Prologue . But even before the tale proper begins, the coy Clerk also quietly defies the Host's orders by translating, within an ostensibly disparaging framework ("Me thynketh it a thyng impertinent") almost all of Petrarch's "prohemye" to the story. This is presumably just the kind of elevated, clerkly fare that the Host hoped to forestall, and its inclusion clearly suggests that this Clerk has his own share of the impertinence he displaces onto Petrarch, that crafty impudence associated with others of his profession throughout the Canterbury Tales .
If we are obliged to recognize even before we begin to listen to their stories that both the Clerk and the poet/dreamer of the Legend of Good Women have somewhat comparable axes to grind with specific reference to a male figure of alleged sexual and literary authority, then their subsequent representations of good women confirm the wary reader's suspicions that, as in all literature, bias and resentment and special pleading color the stories. The Clerk, as we shall see, disguises himself and his motives more cleverly than the poet/dreamer of the Legend (or other storytellers, like the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner); he is so discreet, in fact, that at least one modern critic sees his performance as "a rarefied act of literary-critical wit," executed not in the "voiced style" of the other Canterbury pilgrims but in the manner of Petrarch himself, as "man of letters , a posited ideal character, created, displayed, and caught only in the act of writing." This argument may disclose the Clerk's intentions quite accurately, but the alleged neutrality of the man of letters does not stand up under close inspection of the minor additions and revisions the Clerk makes to his two apparent sources, Petrarch's Latin version of Boccaccio's Griselda story and an anonymous French translation of Petrarch. In one early addition, for instance, the Clerk aims a direct blow at the Wife of Bath by supplementing the original description of Griselda with these lines: "No likerous lust was thurgh hire herte yronne. / Wel
ofter of the welle than of the tonne / She drank . . . " (214–16). No such comment is found in either the Latin or French version of the story; it recalls to attentive listeners or readers the Wife's self-proclaimed drinking and sexual habits and her memorable observation that "A likerous mouth moste han a likerous tayl" (III.466). In light of the insults that the Wife hurled at clerks as a profession and at her Janekyn in particular, the Clerk's allusion cannot be accidental or innocent; and so too the subject of his tale—a patient, submissive married woman who is faithful to one husband despite his insufferable exercise of maistrie —must be interpreted by the audiences of the Tales as a central part of the interpersonal, voiced drama of the poem as a whole.
In another set of additions and revisions, the Clerk's strategy may again be profitably compared to the narrator's in the Legend of Good Women . As I have argued elsewhere, alterations in all of the legends consistently reshape the heroines into figures like the narrator's Cleopatra, less active, aggressive, and passionate, or like his Thisbe, less noble, more flawed, and more feminine. So too, as J. Burke Severs has documented, Walter in the Chaucerian version is "more obstinately wilful, more heartlessly cruel," while Griselda's "gentleness, her meekness, her submissiveness" are more pronounced. Together, these changes, like many of the alternations in the Legends, call attention to the heroine's feminine powerlessness with respect to a ruthless, self-centered, all but omnipotent man with whom she herself purports to be in love, and hence to her victimization; Griselda's suffering, no matter how we view its signification, arises specifically from the actions of a cruel, deliberate, and decidedly male oppressor, and the war between the sexes is on again. At the same time, the Clerk's version of the Griselda story, like the poet/dreamer's treatments of his good women (and his bad ones), stresses the heroine's archetypal femaleness, as Petrarch certainly does not. Note, for instance, this minor change in Walter's motivation: according to the Clerk, what he is seeking and testing in his wife is not her patience or obedience or ability to live up to her vows but her "wommanhede." Whereas in Petrarch (as in the anonymous French
version) Walter is said to admire her virtutem eximiam supra sexum supraque etatem (a virtue beyond her sex and age), the Clerk gives us Walter (here like Troilus) "Commendynge in his herte hir wommanhede, / And eek hir vertu, passynge any wight / Of so yong age" (239–41). The translation effectively alters the entire thrust of the passage; Griselda still transcends her youth, but notably she does not transcend the expected limitations of gender. Instead, she exemplifies, first and foremost, what has become an almost holy (or mock-holy) ideal in the Clerk's Tale as in the Legend of Good Women: the abstraction of certain gender-specific characteristics into the ideal state of "wommanhede." After Griselda passes her last test, Walter reiterates his motivation: "'I have doon this deede / For no malice, ne for no crueltee, / But for t'assaye in thee thy wommanheede'" (1073–75). Again his self-justifying claim, original to the Clerk's version (and in defiance of the Clerk's subsequent injunctions), brings Griselda into line with the heroines of the Legends as type and embodiment, if not caricature, of the idealized medieval good woman.
