Making Ernest of Game:
The Franklin's Tale and Some Partial Conclusions
Game-playing, rule-breaking, are a function of the confidence of legitimate status, of knowledge of the game and of its rules.
Terry Lovell, "Writing Like a Woman: A Question of Politics"
Like the members of the male elite, the class aspirant has an interest in preserving social closure, since without it there would be nothing to aspire to. But, at the same time, that closure must be sufficiently flexible to incorporate him. His conceptualization of woman will as a result be radically unstable: she will be perceived as oscillating between the enclosed body (the purity of the elite to which he aspires) and the open body (or else how could he attain her?), between being "too coy" and "too common."
Peter Stallybrass, "Patriarchal Territories"
The Merchant's Tale seems particularly "bitter" and "dark" to so many modern readers, I have argued, because it fundamentally doubts the proper difference between male and female upon which various orthodoxies depend. Both the Squire and the Franklin feel that same nervousness in the face of the Merchant's performance that some modern critics have felt. Both tellers, first the figure of the son and then the figure of the more experienced and sagacious surrogate father, try to take up the task of representing Woman in a way that avoids the consequences,
for the male storyteller, of the Merchant's self-destructive, self-reflexive misogyny.
The Squire's Tale can be viewed as a response to the Merchant's questioning of both gender difference and the possibility of feminine virtue; as an antidote, it attempts to restore one familiar version of the ideal heroine, a victimized female, in the abandoned, self-mutilating falcon in Part II of the Squire's incomplete romance. But as the Legend of Good Women attests, one difficulty with this worn-out strategy is that it too inscribes a troubling image of the male. Like Aeneas, Theseus, Jason, and all those other false men, the tiercelet who abandons the falcon in the Squire's Tale is, according to the lady's description, a typical lover who "semed welle of alle gentillesse" but turns out to be "ful of treson and falsnesse . . . so wrapped under humble cheere, / And under hewe of trouthe . . . "(505–8). If the Franklin in turn is anxious about his own "gentillesse," or his son's, this will never do. If he is made uncomfortable by the implications of the Merchant's allegedly unvarnished vision, the Squire's fantastic alternative will not soothe. His own tale attempts in an earnest way to lighten the darkness of the Merchant's and to correct the immature efforts of the Squire by restoring proper gender difference and affirming a more positive ideal of proper masculinity.
Susan Crane has offered persuasive evidence that the Franklin's anxiety about his social rank, his "liminal" position, is crucial to our understanding of his offering: he is, she argues, "of a rank not quite common but not securely gentle either." Furthermore, Crane makes a strong case for the homology of the Franklin's marginal status, which is based on
class, and Dorigen's status, which is marginalized by her position as romance heroine and conventionally feminine figure. Both narrator and heroine, Crane points out, are constrained by their social position; through either rank or gender, each is simultaneously dominant and subordinate in both socioeconomic and discursive systems, while both are to some extent constrained by the romance genre. The Franklin and Dorigen are aware of their marginalization in aristocratic and clerical discourse, too, but their attempts to resist their subjection fail. Crane concludes that "Both vavasour and lady can inhabit romance but do not control its events," and that both finally give in to the reassuring dominance of the hero, Arveragus.
Crane's work highlights what we have seen throughout this study: the Franklin's Tale offers yet another example of a male narrator's perceived feminization, represented in part by the familiar depiction of striking affinities between the position of Dorigen, the female character, and the Franklin, the man who tells her story. At the same time, I would note again, it is precisely the homology between male and female, between the figure of the storyteller/class aspirant and the figure of the woman, that requires the male narrator to distance himself so clearly from the female character—and to do so, in this case, so successfully that generations of critics fundamentally uninterested in Dorigen and questions of gender have been able to avoid seeing the similarities that Crane makes so visible. In the following discussion I want to bring out the ways in which the Franklin's Tale identifies its feminized narrator with male interests and male characters, promises in a more affirmative way than the Miller does the possibility of male bonding across class and discursive boundaries, and reaffirms at the end of the tale what the Merchant has discredited, both proper gender difference and a positive notion of masculine virtue.
The tale early on concedes quite explicitly that what the Merchant says is true. In at least one important regard, men and women are alike: "Wommen, of kynde, desiren libertee, / And nat to been constreyned as a thral; / And so doon men , if I sooth seyen shal" (768–770, emphasis added). The general sentiment expressed in these lines might be assented to by the Merchant (and, in fact, by most of the pilgrims). But his tale, harking back to the Wife of Bath's Prologue , set out to say the grim "sooth"
about what women naturally desire. The truth emphasized in the Franklin's Tale is by contrast men's desire, which turns out to be proper and beneficial to all, to be "free" in the most noble senses of the word. Men and women are alike in their desire for liberty, the Franklin's Tale demonstrates, but men are this narrator's true interest, and the story suggests that only men can truly achieve and use freedom so that no harm actually befalls anyone.
