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.