In another set of even more obvious additions to his source materials, his own intrusive comments on the characters' behavior, the Clerk also underscores the issues of gender difference and marital conflict so central to the Legend of Good Women and so common in the Canterbury Tales. Just as Walter celebrates Griselda for her "wommanhede," the Clerk repeatedly notes that Walter's behavior is typical of a certain type of "housbonde" or "wedded" man (698, 622) who needlessly tries his "wyf" (452, 461) and her "wyfhod" (699; note that in this line "wyfhod" is mentioned before "stedefastnesse," just as in lines 239–40 "wommanhede" comes before "vertu"). In another original comment, after drawing the standard analogy between Griselda and Job in line 932, the Clerk observes:
. . . but as in soothfastnesse,
Though clerkes preise wommen but a lite
Ther kan no man in humblesse hym acquite
As womman kan, ne kan been half so trewe
As wommen been, but it be falle of newe.
This particular moral to the story, just one of many we will be offered, is found nowhere in Chaucer's sources, but the superiority of women to men, especially in terms of humility and fidelity, is the same highly unoriginal point that the narrator of the Legend of Good Women has been commanded to make. The qualifying, tonally odd turn at the end of the Clerk's comment—no man can be as humble or half as true as woman can, unless it has just happened recently-is also reminiscent of the odd jokes that the poet/dreamer often throws off at the end of his legends. Here and there such jests may indicate, like a knowing wink of the eye, the speaker's amused distance from the querelle des femmes and/or his actual loyalties. Moreover, the Clerk's implicit separation of himself from those other clerks who "preise wommen but a lite" is, I suggest, part of his attempt to show himself sympathetic to the cause of women, even at the expense of professional solidarity. So too in an earlier intrusion he poses a rhetorical question to the female members of his audience: "But now of wommen wolde I axen fayn / If thise assayes myghte nat suffise?" (696–97; compare the narrator of the Legend's" "And trusteth, as in love, no man but me," 2561). The Clerk's strategy in this kind of commentary is remarkably similar to the poet/dreamer's attempts in the Legend of Good Women to ingratiate himself with supposed women listeners and demonstrate his unique sympathy with their gender. But despite his efforts to deny that he is the epitome of "clerkhede," to condemn needless male cruelty and to sympathize with Griselda as arch-victim of patriarchal tyranny, the Clerk is finally not able or willing to distance himself from a specifically masculine attitude toward feminine virtue.
The fact that the Clerk's perspective is not morally universal, as many modern critics have assumed, not actually sympathetic to women, and not artistically neutral is dramatically confirmed at the conclusion of the tale, where what we might call the excess of endings has the same effect as the apparent incompletion of the Legend of Good Women ." Although
they appear to close in such radically different ways, both endings are definitely and strategically equivocal, designed to compound readers' uncertainties about the meaning of the narratives, about the narrators' respective attitudes toward the purposes of stories and storytelling, and especially about Chaucer's attitudes toward the problematic issues of gender and marital conflict. In the case of the Clerk's Tale , the storyteller addresses the problem for men that he has discerned in the story of the good woman by shifting his ground, dismantling the fiction of feminine virtue by at once denying in various ways that Griselda is a woman and reaffirming that he is a man.
