‘It is clear… that Chaucer used the couple relationship as a kind of open field on which a number of battles might be fought: experience versus authority, rebellion versus submission, impetuosity versus prudence, determinism versus free will, passivity versus moral action, as well as conflicts centring on money, possessive jealousy or utopianism’. (Sheila Delany). Discuss this statement in relation to TWO OR MORE of the following texts. (‘The Miller’s Tale’ and ‘The Wife of Bath’)
The narrative and structure of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales reflects the couple relationship clearly. By centring on themes central to life both then and now, the coupling of issues, often diametrically opposed, makes the tales seem perpetually relevant. Overall, the unfinished sequence takes the reader on a journey which is itself a ‘pilgrimage’ where encounters are made and difficulties addressed upon a broad canvass which encapsulates the primary directives of the human condition.
By his use of coupling, Chaucer invites the reader to compare and contrast these directives and ultimately achieve a disparate, complex yet cohesive connective. By close examination of two of Chaucer’s tales, ‘The Miller’s Tale’ and ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, it is hoped that the use of the couple relationship will be made manifest. Scholars have long argued about the sequence of the tales which is seemingly so important to a full understanding of Chaucer’s technique. Although, as Baldwin (1995, p. 14) has pointed out:
It is accepted that The Canterbury Tales is not a whole, not an achieved work of art, but rather a truncated and aborted congeries of tales woven about a frame, the Pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. However, the sequence seems to require absolutely that the Miller speak after the Knight, who opens the series, not only because he physically forces himself forward to speak next but also because the couple relationship which we perceive to be so prevalent throughout is immensely enhanced by the juxtaposition of these tales:
Like the Knight’s Tale which precedes it, the Miller’s Tale is a story of the competition between men in love with the same woman–but with a difference. (Hallissey, 1995, p. 75) The couple relationship of the structure here is almost inverted, since the directive is to focus upon the difference between not only the tale but also the teller. The ‘verray parfit gentil knyght’ (Prologue, line 72) has told a tale of romance whereas the Miller, ‘that for-dronken was al pale’ (‘Prologue to the Miller’s Tale’, line 3120) is determined to interject his base and bawdy story of adultery:
The audience has been warned in the linking passage that it should come as no surprise that the Miller, a ‘churl,’ or low, vulgar character, would tell a ‘churl’s tale’. (Hallissey, 1995, p. 75) The couple relationship thus reveals here the class-conscious society in which the tales operate, enhanced by the rapid rise through the ranks of men such as Chaucer himself because of the pestilent plague known as ‘the Black Death’: ‘As with human beings in life, Chaucer’s characters do not react to other characters as much as to their reputations. ‘ (Condren, 1999, p. 3) By having the Miller force himself forward and tell a tale which challenges the knight’s, Chaucer establishes a narrative technique of the challenge to authority also present in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ as will be demonstrated later.
Thus, the actual positioning of the tale in a structural sense within the sequence reflects the importance of the couple relationship in presenting differing views on a similar theme: Many of the links function as epilogues as much as prologues: they both sign off the preceding tale and introduce the next, and in the process they often serve to indicate a relationship between the two. Cooper, 1996, p. 92) Having as it were thrust himself upon the stage, the Miller relates a story as humorous as it is bawdy and as much of a challenge to the authority of the knight’s romance as was his defiant determination to speak next a challenge to status: the couple relationship of authority versus subjugation reveals an acknowledged inherent rebelliousness. Indeed, ‘The Miller’s Tale’ itself reveals much about the way authority, in this case within marriage, is perpetually challenged within the ‘pervasive intricacy’ (Benson, p. 147) of the tales.
Within his story, the Miller relates a literal ‘couple relationship’ wherein much intrigue and duplicity is employed before the crude and farcical resolution is achieved. It is clear that the Miller, and indeed the Wife of Bath, believe that experience weighs more heavily than authority, especially in marriage. The carpenter in the story is given little compassion but rather is seen as a foolish target from the start for having married a woman much younger than himself whom he nevertheless ‘lovede moore than his lyf’ (‘The Miller’s Tale’, line 3222).
