|TITLE:||"Word and Werk" in Chaucer's Franklin's Tale|
|SOURCE:||Literature and Psychology 49 no1/2 77-109 2003|
JOHN A. PITCHER
Who is the master in The Franklin's Tale? Certainly not Dorigen, who submits to the will of her husband. Neither is it Arveragus, although he orders her to sleep with his rival. Nor is it the besotted suitor Aurelius, despite his persuading Dorigen that she must sacrifice her virtue to preserve her honor. The master is Chaucer's magician, he who grasps the logic of the subject's desire in fantasy. Consider the visit the unhappy Aurelius pays to the magician's lodgings, where he is treated to the illusion of dancing with his beloved. In what does the magician's power consist if not in the way he represents a scene of fantasy through which Aurelius can anticipate the fulfillment of his desire for Dorigen? Not unlike a psychoanalyst, this "Maister," (V.1576) as Aurelius later addresses the young clerk, is presumed to be a specialist in clearing the way for an encounter with the beloved figure.(FN1) Associated as he is with the university in Orleans and with the quintessentially heathen dissemination of illusion, this French intellectual is the subject-supposed-to-know to the letter.(FN2) Mysteriously, the magician anticipates what Aurelius will ask of him: "'I know,' quod he, 'the cause of youre comyng'" (V.1176). The cause is the squire's misunderstanding of the ends of his desire, and while Aurelius anticipates the satisfaction of his all-consuming passion, the magician will expose the defensive function of this fantasy: Aurelius in the end will prefer his desire to its fulfillment, renouncing his lady at precisely the moment he has engineered her submission.
Current thinking on The Franklin's Tale, influenced as it has been by the work of René Girard, Carol Gilligan, Gayle Rubin and Eve Kosofsky-Sedgwick, has tended to privilege relations of power over structures of desire in the text. More or less explicitly informing these critical discussions is a reading of The Canterbury Tales as critically engaged with the allocation of social privilege along an axis of sexual difference.(FN3) Recent academic writing on the tale operates largely within the limits established by this master narrative. Intent to dismantle a critical tradition associated with G.L. Kittredge, a founding figure of Chaucer studies in America, many critics argue that the discourse of contract embodied in "an humble, wys accord" (V.791)--the send-off of mastery at the outset of the tale--proves inadequate to the task it is called on to perform, nothing less than to reconfigure the relation between the sexes in marriage. Although the main lines of Kittredge's position have been endorsed by those who regard the tale as a romance designed to celebrate aristocratic values in the person of Arveragus,(FN4) readers influenced by feminist thematics have sought to mark the distance that separates the Franklin's rhetoric from the less than dignified treatment Dorigen receives from her ostensibly noble suitor and husband.(FN5) In this view, it is difficult to recognize a "gentil" example in either the insidious efforts of Aurelius to persuade Dorigen to preserve her "honour" (V.1331) by submitting to him, or in Arveragus's threat to Dorigen "up peyne of deeth" (V.1481) never to reveal her prospective "aventure" (V.1483) with Aurelius; on the contrary, both husband and lover at crucial moments seem determined to subject Dorigen to their own desires.
Much of the attention currently devoted to The Franklin's Tale reflects a broader interest in what might be called the micro-politics of gender in the domestic sphere, particularly in those tales Kittredge christened the "marriage group."(FN6) Yet if a new revisionist consensus locates a continuity of concern between this tale and Chaucer's efforts to delineate a feminine experience of social subordination, there are other registers of the text that offer symptomatic resistances to the stable determination of an authorial agenda. It is on this ground, as a mode of engagement with certain signifying disjunctions and anomalies of detail, that a psychoanalytic reading finds its motive. The wider dissemination of psychoanalytic discourse in medieval studies during the past decade raises questions about the rhetoric and performance of desire in The Canterbury Tales, the extent to which this topography of words and works follows the contours of the Freudian field: the subject's troubled relationship with the desires that define it, the matrix of speech and fantasy as the locus of desire, the possibility of acting out a desire without recognizing its aim. The turn to psychoanalytic theory in reading pre-modern texts--I refer here both to the limited incorporation of psychoanalytic models of subjectivity in historicist criticism and to a growing awareness of the heterogeneity of psychoanalytic theory itself--has meant the abandonment of the Middle Ages as the fons et origo of unified subjectivity. Yet the ascendancy in recent years of a way of speaking about Chaucer organized by the categories of sex, gender and power at times has threatened to minimize the ruptures and indeterminacies that inhabit the language of subjective disclosure. As the centerpiece of a new "gender group" within The Canterbury Tales, The Franklin's Tale represents a crucial arena in which to assess the consequences of psychoanalytic idioms for the master narratives that constitute the discipline of Chaucer studies.