There are several endings to the Clerk's Tale . The narrative itself first concludes with a completely dosed and happy ending: Walter and Griselda live "Ful many a yeer in heigh prosperitee"; their daughter is married to one of the worthiest lords in Italy; Walter brings Griselda's old father to court and takes care of him for the rest of his days; and Walter's son succeeds to the lordship of the land and makes a fortunate marriage (1128–37). At this point, the Clerk departs briefly from Petrarch to add that Walter's son, however, did not test his noble wife, and that "This world is nat so strong . . . As it hath been in olde tymes yoore" (1139–40). This comparison between the hardiness of wives then and now, between the fabular or literary and the real, implies that Griselda is not like real women, and this point will be picked up three stanzas later, where it leads directly to the Clerk's reference to the Wife of Bath and then to the envoy.
First, however, another possible ending to the story, a religious moral, is offered, prefaced by a closing call to attention, "And herkneth what this auctour seith therfoore" (1141). The subsequent moral is found in both Petrarch and the French versions; the point is not that wives should adopt Griselda's humility but that all human beings should be as "constant in adversitee" as she is: again, then, Griselda is not really a woman. Following this, a third conclusion to the tale is initiated with a second closing formula, "But o word, lordynges, herkneth er I go" (1163), and in
the next two stanzas the Clerk playfully does precisely what he has just told his audience not to do. Returning to the notion that it would be hard "now-a-dayes" to find two or three live Griseldas in a town, he de- allegorizes the notion of "assay" from the religious interpretation of Griselda's trials to offer this comment on material women, who fall so short of the ideal female malleability that his tale prescribes:
For if that they were put to swiche assays,
The gold of hem hath now so badde alayes
With bras, that thogh the coyne be fair at ye,
It wolde rather breste a-two than plye.
He then goes on to dedicate a blessing (in contrast to the Wife's parting curse) to the Wife of Bath and "al hire secte," who are implicitly presented as the real, living examples of that superficially fair coin that will not bend.
With a third parting call to attention—"Herkneth my song that seith in this manere" (1176)—as if he realized that our minds may well be wandering or at least confused by this plethora of contradictory conclusions and applications of his tale, the Clerk offers what now stands as the last ending to the text, titled in many manuscripts Lenvoy de Chaucer. Here, as in the preceding two stanzas, the speaker interacts directly with the other pilgrims and links the story we have just heard to the question of marital sovereignty. Now reading the heroine not as a paradigm for all humanity but as an historically real character, dissociable from her ideal virtue, the speaker replicates Walter's move, saying, in effect, "This is enough": "Grisilde is deed, and eek hire pacience, / And bothe atones buryed in Ytaille" (1177–78). He warns husbands that they will fail if they try to test their wives. Turning to "noble wyves," he advises them not to let any clerks tell a story about them like the story of Griselda; and in the remaining stanzas he presents advice couched as the most extreme version possible of the Wife's already extreme philosophy of female dominance.
The Clerk's disclaimer two lines before the beginning of the Envoy—"And lat us stynte of ernestful matere" (1175)—has encouraged modern readers to see the ending as comic play that protects the seriousness of the tale. In a frequently cited appraisal of this "concessionary comedy," for example, Charles Muscatine argues: "The Clerk admits the opposition
purposely, so willingly and extravagantly as to make safe from vulgar questioning the finer matter that has gone before." Such a reading is consistent with Freud's view of humor as a healthy, even precious, defense mechanism wherein the humorist takes on the psychic part of both father and child; the superego speaks like a parent to the frightened ego, saying "'Look here! This is all that this seemingly dangerous world amounts to. Child's play—the very thing to jest about.'" But what, exactly, is the young male ego of the Clerk so frightened of? And how is it the "finer matter" of Griselda's story that the envoy makes safe? As Freud further suggests, the humorist always repudiates suffering and affirms the ego's invulnerability; humor, then, would seem far more likely to trivialize, even undercut, a heroine whose power is equivalent to her capacity to embrace suffering and who can subordinate her own ego so completely to the cultural superego (the Law of the Father, the domination of Walter).
