Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, November 02, 2013

CHAUCER: The Clerk’s Tale (Medieval and Modern Views)

When we finish reading the Wife of Bath’s Tale we come away with the impression that she would be pretty much at home in any barroom in America. When we read about Griselda in the Clerk’s Tale we come away wondering if she would feel at home anywhere in America. Compare what the online version of Cliff’s Notes has to say about the Wife of Bath and Griselda. First, the Wife of Bath: “The Wife of Bath is intriguing to almost anyone who has ever read her prologue, filled with magnificent, but for some, preposterous statements. First of all, the Wife is the forerunner of the modern liberated woman, and she is the prototype of a certain female figure that often appears in later literature. Above all, she is, for the unprejudiced reader, Chaucer's most delightful creature…” Good. Now we know what to think about the Wife of Bath. How about Griselda? Cliff’s Notes says “Griselda presents some problems for the modern reader. Can a peasant girl suddenly lifted from poverty and placed among the riches of the palace maintain her "sweet nobility"? Is it possible for a woman to possess this overwhelming patience and unquestioning obedience? Can a mother actually relinquish her innocent children without a single protest? Many modern readers consider Griselda a rather ridiculous creature and Chaucer's portrait of this tender maiden one that taxes the imagination.” According to Cliff’s Notes the Wife of Bath is Chaucer’s most delightful creature; Griselda is a ridiculous creature. Cliff’s Notes may be right. On the other hand, they may have missed the whole point of the Clerk’s Tale; or else they didn’t finish reading all the story.
The Clerk (Chaucer) takes great pains at the end to let the reader know that his story isn’t meant to be taken literally. It’s meant to be read as an allegory: “This story was not told so that wives will follow Griselda's example in humility, for that would be intolerable even if they wanted to, but so that everyone, according to his station, will be steadfast in adversity as Griselda was.” The point of the story isn’t to tell wives don’t stand up for yourself; let other people walk all over you; become a doormat. This is a bad message for young women. But the point of the story isn’t to be a doormat; it’s meant to instill stable and enduring values so that everyone, according to his station, can be “steadfast in adversity.” When times get tough, hang in there. What’s ridiculous about that advice? It’s a good message for everyone. What Cliff’s Notes sees (and disapproves) in Griselda is unquestioning obedience. What they see in the Wife of Bath (and approve) is a modern liberated woman. Most American readers won’t read Chaucer. But if we do, most of us, nearly all of us, would agree with the Cliff’s Notes assessment. Why is that?
Two reasons: one, many of us are poor readers. We have a hard time understanding plain English, much less allegorical stories. The cure for this problem is simply to read more, especially genres we’re not familiar with (like medieval allegories). Two, we live by a different set of values than the Clerk. The second problem is deeper and harder to solve. It’s a deep problem but put simply: we don’t want to change. The Clerk says “Since one woman was so patient towards a mortal man, the more we should receive with patience all that God sends us…” For the Clerk, enduring adversity is a virtue. When modern Americans encounter a problem we don’t want to endure it, we want to fix it. We don’t want to learn patience. We want to fix Griselda; Walter too. We think everything depends on us, on our own efforts. The Clerk doesn’t think that way. He says “God tests people every day and permits us often to be beaten in various ways, for our own good…” The Clerk believes there are some things we can’t fix, some things we can’t understand. It takes unquestioning obedience to accept that. But it’s not the American way we protest. Precisely, says the Clerk, because your role model is the Wife of Bath.


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