To negotiate the complex problem for men that representing Woman and loving women entails without admitting, as the Merchant does, a kind of defeat, it is above all necessary in the Franklin's Tale to give Dorigen enough rope to hang herself and then to effect her rescue at the last moment, through the combined pity and generosity of the men for whom her potential desire has been so threatening. The tale's characterization of Dorigen is meaningfully unstable in a way that specifically and thoroughly cancels out the implications of May's characterization in the Merchant's Tale . Dorigen begins in a position of power, theoretically, at least, "on top," as free of her husband's direct control as May is subject to it. From this position Dorigen moves (partly because of the desire to do so that is imputed to her, partly because of circumstances beyond anyone's control except the magician's) to a welcomed or at least silently accepted submission to male fantasy. She is no longer cast in the role of an agent who either takes pity or heaps shame and abuse on those men who desire her but instead is represented as subject to the pity of men and as much a pliable victim as May seemed to be at the outset.
Dorigen's freedom—her generosity, power, and subjectivity—is initially an effect of generic convention; she is introduced as the fair and highborn
lady of courtly romance who causes Arveragus's subjection and "wo" and then takes "pitee" on him explicitly because he has submitted so decisively and properly to her. Their marriage, which in reality would undermine the lady's dominance and "libertee," is described as something to which she actively consents because of her lover's theoretically proper self-subordination:
But atte laste she, for his worthynesse,
And namely for his meke obeysaunce,
Hath swich a pitee caught of his penaunce
That pryvely she fil of his accord
To take hym for hir housbonde and hir lord,
Of swich lordshipe as men han over hir wyves.
At first glance, this passage inscribes the female complicity that supports patriarchal ideals; it affirms the reconciliation of the ideologies of courtly love and medieval marriage through Dorigen's generous, willing endorsement of normative marital hierarchy. As an opening, it unmistakably picks up from the happy ending that dosed the Wife of Bath's Tale , wherein the powerful figure of the Hag, because of her husband's "obeysaunce," transforms herself into the wife "bothe fair and good" (III.1241) who in turn "obeyed hym in every thyng" (III.1255). But only fifteen lines into a story that seems to begin where other romances must leave off, with this ideal and implausible complementarity of love and marriage, sovereign lady and submissive wife, the vagueness of the formulation in line 743 invites the crucial question that the tale will answer: Just what is Dorigen "pryvely" agreeing to, and why "pryvely"? What is the valence of "swich" here—what kind of "lordshipe" do worthy, obedient noblemen privately have over the courtly ladies they marry? The line also sounds a lot like those other passages, sprinkled throughout Chaucerian fictions, that record the nervous innuendo of allegedly polite discourse. Compare, for instance, the narrator's salacious reference to the holy woman's necessary sexual submission to her husband in the Man
of Law's Tale (II.708–14). Even this early in the Franklin's Tale , readers familiar with Chaucerian idiom may well hear euphemistic allusion to one central aspect of male "lordshipe" that the Franklin's Tale soon focuses on: the sexual rights that husbands have, or should have, over their wives' bodies.
The ambiguity and instability of the arrangements between Dorigen and Arveragus are also subtly suggested in the digression that follows the opening description of their harmonious union, in the narrator's vague and prolix discussion of how happy marriages negotiate the conflict between freedom and obedience (761–805). The narrator shifts abruptly in this passage from the specific story he started telling to the general and abstract social issues it raises. This move from narrative to commentary quite dearly indicates that a realistic tale of Arveragus's divided life as a husband—"Servant in love, and lord in manage" (793)—like that of the Black Knight's married life with White, lacks tellability or defies credibility. It is only when the husband departs for England that a plot can emerge, for it is the man's prolonged absence that clarifies and confirms both the nature and the necessity, to social and narrative systems, of the "lordshipe" that husbands have over the sexuality of their wives.
Alone, unguarded by the repressions of domestic bliss, Dorigen has dangerous and storyworthy powers. The very devotion to Arveragus that she so passionately expresses in his absence carries with it the possibility of something as improper in a wife as the power that courtly love would impute to the lady. When the narrator says, for instance, that "Desir of his presence hire so destreyneth / That al this wyde world she sette at noght" (820–21), he implies not only excessive but even inappropriate desire, insofar as he suggests that the lady too has a public self, a responsibility to "this wyde world," which she willfully sets aside for love. Elsewhere in Chaucerian fiction, it is men who set the world aside for love: Troilus, who has the will and the power to put Criseyde over the interests of state, or the Antony of the Legend of Good Women who loves Cleopatra so much "That al the world he sette at no value" (LGW 602). Like Antony, too, Dorigen is "in swich rage" for her husband (compare FT 836, LGW 599). Dorigen's questioning of God's wisdom and the order of Nature itself In her long protest against "the grisly rokkes blake" (865–93) also suggests the inappropriateness and irrationality of such intense desire in a woman.
Above all, however, it is her complicated, three-part response to the importunities of Aurelius (980–1005) that brings the implicit dangers of ungoverned female subjectivity and sexuality to the crisis that the tale can proceed to resolve. When he tells her of his love, the young squire, like Arveragus before him, calls the idealized fictional powers of the beloved lady to the realistic narrative fore. At first, in lines 980–87, Dorigen uses her power to avow dearly and firmly her fidelity to Arveragus. She says this is her "fynal answere," but if it were, Dorigen's goodness and subjection would be already complete; without the excess that follows, there would no story and no demonstrable need for Arveragus's return. The second phase of her response is the well-known "rash promise" (989–98); explicitly offered "in pley," it exemplifies the many dangerous dimensions of Dorigen's precarious position as both lady and wife. It is instructive to compare Dorigen at this point with another female jokester in the Canterbury Tales , another woman who "plays": Alisoun of the Miller's Tale . Alisoun gets away with her joke (even if, as I have said, her escape is a narrow, accidental one), but Dorigen does not. The latter is not violated or dishonored at the end; instead, she is alleged to suffer great emotional distress from which she can be released only by male decisions that dearly put her in her place. She is not to be excluded from punishment, like Alisoun, for this treatment would be churlish and too obviously misogynist. Instead, she is to be chivalrously rescued from humiliation and abasement by the proper intervention of her husband and the chain reaction of male virtue he sets in motion. What is it about Dorigen's joke, and the context in which it is made, that necessitates both punishment and reprieve? Why doesn't her play lib-
erate her—as it does, for example, the Clerk? Why and to whom is a woman's game-playing, as opposed to a man's, so threatening that the polite tale must teach her this earnest kind of lesson?