Signs of division and ambivalence mark crucial episodes of The Franklin's Tale. Punctuated by attempts to recast the terms of conventional domestic and courtly contracts, the tale comes to revolve around Dorigen's rash promise, a signifier that elicits from each of the actors more or less conscious projections of satisfaction and renunciation. The promise acquires its structuring force within the context of a distinctive marriage contract between Dorigen and Arveragus. This contract, replicating a courtly lover's subservience to his lady while preserving the nominal sovereignty of a husband, is put to the test by a squire named Aurelius, who seeks to occupy the position left vacant when Arveragus answers the call to chivalric distinction in England. Aurelius finds his appeal flatly rejected by Dorigen, though not without leaving a symptomatic remainder: Dorigen says she will submit to Aurelius when he clears the rocks from the coast of Brittany (thus ensuring her husband's safe return). Later, after managing to engage a magician for this purpose, Aurelius is able to confront Dorigen with the astonishing fulfillment of the contract, which precipitates her anguished if equivocal lament over the heroic resolve of classical women who chose to die rather than submit to the compromise of their virtue. Rather than follow their tragic example, however, Dorigen chooses to communicate her dilemma to Arveragus, who swears her to secrecy and arranges that she be escorted to Aurelius to keep her "trouthe." In the end, a happy resolution is achieved when the husband's peculiar generosity becomes contagious--Aurelius sets Dorigen free and the Magician releases Aurelius from his debt for the removal of the rocks, a result that prompts the Franklin's speculation about the relative merits of the actors: "Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow?" (V.1622).
To pursue the question of desire in this tale, a text devoted to a certain perturbation of marriage effected by the courtly ideal, is, in part, to encounter a pervasive resistance to the satisfaction of desire. Defensive maneuvers, ruses, and changes of heart distinguish this story of a marriage between two parties who repeatedly act to disturb the "solas" (V.802) of their unconventional domestic arrangement. The narrative is set in motion when Arveragus interrupts "this blisful lyf" (V.806) of domesticity to pursue his ambition in England, a turn answered by Dorigen's equally disruptive rash promise and the crisis of dual obligation which results. On the side of Arveragus, meanwhile, it is not immediately clear why he should follow his wife's lead in crediting the unbelievable claim that the rocks have been cleared; his complicity in the turn of events suggests a complex relation to the superior enjoyment promised by their singular vows. Aurelius too manages to elude a sexual confrontation with the ostensible object of his desire, giving up his hard-earned prerogative at precisely the moment when Dorigen yields herself to him. Yet it is Dorigen herself who innocently articulates the logic of desire animating the tale. Perplexed and annoyed by her lover's supplication, she rebukes him for his investment in a prohibited object:
"What deyntee sholde a man han in his lyf For to go love another mannes wyf, That hath hir body whan so that hym lyketh?"
The question she poses, focused on the husband she takes to be the obstacle to his success, represents his love as both hopeless and shameful, one that would lead him to violate a husband's sovereign privilege over his wife's body. Although for her, it is a matter for judgment rather than understanding, Dorigen's words underscore the perplexing law that fixes the subject in a position of desire. What "deyntee" defines a courtly lover--the subject of desire, par excellence--whose love maintains a complicated relation to satisfaction?
