Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, October 25, 2013

CHAUCER: Wife of Bath's Tale (Poetic Justice)

In the Great Books Adult Series there are about 47 non-fiction readings and 28 fiction readings, depending on how we define “literature” as a genre. No matter how we classify them it still seems the Great Books are heavy on non-fiction and light on fiction. In that view this isn’t a balanced collection. But if we break down non-fiction into philosophy, history and science, then we get a different picture. A rough estimate is 28 literary readings, 28 philosophy readings, 17 in history, and 2 in science. Two conclusions follow: (1) people like reading stories, and (2) they like to think deeply about things.
But do we like them mixed together? It might be simpler if we pick a single topic. Justice is a good topic to use for our experiment. How is Justice handled in the Great Books series? The last reading in the series is Plato’s Republic. Here’s a quote from Plato: “Meddling among the classes, of which there are three, and exchange with one another is the greatest harm for the city and would most correctly be called extreme evil-doing (injustice)… the money-making, military and ruling classes doing what’s appropriate, each of them minding its own business in a city, that would be justice…” This phrase sounds jarring to modern American ears: justice is when everyone minds his own business. We don’t consider civic participation to be “meddling” in other people’s business. Democracy requires that we be well informed and actively participate in governing ourselves. Plato doesn’t disagree that we should be well informed. He just questions “the People’s” ability to govern themselves. Plato has a different concept of Justice: until we learn to govern our own passions, how can we be good citizens? So Plato’s goal is to turn citizens on to philosophy and follow Socrates’ advice to “know thyself.” Many modern Americans think philosophy is intellectual navel-gazing and mostly just a waste of time.
Chaucer’s Wife of Bath presents a different challenge for modern readers. She’s funny. She doesn’t go about doing philosophy with question and answer sessions, the way Socrates does. Instead, she tells a story. It starts out like a fable from the Dark Ages, a time when merry old England “was a land brim-full of fairy folk.” But the Wife of Bath isn’t telling a sweet bedtime tale for children. Early in the story a rape takes place. And this is not just some unfortunate misunderstanding of he said-she said but “by very force he took her maidenhead.” Today we claim that rape is not a sexual act, it’s what we now call an act of violence. In fact, that’s exactly what the Wife of Bath called it too: “This act of violence made such a stir, so much petitioning to the king for her, that he condemned the knight to lose his head by course of law. He was as good as dead (It seems that then the statutes took that view).” Rape was a capital offence in medieval England. But here’s the odd twist to her story: “…the queen, and other ladies too, implored the king to exercise his grace so ceaselessly, he gave the queen the case and granted her his life…” Now we’re back to a different challenge to our modern sense of justice. Should justice be blind? The knight committed rape. The penalty for rape is death. Or, should justice be tempered with mercy? The queen (and other courtly ladies too) want clemency for the knight. What about the girl who was raped? What did her family and friends want? The story implies she wasn’t a “lady” but one of the lower-class girls. Plato would say: see; this is what happens when different classes start meddling with Justice. But that’s not the Wife of Bath’s point. Not by a mile. The young knight is, in fact, pardoned and an old woman turns young and beautiful. Then they get married and live happily ever after. Is this Justice? No. But it is great literature. Just like a fairy tale. Isn’t it interesting that Plato banished poets from his Republic? Chaucer was a poet.


Post a Comment

<< Home