Most obviously, Dorigen's pledge to Aurelius—I'll love you if you get rid of the rocks that keep my husband from me—is a potential threat to Arveragus and both the "lordshipe . . . men han over hir wyves" and "the name of soveraynetee, / That wolde he have for shame of his degree" (751–52). Challenging the fundamental rights of the aristocratic husband to the coterminous purities of wife and name, Dorigen's little joke signals the possibility at least of that excess of desire also indicated in her passion for Arveragus; it moreover asserts, for a moment, "in pley," her right to control her own body, to give where she will her love and, even more importantly, the sign that marks such control, her word. As Terry Lovell suggests, game-playing is "a function of confidence of legitimate status, of knowledge of the game and of its rules" ; so too Dorigen's joke implies her (misplaced) confidence in her status, her right to play games with the power she thinks she has.
Dorigen's joke also threatens Arveragus by revealing the similarity between men in putatively very different positions: the ideal husband and the young rival. Aurelius's conventional adoration of Dorigen mimics and fleshes out Arveragus's presumed relationship to her before their marriage, and she exercises the same (highly conventional) power over both men, conditionally granting her love because she pities Aurelius, just as she pitied Arveragus: "Syn I yow se so pitously complayne" (991; cf. 740). Her joke threatens Aurelius, too, because it plays with and makes light of the predictable passion, so much like Arveragus's, that he claims to experience; it may be even more disturbing to Aurelius because, like the reader, he must decide whether she means it or not. Is Dorigen really saying no and emphasizing her rejection of Aurelius with a graphic example of its impossibility—not until hell freezes over, so to speak? Or is she revealing, as some critics allege, her subconscious desire to be unfaithful to Arveragus? How can a man tell whether a woman really means it when she says no, especially if she makes a joke of her refusal?
And which in fact would be more disastrous for Aurelius's position: to have Dorigen or not? To want a woman who is unattainable or to want one who might just want him back? Dorigen manages, through her equivocation and play, to represent both disquieting possibilities and hence to embody the dilemma that masculine identity confronts in romantic love.
Dorigen's playfulness also imperils the class and generic distinctions that the Franklin seems eager to maintain. She acts in part on the power of sovereign lady that her marriage has not yet fully contained, and so her joke imagines the possibility that the ostensive right of a woman, under the courtly code, to grant or deny sexual access might be real. At the same time, as the comparison with Alisoun underscores, it also suggests that as the folk or fabliau tradition insists, a woman just might have rampant, illicit sexual desires and might act to gratify them. Her game-playing threatens not only to lay claim to her "legitimate status," then, but also to lay bare some of the covert rules of the game as we saw them in the play of the A-fragment: for instance, the stipulations that differences of age and rank between men may be leveled or crossed by discourse about women and that common male fears about female powers also transcend differences in genre, style, and class. And in a recent discussion of the tale, R. A. Shoat parenthetically alludes to another aspect of the problem, for a male storyteller, that Dorigen's joke brings out: "(a lady who loves 'in pley' [F 988] is no Beatrice, no begetter of the great poet)."
Dorigen's joke is thus troubling enough; even worse, however, is the third phase of her response, the violent retraction (1000–5) in which she maintains that she is just kidding. As if she realizes that she has gone too far "in pley" and revealed too much, Dorigen herself tries to cancel out or seal off the implications of her joke by following it up with a firm, unplayful rebuke of Aurelius, including a reminder that she only dares to make her roguish promise because Aurelius cannot possibly meet its terms: "'For wel I woot that it shal never bityde'" (10001). She adds a question, moreover, that puts the reality of the situation in surprisingly frank, even churlish terms that can only make matters worse for everyone involved: "'What deyntee sholde a man han in his lyf / For to go love another mannes wyf, / That hath hir body whan so that hym liketh?'" (1003–5).