Considering that the structuring effect of desire in The Franklin's Tale is not restricted to the register of courtly love--it also comes into play in relation to marriage--it is no wonder that some well-known psychoanalytic understandings of courtly love seem inadequate to account for problems of interpretation specific to this text. In "Courtly Love as Anamorphosis," for example, Jacques Lacan locates the lover on a grid of sublimation and deferred satisfaction: "From the point of view of the pleasure principle, the paradox of what might be called the effect of Vorlust, of foreplay, is precisely that it persists in opposition to the purposes of the pleasure principle."(FN7) Yet Arveragus does not resemble a sublimating lover when he dispatches Dorigen to Aurelius, despite his efforts to preserve the courtly privileges of the lady within a non-traditional form of marriage; and perhaps Slavoj Zizek's influential remarks on courtly love, to mention another example, is more illuminating as a reading of Lacan than as a gloss on Aurelius or the trajectory of Dorigen's desire: "sublimation in the Lacanian sense [involves] the elevation of an object into the dignity of the Thing: 'sublimation' occurs when an object, part of everyday reality, finds itself at the place of the impossible Thing."(FN8) What will become evident in the reading that follows is a slightly different point of contact with psychoanalytic theory. At variance with the decentered, free-ranging path of sublimation, desire surfaces in the tale less through a sequence of statements laying claim to desire than through a series of symptomatic intrusions and retreats from satisfaction. To thematize the frequent disjunctions between the discourse and the performance of desire is to disclose a modality of desire that takes itself as an object. Displacing fulfillment from its privileged position as the telos of desire, this desire is defined by an investment in remaining unsatisfied, an orientation at once facilitated and dissimulated by the pursuit of an elusive object. The proximity of The Franklin's Tale to a psychoanalytic delimitation of the desire can perhaps be gauged by the ease with which Chaucer's name can be substituted for Freud's in a claim Lacan makes about a central motif in analytic thought: "Chaucer, too, is concerned with desire as an object."(FN9)
It is easy to miss the distinctive feature of Chaucer's engagement with the question of desire, predicated as his method is on a difference between what the text says about desire and what it shows. To focus exclusively on discursive statement--what gets said about desire--is to miss the staging of desire in the text, a mise en scène which does not necessarily appear at the level of discourse.(FN10) Crucial to a proper estimation of The Franklin's Tale, and to Chaucer's poetic praxis as a whole, this characteristic treatment of a thematic concern figures importantly in a text that contains some of Chaucer's most explicit reflections on the nature of desire: The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale. At this earlier moment in The Canterbury Tales, we encounter the question posed by Freud late in his career in a series of controversial essays on feminine sexuality: "What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren"? (III.905). Since the answer this question receives in Chaucer's text takes form of a counterpoint between statements about desire and stories about marriage, the tale requires a reading attuned to both registers of the argument. The Wife of Bath tells a tale about a Knight who learns from the Old Woman he encounters that mastery defines feminine desire. Although the answer proves adequate in pragmatic terms to secure his release--he had been brought to trial at the queen's court for the rape of a young maiden--it hardly accounts for the ending of the prologue or tale, where a woman's desire for mastery gives way to a desire for a relationship based on reciprocity and trust. Just as the Wife in the prologue submits to her fifth husband when he yields mastery to her, so the Old Woman in the tale becomes beautiful and faithful when the Knight defers to her judgment. To grasp the structure of the implicit argument, it is thus necessary to confront a discourse about desire with the logic of the narrative action. While the text says that women desire mastery, the concluding moments of prologue and tale repeatedly substitute mutual obedience for mastery.
Owing to this incoherence, we must look elsewhere than the Wife's tale for the theory that informs her production. Such a statement appears in the form of the Wife's earlier thesis of "queynte fantasye" (III.516) in the prologue to her tale. Positing a certain fatalism whereby that which is forbidden is elected to the object of desire--the context is the story of her desire for the violent Jankyn--the Wife maintains: "forbede us thyng, and that desiren we" (III.519). This alternative, differential model of desire could serve as a gloss on the endings in question, where mastery, far from the universal object of feminine desire, loses its privileged status when it is no longer denied to women. Although Chaucer's tales are not consistently explicit about the underlying principles of their construction, here the text is arranged in such a way as to articulate the law governing the reversals which define the subject's desire. As we shall see, The Franklin's Tale establishes a similar relation between the statement and the staging of desire. Like the Wife of Bath and the Old Woman, Aurelius alters his disposition at the moment his beloved submits to him. When this squire, aided by the magician and the subterfuge of the disappearing rocks, finds before him a Dorigen resigned to honor her earlier pledge to him, he gives up his hard-earned mastery. The paradigm of "queynte fantasye" describes a performance of a desire which shifts its object when confronted with the possibility of satisfaction.