Given the similarity of the Clerk and the narrator of the Legend of Good Women , I condude from the nature of the jest attempted in the envoy that the Clerk is simultaneously afraid of women and afraid of being (like) a woman. What frightens the Clerk so much that he has to joke about it is, first, the power of Griselda, the silenced woman, and her inhuman, celebrated capacity to suffer. This power, within the tale, has also frightened her husband Walter, in ways I have suggested; the envoy reveals that it is, moreover, paradoxically reminiscent of the power attributed by the Clerk to women like the Wife of Bath. What Griselda and the Wife seem to have in common is their capacity, manifested in opposite ways, to escape or at least lay bare the operation of male tyranny by exceeding, in different directions, its enunciated limits. Second, I submit, the Clerk may be frightened by his own likeness to Griselda, a parallel often drawn by readers. As a youth whose manhood is openly questioned by the Host, as an unbeneficed young cleric, and as a storyteller translating a renowned author, the Clerk occupies a marginal and insecure position in the culture that wants to rule the day, the hearty
manly world organized and policed both by the menacing Host of the Canterbury Tales and by the literary tradition embodied in the authority vested in Petrarch and the Latin source text. If Griselda exceeds the demands of her husband, so too the Clerk exceeds the demands of translation, and nowhere more than in the excess of endings to his tale. While the Clerk's sympathy with women may be suspect, then, his identification with the feminine position and hence his insight into the nature of a certain kind of psychic oppression is plausible, and it is as frightening to him as it is to a woman like the Wife.
The Clerk's strategy at the end of his tale suggests both his fears and his defense against them. By playing in the envoy at taking the shrew's part, he continues to dissociate himself—now, however, with tongue quite obviously in cheek—from the crude antifeminism of men like Walter, who seriously and mistakenly expect women to submit to masculine dominance and who underestimate the powers of their victims. At the same time, he implies that after all he has managed to transcend the merely literal response to the tale's pathos that his ostensive sympathy with Griselda might indicate and that he is in fact distanced by his superior learning and wit from the whole field of sexual warfare. Like the narrator of the Legend of Good Women , the Clerk finally signals that he is neither for real women nor against them; he is just playing a game, not the courtly cult of the marguerite but something not very different, a game played for and about men, and one that entails the transmission of the patriarchy's values, courtly or religious, through stories about idealized female figures. Griselda, then, is not finally unintelligible and threatening, she is just implausible; her suffering and its finer meanings can be forgotten. This is all there really is, the comic ending says, to the seemingly dangerous world of women and the war between lordly husbands and long-suffering wives—the very thing to jest about.
Freud, again like many modern Chaucerians, values humor for its "liberating" element and sees something "fine and elevating" in what he calls "the triumph of the ego": "It refuses to be hurt by the arrows of reality or to be compelled to suffer." But as humor liberates the humorist, does it liberate everyone? What about people who cannot laugh off the arrows of reality, who cannot refuse to be compelled to suffer—what about people like Griselda, whose only power lies in suffering?
What about those who are the targets of real arrows, the butts of jokes, like the Wife of Bath? The Clerk's humorous ending deflates rather than protects Griselda's virtue, surely, and deflects us from both the real experience and the figurative value of her suffering and endurance; in liberating and elevating himself, then, he devalues and dismisses the feminine power of silence without liberating women from the complementary myths of absence or excess. The envoy in particular not only trivializes but also preempts the voice of a woman like the Wife of Bath, exaggerating just the sort of "vulgar" response—something short of throwing his books into the fire—that she might indeed offer to a story like the Clerk's. Griselda, I have suggested, is made temporarily deaf, like the Wife, when Walter suddenly undergoes a dramatic reversal and agrees that she has proved her worth and can stop being tested; her story ends and her voice is silenced when the misogyny and fear that brings her into being finally comprehends how dangerous it is to let her suffer so visibly and well. In the same way, the Wife's position is silenced and disarmed by the Clerk's reversal when he impersonates her voice and takes up in jest precisely the kind of argument she might make.