Here Dorigen articulates as directly as possible her blunt, impolite, and impolitic understanding of everyone's actual position. She exposes the illusory nature of the empowerment that courtly fictions seem to cede to her and of the lover's claim that she is the object of his desire. Dorigen's serious, sensible, knowledgeable, unseemly observation discloses that indeed she knows the real rules: what is proper, who is in control, and precisely what "swich lordshipe as men han over hir wyves" actually amounts to. Such excessive knowledge, however, can hardly reinstall her in the position of the perfect, bodiless courtly lady whose devotion to Arveragus is altogether self-chosen, nor can it reassure Aurelius that he knows how to act the part of the proper courtly lover in this tricky situation. Her rebuke is intended, presumably, to have a dampening effect on Aurelius's ardor, but while it calls his motives (and sexual tastes) into question, it may at the same time work in just the opposite way, whetting his appetite for Dorigen: not only by reminding him that she has a body but also by fanning the flames of his jealousy. Worse yet, it clarifies the real stakes here. Dorigen makes it clear that in his attempt to seduce a married woman, Aurelius, the very type of the courtly lover as that type is repeatedly defined in the Tales , is seeking what one modern critic has referred to as "seconds": a woman whose body is not his exclusively, nor his by rights. A good part of the "deyntee" he derives from this effort, then, must be the pleasure of challenging and supplanting the male rival, as much as or more than loving the woman. And what Dorigen blurts out, the crude, unvarnished reading of the situation, turns out to be the gist of the tale as a whole.
Dorigen has been described as a misreader, but at this moment she is reading all too well. She reveals a "knowledge of the game and of
its rules" that contradicts the illusion of female power to which she also lays claim when she tries to play, and thus she at once exposes and confirms the paradox of the feminine position in the social game: consciousness of self is consciousness of the negation of self. For her excessively accurate reading, for her overt statement of the covert rules, as much as for the possibility that she has desires, she must be corrected. The rest of the tale validates her interpretation of the situation by the very strength of its efforts both to reaffirm and to conceal what Dorigen has divulged.
As I noted in Chapter 18, the Miller's Alisoun is not directly punished for her threatening playfulness, which serves to uncover all sorts of things that polite literature must conceal, but her freedom from punishment does not empower her; instead, Nicholas appropriates her jest, and the close of the Miller's Tale excludes Alisoun from the possession of a moral stature worth punishing. Dorigen, however, cannot so easily escape, in part because Arveragus and the genre in which the tale begins both have already ceded her a kind of authority that she has unfortunately, for a moment, almost used; she has, at the same time, temporarily shattered the illusion that the tale is explicitly devoted to perpetuating. It is, after all, belief in the fiction of Dorigen's bodiless, nonthreatening power and subjectivity, the possibility of female "libertee" without female sexuality, that is the "inpossible" (1009), the great feat of magic that the tale performs. The black rocks are a multivalent symbol that may be taken as, among other possibilities, an objective correlative of masculine fantasies about the monstrosity of female sexuality, another version of Scylla and Charybdis, and the dangers embodied in Dorigen as heroine that stand in the way of Arveragus's return to a chaste wife. Like the clerk/magician's removal of the rocks, this illusion must be understood by reasonable people as no more than an illusion, something unreal, temporary, unnatural, something too threatening to masculine domi-
nance—to reality, as it were—to sustain, something belonging to and contained by make-believe. Dorigen obsessively sees the rocks for what they are, barriers to her powers as romance heroine, just as in the moment of her response to Aurelius she is not taken in by the part she plays. Even as she speaks, she becomes the agent of disillusionment, first teasing Aurelius and Arveragus with the possibility that she might both have the power they pretend to confer on her and not be the ideal they worship, then deflating them with her blunt acknowledgment of the crude facts, reified as fact by her frankness, of masculine dominance and homosocial desire. Appropriately enough, then, it is only a counter- illusion—the removal of those rocks—that can (re)turn Dorigen to a proper feminine position: stunned, terrified, all but hopeless, in retreat from sexual desire and afraid for her only remaining asset, her sexual virtue, and desperately in need of the pity and corrective guidance of both her husband and her lover.
To reassert control over Dorigen without admitting to anything too crudely controlling, and to suppress her apparent ability to penetrate, however fleetingly, the discursive illusions that have created her in the first place, the Franklin's Tale literally and pointedly must reverse the trajectory of the female character's development that we saw in the characterization of May in the Merchant's Tale . In the first moment in which she is attributed some feelings, May is brought to January's bed "as stile as a stoon." By the end of the tale, however, she is anything but paralyzed by her situation; she is busy reading and writing letters, stealing keys, climbing trees, and (however stereotypically) blinding her husband with feminine wiles. Dorigen begins with more active freedom than she says she wants and access to both playful and serious speech. However temporary or illusory, the possibility of female liberty and mobility is imaged in the power granted to her by Arveragus, in her restless roaming by the sea, and in the psychological realism of those contradictory and self-canceling moves in her response to Aurelius. She subsequently suffers, however, precisely the kind of paralysis in which we first saw May: quite literally, after Aurelius tells her that the rocks are gone, "she astoned stood" (1339; compare too Griselda's astonishment when she is temporarily stunned by Walter's change of heart at the end of the Clerk's Tale ). The efforts (and financial promises) of the courtly rival and the tricks of the clever clerk have together returned her to her proper place and decorously covered over the exposure of her latent, potential sexuality; henceforth, she enacts male meaning and
makes possible male bonds that defy economic reality. In the denouement of the tale, she quite literally functions to restore one paradigm by which female characters are contained, the paradigm of homosocial exchange, the so-called traffic in women, on which the Canterbury Tales insists so relentlessly and which the Franklin manages much more successfully than most.
Moreover, Dorigen is kept in place even as she is passed around, by a familiar strategy: violence against women, both by men and, even more effectively, perhaps, by the victims themselves, is threatened and then averted because both the husband and the lover in this story are generous, and the wife is obedient. Sympathy with Dorigen as a victim of any such violence is prevented because she herself imagines that it ought properly to take place and because the male characters show so much pity for her themselves that the audience can feel little or no need to do so.