The couple relationship of youth and age is therefore embedded within the tale as a directive towards its meaning: ‘she was wylde and yong, and he was old ‘(‘The Miller’s Tale’, line 3225) and for this reason he deems himself a potential ‘cokewold’ (‘The Miller’s Tale’, line 3226). This couple relationship is thus an imperative of the tale itself wherein the carpenter becomes a victim of his self-fulfilling prophecy: ‘For youthe and elde is often at debaat’ (‘The Miller’s Tale’, line 3230).
Further, the behaviour of the man and wife and the lovers, real and supposed, develops another couple relationship, that of truth and deceit and education versus ‘rude wit’ (‘The Miller’s Tale’, line 3227). Also, as the scholar that lodges with the carpenter uses his education immorally, there is an implied subliminal couple relationship between learning and cunning, especially since he pursues the young bride until, ‘she hir love hym graunted atte laste’ (‘The Miller’s Tale’, line 3290).
The scholar, Nicholas, cares little for honour and has no compunction in involving the comparatively innocent and certainly nai??ve, Absalon, who also loves the young bride, Alison, in his scheme to deceive the carpenter. By involving the reader in this duplicitous scheming, Chaucer invites us, as he does so often in the tales, to reassess the relationship between what we deem to be honourable because of apparent status and what is actually so: a couple relationship of perception versus mere appearance.
When the culmination of the tale is reduced to the crudely comic, the reduction of honour is complete because what is, in reality, a tale of moral inversion, becomes instead a joke, inviting the inference that marital fidelity is itself a farce. In a sense, the prologue and tale of the Wife of Bath echo this rejection of marital fidelity as either probable or entirely desirable. However, within the Wife’s tale, as opposed to her prologue, the reader is given the impression that the perfection of marriage would be desirable if it were possible.
Therefore, the couple relationship is finely developed here between the experience of the Wife and what the tale suggests she rather romantically longs for that is, equality between men and women in marriage. The fact that Chaucer consigns the Wife’s tale to the realm of Chivalric Romance, suggests a connective between not only what might be seen as a link with the comparatively exalted tale of the Knight but also with the difference between life as experienced and as dreamt.
Moreover, this is the world of Arthur, archaic and legendary even at the time of Chaucer, and therefore embedded within a collective consciousness of Chivalric honour which is in stark contrast to the harsh realities of the experiences related in the Wife’s prologue. In this way, Chaucer develops a further level to the couple relationship via the difference between experience and romance as well as the ever-present battle between the sexes. Of course, the Wife’s Prologue is perhaps more important than the tale which it in many ways simply completes.
A strong woman, the Wife has nevertheless been subject to physical abuse and the subject of infidelity. However, this must be qualified by saying that the Wife is not portrayed as a victim in any sense, either by the narrator or herself, she is, in fact, the ultimate survivor and an early example of the strength women could embody, a believer in ‘experience [rather than] auctoritee’ (‘The Wife of Bath’s Prologue’, line 1). Immediately, Chaucer sets up a couple relationship which the Wife’s Prologue and Tale will develop. There is always a sense in which, however, what is said is not entirely what is meant:
Thinkers in the Middle Ages and today share the realization that, in fact, we never actually connect with each other at all, that we can never do better than to share words and ideas imperfectly, inexactly. (Russell, 1998, Preface, ix) The imperative that Chaucer develops here is that no matter how direct and effusively honest the Wife appears to be there must always be a sense of the subliminal in which the reader is invited to perceive the couple relationship of strength and vulnerability in the Wife as she ‘speke[s] of [the] wo that is in mariage’ (‘The Wife of Bath’s Prologue’, line 3).
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the relationship she describes in her Prologue of the abusive husband she loves so much, Janekyn: For al swich thyng was yeven us in oure byrthe, Deceite, wepyng, spynnyng, God hath yeve To wommen kyndely whil they may lyve. (‘The Wife of Bath’s Prologue’, lines 400-402) By gifting the Wife with not only the resilience to meet each pain her life as a woman involves but the wisdom to recognize it as ‘yeven’ by God, he invites the reader also to infer a further couple relationship, that of the fundamental differences in both desire and fulfilment between men and women.
Moreover, the eloquence of the Wife’s expression of this, fulfilled in her tale, is an emphatic emphasis of its reality. The tale itself set, as has been noted, in the Age of Chivalry once more begins by inverting the very imperative which it emblematically establishes. In other words, the so-called chivalrous knight begins not by rescuing but by raping a maiden. This establishes the couple relationship between what is the collective perception of an image, here that of Arthurian legend, and what is knowledge gained via life experience of the relationship between men and women.