That a defensive procedure might be required should the object become accessible is evident in Aurelius's final decision to respect Dorigen's disinclination to love him, a decision customarily glossed in moral terms as a type of conversion. Certainly, from the Franklin's perspective, the courtly lover's concession to Arveragus is marked by a "greet compassioun" (V.1515) for the "lamentacioun" (V.1516) of Dorigen. The central passage in the final encounter between Aurelius and Dorigen makes explicit the idea that her distress enlists the conscience of Aurelius in a way that was not previously possible; his willingness to renounce Dorigen appears to follow from an identification with her suffering that causes him to withdraw from the field:
"Madame, seyth to youre lord Arveragus,
That sith I se his grete gentillesse
To yow, and eek I se wel youre distresse,
That him were levere han shame (and that
Than ye to me sholde breke thus youre trouthe,
I have wel levere evere to suffre wo
Than I departe the love bitwix yow two."
In a foundational discussion of the tale, Alan Gaylord construes the lover's change of heart in terms of the Franklin's Christian agenda: "The Franklin shows that Aurelius repents of his lust."(FN11) More recently, however, Aurelius's decision has been construed as a covert bid for power. One good reason for considering Aurelius in terms of a drive to mastery is that the Franklin is preoccupied with mastery--earlier he insists that "Love wol nat been constreyned by maistrye" (V.764)--and several critics have followed his lead in positing a desire for control at the heart of the squire's pursuit of his lady. In one argument, Aurelius does not so much love Dorigen as want to possess or master her; once Arveragus has "ordered his wife to fulfill the promise, the challenge of maistrye is gone."(FN12) In another, Aurelius is moved primarily by rivalry with Arveragus: "Aurelius is attending to [Dorigen] less as a subject than as an object of rivalry: what makes her desirable is precisely her status as 'another mannes wyf,/ That hath hir body whan so that hym liketh.' ... [Dorigen's] mediate function in this male competition is obvious."(FN13) The critical appeal to mastery reflects a suspicion that Aurelius's feelings of pity do not fully explain so fundamental a shift in orientation.
Such a drive to mastery, however, can readily be inscribed within a psychoanalytic paradigm on the grounds that the symbolic basis for Aurelius's concession points to an oedipal resolution of his rivalry with Arveragus. Within a Lacanian problematic, the concept of "gentillesse" constitutes a crucial third term that serves to mediate the antagonism of this dual relation. The emergence of a symbolic point of reference allows Aurelius to imagine himself as superior to his rival at just the moment when he recognizes his rival as lacking in true nobility. For there is an ironic potential in what appears to be Aurelius's admiration for the idealism of his rival, an intimation of his rival's deficiency: "That sith I se his grete gentillesse/ to yow" (V.1527-8). By specifically emphasizing the effects of this ostensible nobility on Dorigen herself, Aurelius intimates that Arveragus has been ignoble to sacrifice the feelings of his greatly distressed wife to satisfy a dubious promise. An oedipal framework would then suggest that Aurelius is able to let Dorigen go at precisely the moment when he can construct himself as morally superior to his rival, whose false "gentillesse" leads him to prefer his own reputation over the well-being of his wife.
Against the background of this oedipal structure it is possible to isolate a further element in the emergence of the courtly lover's scruples: Dorigen's distress. Apparently this did not figure in his anticipation of her submission, and it precipitates a fundamental realignment of his desire. The great pains Aurelius takes to enlist Dorigen's consent when he confronts her with the missing rocks, insisting at once on her obligation and her freedom, suggests an awareness that his pleasure depends on her grace. Rather than freely submitting to him, however, Dorigen presents herself to Aurelius as one mastered both by her husband and by Aurelius himself. So too does the prescription of adultery by Arveragus violate the condition of secrecy integral to the courtly fantasy. Despite the husband's insistence that Dorigen's submission remain hidden from view, the order to enjoy confers a visibility on their liaison that was absent from the fantasy Aurelius previously enjoyed; rather than identifying with the husband, Aurelius must now be "observed" by him. Aurelius thus abandons his intention to sleep with Dorigen only when it becomes clear that she refuses to play the part assigned to her by his fantasy. The Dorigen in his fantasy willingly bestows herself unbeknownst to her husband; the Dorigen who confronts him rejects him even as she submits to him.