After Dorigen's "a-stone-ishment," two passages serve simultaneously to raise and avert the familiar specter of violence against women. The first of these is Dorigen's lament, with its exceedingly long catalogue (1355–456) of famous female suicides. Much has been written about this catalogue, and while critics vary in their opinions of its significance, it is considered by the majority to be "a failure," the Franklin's "most serious rhetorical blunder." A few readers have already suggested, however, that it is anything but a blunder. Stephen Knight argues that the irrelevance to her own situation of most of the exempla Dorigen offers is actually purposive and effective in suggesting her self-image. Her citation of so many virgins, for instance, indicates to Knight her "recoil" from sexual relationships into self-destruction. (This would certainly accord with the revealingly hot denial of sexual initative implicit in her rebuke to Aurelius, when she describes herself as "another mannes wyf.") Moreover, "the challenge she has presented as a woman with a viewpoint is foreclosed," Knight observes, "as she imagines that very viewpoint as manless, nameless, lifeless."
The point is, I would add, that even self-destruction and willing victimization impute to a female a possible power, certainly ambiguous but
nevertheless real, and a discursive life, as we see so clearly in the case of the Clerk's Griselda and her powers of silence. The Franklin's Tale therefore cannot sustain Dorigen's tragic self-image as manless martyr to virtue any more than Criseyde can be allowed to follow the path of a tragic heroine in Book IV of Troilus and Criseyde . Even more importantly, the catalogue serves to remind us of what might, in another context, be Dorigen's fate; it therefore functions as a necessary background in establishing the atypical but exemplary generosity, tolerance, and sympathy for women of these male characters, including Arveragus, who does not ask his wife to die for him, and the Franklin as narrator, who does not add to the literary tradition of female self-destruction.
This function becomes clearer when the catalogue is read in the context of another less frequently annotated moment in which violence against Dorigen herself is threatened but not (yet) enacted. In the second half of Arveragus's double response to Dorigen's confession, after he grants her the privilege of keeping her "trouthe," he orders her perpetual future silence thus: "'I yow forbede, up peyne of deeth, / That nevere, whil thee lasteth lyf ne breeth, / To no wight telle thou of this aventure'" (1481–83). Dorigen is here expressly forbidden to make a story out of her experience, to tell her own tale. There is an obvious irony in the fact that she is told in the same breath to keep her all-important word and to keep her mouth shut about doing so; this is another instance where the woman is constituted to bespeak her own silence. But in the logic of the tale, this is also an appropriate command, since it was Dorigen's excessive speech—the reopening of her "final answer" with the joke and then the rebuke—that set the disturbing events in motion. While many critics simply avoid this moment, those who find it jarring for the loving husband to threaten his wife with death if she disobeys him have provided some interesting suggestions. Anne Thompson Lee has observed, for instance, that Arveragus may indeed be doing just what Dorigen wants him to, consciously or unconsciously, taking over his rightful masculine identity, "acting like a man," and thereby serving to "assure Chaucer's pilgrims that he is not the willing cuckold they would have scorned, but a 'proper man.'" But this reading only confirms that Arveragus's problem, like Aurelius's, is one we have come to know so well in this study
that I hardly need reiterate it here: as courtly lovers, and as either husband or sexual partner, these men have been paradoxically unmanned. The way to begin correcting this situation, to restore proper manhood to those who would love Dorigen, is for the husband to remind his wife of the death that he could legitimately impose, the violence that is averted in this case, as in her failure to commit suicide, by wifely patience and obedience rather than potentially subversive self-sacrifice—by male generosity and female complicity.
It is interesting to note, moreover, that just as most critics overlook Arveragus's threat, neither is it repeated in Aurelius's version of the story as he tells it to the clerk-magician. The young rival calls attention, instead, to the husband's willing self-sacrifice (which, as the catalogue of female suicides reminds us, would actually put him in an unseemly position for a man): "'Arveragus, of gentillesse, / Hadde levere dye in sorwe and in distresse / Than that his wyf were of hir trouthe fals'" (1595–97). Presumably the reference is to Arveragus's comment in lines 1476–78 that he would rather be "ystiked" than have Dorigen betray her "trouthe," although we never hear Dorigen repeat this to Aurelius, and there is certainly a great deal more textual emphasis on her possible death than on Arveragus's. Whether the omission or alteration is knowing or not, Aurelius needs to foreground Arveragus's generosity and to occlude the threat of force that backs it up.
Aurelius's part in the closing action also specifically reclaims the power that Dorigen originally exerted over both her husband and her would-be lover: the power of pity so frequently assigned to women. When he meets Dorigen by chance as she rushes to the garden to keep her word, she is a pitiable object. The rhyme underscores the direct relation between the wife's obedience and her derangement: when Aurelius asks her where she is going, "she answerde, half as she were mad, / 'Unto the gardyn, as myn housbonde bad'" (1511–12). Aurelius is said to feel "compassioun" (1515) and "routhe" (1520, which rhymes with "hir trouthe" in 1519) for both her and Arveragus, and this pity moves him to reconsider the "cherlyssh" (1523) nature of his own lust. What is actually quoted of Aurelius's repetition of the story to the magician emphasizes, again, that the point is the empowering
nature of a man's pity, which resolves all problems and brings the story to its end:
"That made me han of hire so greet pitee;
And right as frely as he sente hire me,
As frely sente I hire to hym ageyn.