Nevertheless, the ‘lusty bachelor’ (The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, line 883), punished for his crime, is saved from death by the entreaties of a woman, the Queen. This invites the inference of a further couple relationship i. e. that of the idea of a woman’s compassion being greater than that of a man and also, perhaps female wisdom, too, for she sets him a task which defines the ultimate couple relationship of the battle of the sexes, to discover ‘What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren’ (The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, line 905).
By using this qualification of the religious quest, the Wife employs a stratagem which she has established in her prologue i. e. that of the couple relationship between biblical reference and reality. The Wife clearly has strong religious conviction, skills of eloquent theological debate and also literacy, far ahead of her time. Here, Chaucer uses this to make what is normally regarded as within the realm of the religious instead a moral directive.
Thus, when the knight sets off at the behest of a woman to discover the ultimate desire of a woman, he is totally under female control and he never escapes this, for even the successful culmination of his quest comes through the wisdom of a woman. Hence, the initial violation of a woman, the ultimate image of male domination, is redressed by the emasculation of the man by removal of his supremacy. Only when, finally, he learns the truth of what women want and yields to the desire for equality by giving his wife the choice of how to proceed is he rewarded.
Thus, the couple relationship of the disparity between male and female desire reaches an astoundingly contemporary fulfilment and the Wife concludes by declaring that ‘he is gentil that dooth gentil dedis’ (The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, line 1170) thereby completely annihilating any claim to status founded on other than behaviour and completely controlling the couple relationship between men and women set up here. Ultimately, Chaucer’s pilgrims present his readers with a cavalcade of life composed of multiple couple relationships.
The physical structuring of the verse, indeed, is in heroic couplets where the iambic pentameter echoes the reality of expression which he is trying so hard to achieve via his seminal vernacular work. The didactic verisimilitude of the theme is therefore irrevocably entwined with the structure. Both the Miller and the Wife are of the lower orders of medieval society and the Wife carries the additional contemporary ‘burden’ of her sex.
Yet neither is presented by Chaucer as either an underdog or a victim and the couple relationships which are developed through them are challenges to the highest authorities, including the Church, the most powerful institution of the time, which is physically pushed aside by the Miller in the form of his insisting on speaking ahead of the Monk, and literally questioned in the Wife’s scholarly, though idiosyncratic, interpretation of the Bible.
Both, also, challenge perceptions of morality and marital harmony in the couple relationships of their tales which present inversions of what might be said to be the usual expectations of society at that time. Hence, the couple relationship of youth and age is mocked via the marriage of the old carpenter to a young wife in the tale told by the Miller and the entire structure of dominance in marriage is challenged in both the Wife’s lengthy prologue and its supplementary tale.
Marriage, as the backbone of society, was a huge institution for Chaucer to attempt to challenge but he does so with both wit and dexterity throughout The Canterbury Tales. It was brave of him to launch such insidious attacks, especially as he also challenges entrenched status, despite being related to the Court by marriage and decidedly a man who climbed the social ladder.
In conclusion, it true to say that whilst Chaucer’s immediate directive may not have been to develop the couple relationships which are so clearly, if often subliminally, defined, it is nevertheless an essential part of his overall achievement that the diversity of these relationships remains so relevant. Chaucer’s society was one constantly beset by change, challenge and mobility and areas previously thought to be the province of only the aristocratic became accessible by what we would now term the middle-class, even a ‘meritocracy’.
The tales’ couple relationships show that this fluidity became resonant in the Literature of the time to an extent that was not repeated in such wide measure until the Victorian era. The directive of the couple relationship allows him the freedom to explore areas of life which had hitherto been left unchallenged, and despite the distance of several hundred years remains the principal reason why his issues remain current notwithstanding them being delivered via archaic characters with which we have only the perpetual difficulties of the human condition in common.
Perhaps because of the enduring humour of the tales, too, it is impossible to imagine that Chaucer’s pilgrimage will ever cease to invite the contemporary reader to travel with it towards not a final resolution, but a perpetual quest wherein the couple relationship develops beyond the restrictions of historicity to a modern imperative.