Published on August 2, 2007
Chaucer on Sex & Marriage: Chaucer on Sex andamp; Marriage The Pilgrimage The Aristotelian View The Three Tales The Pilgrimage: The Pilgrimage Image of Life: a company of pilgrims, 'who happened together in fellowship.' Represents society -- in reality, not idealized. Many ranks, types. Mixture of believers andamp; hypocrites, saints and sinners. Some -- relatively positive: Some -- relatively positive The Knight: gentle andamp; courageous. A model of chivalry. The Clerk of Oxford: disinterested love of learning. Is the Knight perhaps too chivalrous (so many battles)? Is the Clerk too extreme in his dedication, neglecting his financial needs? Perfect Types: Perfect Types The Parson and the Plowman -- are without question ideal pastor andamp; layman. The Franklin: described as a hedonist ('Epicurean'), yet a generous, hospitable and wise landowner. He may represent earthly (natural) happiness and virtue, as opposed to the supernatural virtue of the parson andamp; plowman. Fiction and Reality: Fiction and Reality Chaucer cleverly interweaves fiction and reality: Chaucer himself is one of the 30 pilgrims. The tales are stories within a story. In the Merchant’s tale, the characters refer to the Wife of Bath, one of the characters in the larger story. Chaucer may be suggesting that we are like characters in a divine drama. Aristotle on Sex: Aristotle on Sex The difference between man andamp; woman is a deep one, but not one of essence. Sex differences intensify as one moves up the chain of life: In plants, each organism typically has both sexes. In animals, male and female sexes are in different organisms, who must use perception and movement to find each other. Slide7: Aristotle didn’t know about asexual reproduction among lower animals (protozoa, sponges): if he had, it would have strengthened his case. According to Aristotle, the process of sexual differentiation reaches its peak with human beings: our rational souls are suffused with maleness or femaleness. In humans, the two sexes must come together not only physically, but also rationally. Slide8: The two sexes complement each other not only physically, but also soulishly, psychologically. For Aristotle, marriage is a kind of friendship, the most important kind. Husband and wife have distinct, complementary spheres of authority: the wife over the internal management of the household, the husband over external relations. Chaucer’s Marriage Tales: Chaucer’s Marriage Tales The Wife of Bath The Merchant The Franklin The Wife of Bath’s Prologue: The Wife of Bath’s Prologue The woman of Bath characterizes marriage as involving a kind of economic exchange involving sex andamp; property. She also identifies a number of psychological and rhetorical factors that influence the balance of power (especially control of joint property). Represents insights of experience, folk wisdom ('she knew the oldest dances') Rhetorical & Psychological Factors: Rhetorical andamp; Psychological Factors The asymmetry of desire for intercourse. Unavailability increases desire, worsening the asymmetry. Manipulation by guilt and blame (used on the first three 'good' husbands) Stories and proverbs (the book used by the 5th husband). Violence and victimhood/remorse (5th husband). The Prologue vs. the Tale: The Prologue vs. the Tale The Prologue displays gritty realism: depicts marriage, warts and all. On balance, positive? The Woman staunchly defends the married state. Fifth marriage ends happily: mutual kindness, feminine authority. The Tale begins roughly -- with a rape, and the rapist on death row. But then it transmutes into a charming fairy tale. The Point of the Tale: The Point of the Tale The question: 'what do women really want?' (Stumped Freud.) Note the profound change in the character of the rapist: he ends by yielding sovereignty to his wife. Note too that the sovereignty is voluntarily yielded by the husband: not taken by force or trickery. Courtly Love & Marriage: Courtly Love andamp; Marriage The answer: women want the selfsame authority over their husbands they enjoy over their lovers. The tradition of courtly love: ordinarily quite separate from marriage. The lover seeks to please his beloved above all else. Chaucer is recommending, in effect, the incorporation of courtly love within marriage. The Merchant’s Tale: The Merchant’s Tale 'January' decides to marry 'May': a not-too-subtle use of names. January’s reasons for marriage are entirely self-centered: concern for his soul, desire for a beautiful young wife, who will satisfy his needs with a minimum of trouble. In effect, he treats the acquisition of a wife as the purchase of a property. January’s Folly: January’s Folly January selects a woman without property or status, thinking that this will ensure his control over her. For Aristotle, it is the mark of the 'barbarian' that the husband treat his wife as a piece of property, like a domesticated animal. January is consistently foolish: foolish in getting married, foolish in choosing his mate (without thought to her character), foolish in trusting Damien. Folly vs. Virtue: Folly vs. Virtue This folly inheres in January’s lack of virtue. Lacking virtue himself, he is unable to recognize its deficit in others. Note that the queen of the fairies gives a bold answer to May, but is not responsible for January’s credulity. Like the wife of Bath’s first 3 'good' husbands, January is easily manipulated and scolded into submission. The Franklin’s Tale: The Franklin’s Tale The Franklin is a wonderful character: this-worldly, no saint, but good and wise, an ideal landowner and citizen. The story is marvelous: poignant, plausible in characterization. Depicts an ideal marriage, characterized by mutual sovereignty. Dorigen & Arveragus: Dorigen andamp; Arveragus Arveragus vows never to exercise his authority against Dorigen’s will. He will preserve his authority only in name, for the sake of his honor. A synthesis of the dynamics of courtly love with the form of marriage. Similarities to Aristotle: Similarities to Aristotle The wife rightly exercises authority over all matters internal to the household. Only a foolish, tyrannical husband would seek to interfere with his wife’s legitimate authority, rooted in her natural aptitudes. The husband’s role: generating income, managing the external relations of the household, including civic politics. The Point of the Tale: The Point of the Tale 'Lovers must be ready to obey one another, if they would long keep company.' Ideally, we look for 'lordship set in servitude.' This reflects Christ’s teaching that the greatest Christian is the servant of others. Patience is the 'conquering virtue'. True power is rooted in self-mastery. The role of 'nobleness' (code of honor) as a source of virtue.