This al and som; ther is namoore to seyn."
Depending on how one reads the chain of events that Arveragus's founding, patriarchal generosity sets off, either one or all of the males in the story, the husband, the courtly lover, and/or the clerk, are thus made "fre": noble, independent, generous, frank, privileged, and exempt. The two men lower in the social hierarchy, the younger squire and the clerk/magician, are allowed to exhibit their equality, if not superiority, to the knight. The Franklin's admonition, spoken to Dorigen in the third person and to all the wives she represents, links her exemplary value quite explicitly with the virtue and upward social mobility of men:
But every wyf be war of hire biheeste!
On Dorigen remembreth, atte leeste.
Thus kan a squier doon a gentil dede
As wel as kan a knyght. withouten drede.
Again, space for the social interaction among male ranks is opened up by their similar, and similarly unstable, treatment of a woman at the same time that any threat of a common denominator of churlishness, such as we saw in the A-fragment, is routed. Male subjectivity and individual aspiration, on one hand, and male bonding both across and within classes, on the other, is enabled by a transaction in which the dangers of trafficking in women are safely averted as desire for or control over the woman's body is made secondary to a higher good, the "gentil" ideal of keeping one's word. Like the story of Troilus, in a way, this is the story of two (or more) men who learn the rules of love in order to excite a woman's desire; then they master their own womanlike passions and let her body go, earning for themselves the greater reward.
Freed of the feminizing consequences of lust or love for a woman by their adherence to this ideal, males in the story thus lay claim to proper manhood in a way that is seldom possible in other tales. In the judgment of modern critics, Arveragus shows "moral courage" and "manly fortitude," and the triumph of masculinity and the masculine imagination is taken as evidence of the highest human achievement: "Fantasy and magic," says one recent reader, ". . . come finally to allow for acts of generosity that show human beings at their best" (my emphasis). Readings are found in the literature in which one or all of these men are flawed, but not fatally, and the debate about who is more manly in this tale is still often taken as a serious question. This concern arises in part, I suggest, because manly courage and fortitude are not stable virtues but precisely those that must be constructed and reconstructed in the face of counterevidence, and in part because the debate itself positions male characters, author(s), and audiences as judges and unifies them in an apparently disinterested quest for moral understanding. No matter how the debate is answered or not answered, no matter how the Franklin's motives are assessed or declared irrelevant, no one reads the Franklin's Tale as the "acidulous" work of a man as bitter as we are told the Merchant must be. When they control women—whether by assuming proper lordship over the most ideal of wives, by making sure that the female jokester is corrected, by threatening a woman, or by rescuing her from the fate they have actually brought upon her themselves—men control themselves (and the woman inside themselves), or at least conceal from themselves their own baser emotions and their own anxiety about manliness. Such a trick indeed requires, as the tale confirms, the services of an unnamed master magician, who can enable readers, in turn, to name Chaucer: one critic sums up the express position of many in claiming that Dorigen is "treated with the amused sympathy and understanding that are Chaucer's hallmarks."
I kan namoore; my tale is at an ende.
Franklin's Tale , 1624
The knowing self is partial in all its guises, ever finished, whole, simply there and original. . . . Only those occupying the positions of the dominators are self-identical, unmarked, disembodied, unmediated, transcendent, born again. It is unfortunately possible for the subjugated to lust for and even scramble into that subject position—and then disappear from view. Knowledge from the point of view of the unmarked is truly fantastic, distorted, and irrational. The only position from which objectivity could not possibly be practiced and honored is the standpoint of the master, the Man, the One God, whose Eye produces, appropriates, and orders all difference. No one ever accused the God of monotheism of objectivity, only of indifference. The god trick is self-identical, and we have mistaken that for creativity and knowledge, omniscience even.[23
] Donna Haraway, "Situated Knowledges"
In performing what Donna Haraway calls "the god trick" and in bearing those "hallmarks" of the master author, in the Franklin's Tale as in the other poems I have considered here, Chaucer stands as both a special case and a paradigmatic one for feminist analysis. One thing that makes Chaucerian fictions special is that they have been an enduring part of the British literary canon for the past six hundred years in a way that no other texts written before 1500 (and only a handful before 1800) have been. Chaucer has been known and valued differently in different ages, but he has always been read, talked about, and more often than not singled out for praise as the precursor to be emulated, the forebear to be revered, the Father of English poetry. Up to the age of the great modern editions, when professional scholars made Chaucer part of the academic industry, his reputation was sustained by readers we recognize today as themselves major or prominent minor figures in the pantheon of British writers, including Spenser and Dryden before 1800 and thereafter authors as various and influential as Blake, Wordsworth, Barrett Browning, Ten-
nyson, Ruskin, and Keats. In most current English departments, Chaucer still stands as one of only two or three premodern authors (with Shakespeare, and maybe Milton) almost always taught in both broad survey courses and single-author courses. In their recent research, Ellen Rose and Corey Kaplan point out that since 1970 PMLA has published more articles on Chaucer (seventeen, to be exact) than on any other single author except Shakespeare (twenty-five) and Milton (twenty). (They also compare these figures to "two each on Emily Dickinson . . . and Ralph Ellison, and one each on Gertrude Stein, Jane Austen, Doris Lessing, Richard Wright, African tribal literature and Asian poetry.") And in the present institutional organization of literary studies, Chaucer is the preeminent figure who defines everything else in the Middle Ages in England: the Modern Language Association sorts about four hundred years of literary history into two divisions that both depend on naming this potent author: "Chaucer" and "Middle English Language and Literature, excluding Chaucer." Present or absent, Chaucer matters.