The tale's reception, moreover, suggests that the vocal men on the pilgrimage have not been fooled into thinking that the Clerk is really on women's side in all this, or that the telling of this tale could possibly serve to liberate any wives from the domination of husbands that they are compelled to suffer outside the worlds of story and jest. In the link between the Clerk's Tale and the Merchant's Tale , we hear the Host's enthusiastic response to the story of Griselda, which he wishes his wife could hear. The Merchant, another manly man, begins the next tale in the series by comparing his own shrewish wife to Griselda. Disguised, but not completely so, as sympathetic to women, the Clerk nevertheless affirms to other men his proper maleness by offering them a comforting example of how both virtuous and vicious women alike may be silenced, and Griselda's meaning is reduced to its most minimal and least threatening level. The Host and Merchant have been accused of distorting the tale, and indeed they simply ignore the Clerk's half-hearted, clearly ambivalent and finally subverted warning that we should view Griselda not as a woman, but as a figure for the human soul. But their response, biased as it may be, is invited by the Clerk's presentation.
The audience outside the poem may be more alert to the tale's subtleties, but modern critics at least have not been able to agree on its significance in a persuasive way either. And one of the problems that plagues more skillful interpreters outside the pilgrimage is the identity, not to mention the intentions, of the speaker in this poem, and especially in the envoy. Apart from the teller of the tales of Melibee and Sir Thopas , the Clerk is the character most often associated with Chaucer and his point of view, one of the few pilgrims usually thought to be treated with little irony and left in control of his own story. At the same time, the voicing of the envoy is particularly problematized by the scribal heading, Lenvoy de Chaucer , invoking the author's name at just the point where the joke is made. Robinson's explanatory note seems either obvious (aren't all the dramatically appropriate tales finally composed by Chaucer?) or confounding: "The song . . . is Chaucer's independent composition. But it belongs dramatically to the Clerk, and is entirely appropriate." It points, however, to the importance of the fact that insofar as Chaucer speaks, it is only through the dramatic composition of other characters and other voices. Here, as in all the earlier dream-visions (and perhaps again with special relation to the Legend of Good Women , whose narrator also likes to make obscure little jokes about the ladies), the poet develops and plays on both the proximity and the distance between himself and the narrator of the story. To the extent that both proximity and distance remain in evidence, he creates the possibility of writing about his own limitations and biases with a penetrating self-scrutiny and an ironic self-reflexivity, and hence at the same time implying that he has in some sense escaped these limits and can be caught only in the equivocal act of writing and the liberating gesture of humor. Like Griselda, again, the figure of Chaucer transcends ostensive limits because he admits in play to perceiving and accepting them. In his marked equivocation, so central to the game, he figures himself in and
as one who realizes the powers of silence and unintelligibility that he usurps from and finally denies to his female heroines.
Whereas many modern readers have posited a radical break between early and late Chaucerian fictions, one of my aims in discussing selected Canterbury Tales is to underscore some lines of thematic and rhetorical continuity that are especially visible to a feminist criticism interested in the problem of masculine identity and authority. The Clerk's Tale highlights such continuity, and we see how the evasiveness of the narrator and his position, so characteristic of all the early poems, manifests itself in an even more emphatic way in the Tales: through the creation of other fictive speakers altogether, with their own proper, fictive names, at different degrees of distance from the author, in the fiction of the framed collection. Here the functional moves toward the self-disguise, self-division, ambiguity, and resistance that I trace as empowering strategies in all the earlier poems proceed a logical step further toward the position of "negative capability" and aesthetic transcendence that becomes the hallmark of the humanist artist and earns Chaucer his status as Father of English poetry, even as he plays the child and perhaps identifies with children. Through this further step in self-effacement, brought out so clearly in the Clerk's performance, the figure of the poet avoids precisely the predicament that the remaining male storytellers I am interested in here—the Miller, Knight, Merchant, and Franklin—to varying degrees reflect: any representation of Woman seems to entail a revelation of the male speaker's anxiety about his manliness, his status and identity. Again, this revelation goes hand in hand with a discourse that is thoroughly misogynistic, but the strategic intersection of the present, impersonated male narrator and the absent author has served to liberate Chaucer from the self-revealing, self-destructive side of the misogyny that powers the literary canon.