Chaucer's staging of courtly desire in The Franklin's Tale, however, ultimately resists notions of homosocial desire, oedipal resolution, and courtly sublimation. Desire in the tale appears to require an agency of prohibition if it is to thrive, precisely the dimension of "queynte fantasye" evident in a comment by Dorigen on the peculiar pleasure driving the squire. Here is the passage again:
"What deyntee sholde a man han in his lyf For to go love another mannes wyf, That hath hir body whan so that hym lyketh?"
In its emphasis on her husband's legal prerogatives, Dorigen's question about the "deyntee" or pleasure of courtly desire carries the implication that Aurelius's quest for his beloved is based on the anticipation of a satisfaction based on transgression, a desire for that which is forbidden him under the law. The patriarchal figure of the husband in these lines is less the rival than the agency of the law which serves a crucial function in the maintenance of that desire. The notion of a desire that desire itself be maintained would explain why Aurelius should feel disposed to hold fast to his desire when he is no longer denied access to his lady.(FN15) Aurelius becomes the subject of renunciation when the object of his desire is no longer enchanted by the aura of illicit pleasure, his concession to Arveragus an alibi unknowingly put forward to preserve Dorigen's status as object.
That Aurelius's desire doggedly persists over more than two years implies an agency at work that is other than the calculating, self-aware subject. If Dorigen is puzzled at and impatient with the perverse tenacity of his desire for her, it is because she cannot conceive of desire except as a desire for consummation, the enjoyment of a body guaranteed by the marriage contract. What Dorigen senses but does not understand in the insistence of Aurelius is the connection between eroticism and transgression. Both his quest and his abandonment of it figure the inertia of desire over the lure of satisfaction. It would thus be a mistake to assume that Dorigen is elected to the position of object despite the fact that she is unavailable, a defect which his courtship authentically seeks to remedy. On the contrary, the obstacle represented by Arveragus appears to be the very condition of his desire for her. What threatens Aurelius is the possibility that satisfaction will spell the eclipse of his desire.
And Dorigen? Is her desire sustained on the condition that enjoyment remain unavailable to her? Questions about Dorigen's desire tend to circulate around the meaning of her rash promise. Most of her trouble stems from the pact she makes with Aurelius after rejecting his advances in apparently unequivocal terms. What is conspicuous about this commitment is the way it appears to contradict the oath that immediately precedes it. With the oath, Dorigen emphasizes her status as a married woman:
"By thilke God that yaf me soule and lyf, Ne shal I nevere been untrewe wyf In word ne werk, as fer as I have wit; I wol been his to whom that I am knyt. Taak this for fynal answere as of me."
In reiterating the vow of fidelity to her husband, she affirms her acceptance of the binding force of a prior commitment. What is distinctive about this oath is the way it indirectly raises the question of Dorigen's knowledge, her "wit." She says that she will never knowingly be untrue to her husband, as far as her words and her actions go. In this she ironically anticipates the rash promise to come, an indiscretion through which she unwittingly gets herself into trouble.(FN16) On the surface, Dorigen offhandedly sets a limit on her responsibility. In a different register, her language alludes to a circumstance under which she might be unfaithful, one in which she had no idea what she was doing. Dorigen then proceeds to supplement the answer she has called "fynal" with what looks like a conditional agreement, which the Franklin suggests is offered "in pley":
But after that in pley thus seyde she: "Aurelie," quod she, "by heighe God above, Yet wolde I graunte yow to been youre love, Syn I yow se so pituously complayne."
At this point, Dorigen goes on to elaborate the single, extraordinary condition under which she would grant her love: Aurelius must clear from the coast of Brittany all the rocks that might hinder the passage of ships. Should this be accomplished, she concludes, "Thanne wol I love yow best of any man;/ Have heer my trouthe, in al that evere I kan" (V.996). That we are to notice the conflict between this promise and her original marriage vow is clear from the way Dorigen uses the same words here that she used previously to promise Arveragus that she would be a "humble trewe wyf": "Have heer my trouthe--til that myn herte breste" (V.758-9; my italics). Yet if the two promises echo each other, the lines which follow indicate a Dorigen dead-set against her suitor's entreaties. This impossible challenge, she insists, is the only grace he can expect from her: "For wel I woot that it shal never bityde" (V.1001).
