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.