Another thing that has made Chaucer special—although as a mark of his importance it may be more visible and open to investigation now than in previous eras—is his representation of women characters and speakers. So rare is this, particularly in the period before 1800, that a character like his Wife of Bath has transcended both her status as character and her historical context. As I noted in Chapter 2, historians, even feminist historians, have repeatedly used the Wife as empirical evidence to support conclusions about the experience of real women in the Middle Ages. So too, in the pioneering feminist theorizing of the late 1970s, The Madwoman in the Attic , Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar take Anne Eliot and the Wife of Bath as direct spokeswomen for the literary theories of their respective authors, Jane Austen and Chaucer, and cite the Wife's words as evidence of the same order as Anne Finch's poetry. But this is to misread the Wife, as I have argued, and to base an understanding of both history and feminism on false assumptions about women as
agents and speakers. The two things that seem to make Chaucer special, the uniqueness of his status as the medieval author who transcends his own age and is most read and written about by modern scholars and their students, and his virtuoso representation of women characters and speakers, are not coincidentally related, but together define the ways in which he is also paradigmatic. This is not because modern audiences, having left behind the misogyny of earlier times, canonize only those authors who are friendly to women. Rather, it is because Chaucer stands prominently at the beginning, in English, of the story that literary humanism in various guises has been writing for hundreds of years to negotiate the history and implications of that misogyny, in ways that the preceding chapters of this book have sought to specify.
When Roland Barthes describes "writing" in "The Death of the Author," he might be describing the space that Chaucer, I have argued, preeminently works to occupy, but he denies that this space has a temporal dimension: "Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing. No doubt it has always been that way." But has it always been that way? Or, as some feminists now ask, is it ever that way? Reading Chaucer, I believe, actually suggests otherwise and enables us to study not the death but, to continue the metaphor of a single individual's development, the alleged birth or infancy perhaps of "the author"—recognized from the beginning, paradoxically, as already a father figure—as an individual and a personality who seeks to enjoy all the material and symbolic privileges of maleness while transcending the constraints of "the body writing" to grasp the
otherwise unavailable, to take a neutral or universally human position. As "the author," Chaucer is paradigmatic, then, of just those problems that modern feminist criticisms face in theorizing and historicizing the representation of women by male authors in many periods and the implications of the historically gendered subjectivity of both readers and writers.
Reading Chaucer in the way I propose here can make a difference to the general scholarly perception that the most interesting problems for feminist and other current theorists spring up in the late eighteenth or nineteenth century. There are so many examples of this assumption that it is hard to choose a representative one, but this claim from Stephen Heath's "Male Feminism" is typical: "Because . . . [sic] women have been men's problem, the question; and the historical reality of literature and theory over the last hundred and fifty years has been crucially bound up with that, a problematic of sexuality and sexual identity in which the pressure of women's struggles against the given definitions produced men's concern with that question." By no means do I want to suggest that there is no difference between the ways in which women in the fourteenth century and women in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are men's problem. My aim in writing this book has been, on the contrary, to articulate with some degree of care and specificity the particularities of the problem in a local instance that is far more often taken to be a universal or transcendent one. But I hope this articulation demonstrates that there is a history to present discussions about gender and sexuality that goes back far more than a hundred and fifty years, a perceivable continuity to the intersecting questions of literature, sex, and gender that we ought to be examining and historicizing more extensively. The assumption that the medieval period was a monolithic block of placid submission to orthodox authorities is belied by closer examination on many fronts, and the problematics of gender difference did not spring up, as a modern ideological formation, at whatever moment we begin the history of modernity. (Why else did Freud turn to ancient Greek drama for his metaphors? Why would the nineteenth-century romantic and post-romantic poets revere Chaucer?) The pressure of women's resistance to definition is different in different ages, just as the definition of Woman has been both different and in some ways the same across
the centuries. But the history of "women's struggles" surely entails the late fourteenth century, when Christine de Pisan, it has been argued, resisted antifeminist definition and initiated the age of the querelle des femmes . In Chaucerian fictions, we cannot directly hear women's voices, I have insisted, but we can hear "men's concern," and we can explore the fact that it did not all begin, sui generis , with Freud (or with the eighteenth century, as other arguments would have it, or the Renaissance) and that "the historical reality of literature and theory" is indeed "a problematic of sexuality and sexual identity" in more periods than our own.