When the Franklin introduces Dorigen's pledge by indicating that she uttered it "in pley" (988), he probably means to underline the fact that it holds out the possibility that she will return Aurelius's love in order all the more decisively to reject him. The fact that Dorigen does not register a contradiction between the marriage vow and the promise indicates that from Dorigen's perspective, the promise is not really a promise. Employing a contractual formula, "have heer my trouthe," it playfully imitates an engagement of obligation. A rhetorical flourish designed to further bring home to Aurelius the reality of her love for Arveragus, the rash promise repeats, rather than contradicts, the marriage vow, restating in metaphorical terms what she has already made clear. It illustrates the love she feels for her husband, her concern for his safety.(FN17) Thus since the context makes clear that Dorigen intends to be as discouraging as possible with this playful simulacrum of a promise, the promise from her perspective hardly represents a binding commitment.
Clearly, Dorigen means to dash the hopes of Aurelius rather than to encourage him. And this is precisely the effect it has on the young suitor, who "seeth he may nat fro his deeth asterte," (V.1022) and can only hope to realize his desire through the agency of Apollo, to whom he prays for a "miracle" (V.1056). Rather than interpreting the task as a polite form of rejection, however, Aurelius takes Dorigen at her word, ignoring the context that gave meaning to her pronouncement. In order to evade what Dorigen means to say with the promise, he chooses to preserve his desire by imagining a world in which rocks are subject to the will of the gods.
The rhetorical, essentially decorative function of the promise does not exhaust its significance, however, for the same promise that gives expression to a wish that Arveragus return safely evokes an imaginary scene in which Dorigen would have to submit to Aurelius at just that moment when her husband's return would be guaranteed.(FN18) Strange homecoming that would be! And all the more strange in that that is exactly what comes to pass, albeit after a delay of several years. If the promise can be said symptomatically to inscribe a desire under erasure, it is in part on the grounds that the promise represents in a mode of disavowal and play such a distinct and perplexing intention: that her husband bear witness to the affair. Who speaks here where Dorigen is not? Why should the one who speaks imagine this taking place? Whether as punishment for his neglect while off pursuing his honor across the sea or as a sign of certain misgivings about the earnestly desired return of her husband, the rash promise elects Aurelius to the position of obstacle to the harmony of her marriage in the event of her husband's homecoming.
Dorigen is thus doubly implicated in the promise. The counterfactual scene it evokes signifies in excess of the strategy of rejection within which it functions. Above all, it is the rashness of the promise, the fact that it is spoken off the cuff, improvised on the spot, as it were, which points to a subjective division.(FN19) Added on to the reiteration of her marriage vow, it neither contradicts that vow nor is identical to it. Within the security of an impossible scenario, this moment of play, less an accident than a strangely meaningful intrusion of non-sense, establishes a fantasy relation with Aurelius that speaks independently of Dorigen's will and that stands in contradiction to a very different desire to be true to her husband.
Susan Crane has argued that since the labor traditionally imposed on the courtly lover by the lady in romance is never accepted by him as an immutable rejection, Dorigen has no means of making her rejection understood within the "discursive forms and encoded practices" her culture offers. At the heart of Dorigen's predicament lies "a dislocation between her intention and the language in which she can express it."(FN20) It is also possible to argue, however, that the content of a desire is inseparable from its linguistic form. In this case, the divided subject would follow from the structure of the linguistic system, the overdetermination of the signifying chain giving rise to a dissemination of desire.(FN21) At the level of topography, one might add that since the intention to communicate a meaning falls to the ego, an agency among other things responsible for the regulation of unacceptable desires, an individual's self-understanding is not likely to be a reliable guide to unconscious motivations.(FN22) So although Dorigen clearly intends to reject Aurelius, the question of her desire exceeds the question of what she means to say and requires a differential analysis of her speech. Of course, Dorigen never entertains the possibility of having to honor her pledge; in fact, confronted with this possibility, she is horrified. Yet the notion that the promise is a form of rejection is not incompatible with the claim that this speech act also gives expression to a portion of her desire--one that contradicts her commitment to Arveragus. What lends plausibility to this reading is not the weakness but the very strength of her desire for fidelity to her husband. Dorigen begins her marriage, after all, by swearing "that nevere sholde ther be defaute in here" (790). It is precisely her identification with the ideal of a faithful wife which would provide a rationale for repression; any hint of desire for Aurelius would be forced into just the sort of realm of fantasy offered by her promise. In this case, the distance between her marriage vow and her rash vow to Aurelius would mark the space of a subjective struggle to manage two antithetical desires.