Finally, as I observed in discussing the Wife of Bath near the beginning of this study, there may be more real and crucial continuity between the humanism of the Canterbury Tales and of our day than we want to believe, more actual commonality between the fears that give rise to those "curmudgeonly and old-fashioned" jokes about women like the Wife of Bath or Cleopatra and the fundamental position of modern criticism. In particular, the practice of criticism as many of us learned it may be as threatened by recent feminist and other deconstructive or post-structuralist critiques as Chaucer's representative fourteenth-century man of letters, the Clerk, say, seems to feel that he is menaced by the Wife of Bath "and al hir secte," or as the men of the Legend of Good Women , narrator and characters alike, are made nervous by the kind of feminization they experience. According to Chaucerian fiction, such feminization involves both the real presence and the heightened consciousness of limits, external and internal; the paralyzing, even fatal recognition that the position represented by ideals of adult male power, courtly or patriarchal, is unattainable by the most heroic of men; and the further, more frightening and barely visible perception that such power is itself, like clear gender distinctions, unstable, even illusory, at the same time that both the constraints and uncertainties of gender roles are inescapable. The primal fear of feminization in Chaucerian fictions, it seems to me, is the fear that men may be women. Akin to this might be the fear that literary critics occupy a feminine position in modern culture.
Literary critics in the late twentieth century may well fear that they practice a "soft" profession. According to recent work by Nancy Armstrong, the basis of our current liberal arts curriculum, with its strong emphasis on certain major British authors, marks the feminization of cultural information, and particularly of literary studies, with meaning grounded in "a private sphere of gendered consciousness." The now standard curriculum began, Armstrong demonstrates, as a female curriculum, intended by eighteenth-century educators to mark and reproduce a new ruling class: "the very program designed specifically to produce daughters who would be desirable to men—if not a station above, then men bent on improving their station—was later extended to provide the standard of literacy for men as well as women." Today, moreover, in the wake of efforts to deprivilege and decenter this curriculum, literary studies may well worry that all criticism will have to become feminist criticism. it is increasingly difficult to deny (as efforts to do so attest) that things like the gender, race, class, ethnicity, and religious affiliation of reader and author do always matter, affect interpretation, and establish what gets read by whom in ways we can no longer ignore or mystify. It is hardly news in many places to announce that textuality and sexuality are related with an unsettling complexity that insists on the continued relevance of questions about the silencing, displacement, and impersonation of women's voices, past and present, in male-authored texts, or that the myth of the great poet's (or the great text's) androgyny or transcendence is the myth on which prevailing traditions of English poetry have been founded.
While the continuity of certain myths of knowledge and interpretation across time and across apparent differences both between and within eras has become one important object of feminist reconsideration, it is rather the breakup of certain assumptions and identities within the critical community that makes that object more visible. It is where the feminist project theorizes and materializes readers who might not always be
or want to be in the theoretical and material position of a white Western humanist that it stands to make the most difference to both criticism and history. As Louise Fradenburg points out, modern medieval scholarship of virtually all types seems to be threatened by abandonment and separation from the author; this phenomenon produces in many critics what I have spoken of as adulation and what she calls identification or mirroring. If this is the case, if medievalists (who are surely not alone in this regard) desire to turn history into a mirror, but one that reflects a ground and a unity they cannot otherwise experience or believe in, then this is one difficulty that feminists should not have to face. The feminist medievalist is already separated, in fact excluded, by many still prevalent theories; insofar as she views herself in the position of a female subject in the late twentieth century, she cannot see her reflection in the texts of the Middle Ages, and so her starting point and her ending point are different and her desire is different. Her desire can still be to encounter the masterwork, but from what can be thought of as a partial perspective, in various senses of the word partial.
The knowledge that feminists might have of Chaucer defines itself as partial in one sense, as I have repeatedly argued in this study: redefining the authorial voice and position not just as a place in language, refined out of or transcendent of history, but as a subjectivity only partially knowable, knowable as multiple, contradictory, and strategically in quest of ahistoricity and unity. Chaucer performs this sense of the partiality of the authorial voice. Take the stance of the naive recorder of the Canterbury Tales , a stance riddled by the narrator's obvious moral and political judgments and his ultimate literary sophistication; take too the twentieth-
century critical division of the author of this masterwork into parts: "Chaucer the pilgrim," "Chaucer the poet," and finally "Chaucer the man." What problems are passed on as if they were solutions by teaching Chaucer this way to generations of students? As a counterweight to all this highly visible instability and self-division, I have argued, women characters and the feminine are deployed as the battleground over which authority, selfhood, and unity can be established. Feminist readings of Chaucer can be part of an effort to open up not only the myth of the great artist as tolerant and sympathetic to women, but also, by extension, the limits of tolerance and sympathy as innocent but knowing positions we can occupy with regard to "others" in our own culture and experience and the difficulties of believing we can see and speak from another's point of view.
The desire of feminists to read Chaucer can be conceived of as partial in another sense too: biased and partisan, but no longer conceived of as therefore lacking some illusory ideal of unsituated objectivity and neutrality. From this perspective, reading Chaucer becomes part of an effort to sustain and redefine an engagement with "oppressive formations." The explicitly partisan nature of the project in this sense protects, as others have argued, against the danger of slipping from a critique of objectivity into apolitical relativism, the mirror image of transcendent totalizing, and against the easy way in which recourse to the partial can become, as we see so dearly in Chaucer, a refusal to be held accountable. Feminist criticism of the canonical male author offers a place in which to examine the risks and benefits of critiquing hegemonic discourses and masterworks from a position of exclusion and to analyze the limits and powers of being constructed, as feminisms are constructed,
in opposition to (rather than outside or beyond) the structures they seek to modify. It may also offer a way in which to make masterworks more available and interesting, open them to interested, partial, situated interpretive acts of those for whom, as interested, partial, situated texts, they were not written, those whom they have hitherto helped to silence and exclude from the game.