Dorigen is persuaded three times to honor her promise before she makes her way toward the garden to meet Aurelius: first, by Aurelius, then by herself, and finally, by her husband. The rhetorical specificity of each persuasion, however, carries the trace of a desire under erasure. Rather than a conflict between a marriage vow that represents her authentic desire, and a rash promise that stands opposed to that desire, it is the promise itself, paradoxically, that signfies a desire that "wol nat been constreyned by maistrye" (V.764). Against arguments grounded in the genre of romance or cultural history which suggest that it would be perfectly natural for Dorigen to submit to Aurelius, each moment of persuasion provides evidence internal to the text that Dorigen's pledge to Aurelius cannot be understood in terms of a binding engagement of contractual obligation.(FN23) The power of the rash promise derives from its relation to the wedded couple's unique marriage vows, a context all the more determinative for never being thematized by the parties involved.
A fundamental contradiction haunts Aurelius's attempt to hold Dorigen to her promise. Although his rhetoric invokes, without insisting on, the moral and legal legitimacy of his claim on her, he does not fail to acknowledge that she is not bound to him by law. Beginning in the courtly register of a religion of love, he urges her to repent, lest the love she denies him leads to his death. Aurelius then appeals to the force of her earlier promise, which devolves not from his legal right to partake of her love, but from the no less strenuous requirements of honor:
"For, madame, wel ye woot what ye han hight--Nat that I chalange any thyng of right Of yow, my sovereyn lady, but youre grace--"
The persuasive force of this appeal derives from the sense Aurelius gives that having fulfilled his end of the bargain, he is only asking for what is due to him. At the same time, Aurelius admits that he depends upon her "grace." He denies that he holds any legal "right" to her body, a right he cannot claim to possess. This concession is significant, since both Dorigen and Arveragus behave as though it is precisely "of right" that the rash promise must be kept. The false modesty of courtly rhetoric, Aurelius's claim that he is wholly "unworthy" (V.1330) of her love, allows him ironically to draw attention to his miraculous achievement, even as it exposes him as relying on the powers of that rhetoric for his success:
"Madame, I speke it for the honour of yow
Moore than to save myn hertes lyf right now--
I have do so as ye comanded me;
And if ye vouche sauf, ye may go see.
Dooth as yow list; have youre biheste in
David Aers writes of this passage: "The poet's satiric target is not one squire: rather it is the manipulative nature of the male language of 'servyce' and 'love'" Aers, Chaucer, 87. Just as conspicuous as the manipulative rhetoric of the passage, however, is the extent to which Aurelius emphasizes her freedom of choice. Not only does his injunction to bear in mind her "behest" come with the caveat that she may do as she likes, indicating the absence of an external, legal constraint, he even invites her to inspect the coast, although she does not see fit to exercise this option. Rather than presenting an exemplary moment of rhetorical coercion, the text carefully lays out alternative courses of action which Dorigen is offered but does not pursue. The speech ends with a heavy irony. Aurelius insists that he has fulfilled his end of the bargain: "But wel I woot the rokkes been aweye" (V.1338). We know that the rocks remain, but that the status of the empirical rocks is beside the point. In the absence of any interest on Dorigen's part in viewing the coast, the missing rocks occupy a register of fantasy: it is their signification at the level of desire which is decisive. What Dorigen hears in Aurelius's complaint--the fatality of her submission to him--is symptomatic of the same desire that generated the terms of her promise in the first place.
The return of the rash promise obeys a peculiar temporal logic. At this point in the text, at least three years have passed since the rash promise was made. Following the promise, a certain time passes before Arveragus returns safely home. Then, "two yeer and moore" (V.1102) later, Aurelius, at the behest of his brother, consults the magician. The miracle of the disappearing rocks is dated some time later, after the winter solstice. The temporal structure involved here resembles what Freud calls Nachträglichkeit, belatedness, the recognition, after the fact, that an encounter was filled with a sexual dimension of which one was previously unaware.(FN24) It is not, however, as with Freud, the recognition of having been the object of the other's desire which is at issue. What Dorigen experiences is something monstrous, the realization of a fantasy so at odds with her identity as a faithful wife that she had previously been able to contemplate it only on the condition that it would never take place in reality: a return of the repressed. Although it is finally the symptomatic manner in which she proceeds to deal with the promise that clarifies its significance, the expression on her face makes the affectual component of this return legible:
He taketh his leve, and she astoned stood; In al hir face nas a drope of blood. She wende nevere han come in swich a trappe. "Allas," quod she, "that evere this sholde happe! For wende I nevere by possibilitee That swich a monstre or merveille myghte be! It is agayns the proces of nature." And hoom she goth a sorweful creature;
Above all, it is her body that responds to the news of the missing rocks. That she is dominated by fear is clear from the implication that she is turned to stone.(FN25) Yet we need not assume that the object of this fear is external rather than internal, that Aurelius himself torments her rather than her inability to reject him.(FN26) At precisely the moment when we might expect Dorigen to inspect the coastline, seeing for herself the "merveille" that constrains her, she retreats under the influence of a phantasm of violence and coercion.
Before Dorigen comes to confront her husband in this miserable state, she delivers a Complaint to Fortune (V.1355-1458), which serves to clarify the subjective division signified by the promise. Here the symptomatic feature of desire can be located in a certain investment in a tableau of sexual violence. Dominated by scenes of classical women who chose death rather than be raped by various tyrants, villains and conquering armies, the passage construes women's history as a history of violence.(FN27) Yet the form and tone of the complaint work at cross purposes with its tragic theme. The tableau she fashions is conspicuous in its inordinate length and tends towards the sensational. Typical in this respect is the first example of maidenly heroism, the daughters of the slain Phidon who jump into a well to avoid the tyrants' lust:
"They comanded his doghtres for t'areste
And bryngen hem biforn hem in despit,Al naked, to fulfille hir foul delit,
And in his fadres blood they made hem daunce,
Upon the pavement, God yeve hem
Dorigen is clearly distressed by the images from the storehouse of her reading, yet a type of fascination is nevertheless legible in the fact that her imagination remains fixed on scenes of sexual threat. While Dorigen appears to be trying to convince herself that death is preferable to being "defouled" (V.1396, 1398, 1418, 1421, 1423, 1427), the circularity of her discourse suggests that she is not entirely persuaded by it. Twice she concludes that her path is clear, that she is obliged to chose death over defoulment (V.1395-98, 1419-25). Twice her discourse continues afresh, producing still more examples that she will not finally emulate. In the end, the Franklin mocks her irresolution: "Thus pleyned Dorigen a day or tweye,/ Purposynge evere that she wolde deye" (V.1457-58). Inasmuch as it counsels a stoic embrace of death at the same time that it performs a deferral of any action, the text suggests that the stoic resolve Dorigen adopts fails adequately to reflect the division the marks her desire.
The course of action she chooses is not so extreme as suicide; she tells her husband what has happened. This is the third alternative that does not occur to her when, at the beginning of the complaint, she says there is no escape from her situation, "Save oonly deeth or elles dishonour" (V.1358). Apparently the "cheyn" in which Fortune has "wrapped" her is not so binding as she imagines. The reductive way she elects to frame the problem--a choice between two, and only two, alternatives--virtually ensures that she will find herself at her suitor's door, since however much she is loathe to consent to Aurelius, the gravity of the alternative favors a compromise. Clearly, there is a degree of sexual coercion here, and Dorigen feels it. Yet the differences between the classical precedents invoked by Dorigen and her present situation are just as conspicuous as the similarities. If Dorigen does not rush to embrace death, it is at least in part because the threat she faces is of an entirely different order than that of the heroic women she cites. She is not deprived of agency in the way that the classical women were. The leisure to lament a day or two, as well as the opportunity to consult her husband, makes her case unique. Aurelius shows himself committed to the formalities of the courtly game; he does not avail himself of the means available to the lascivious tyrant. In confronting Dorigen with her promise, Aurelius, as I have suggested, walks a fine between the rhetoric of courtly love--he depends on her grace--and the legalistic insistence on his right to her love:
"For, madame, wel ye woot what ye han hight--Nat that I chalange any thyng of right Of yow, my sovereyn lady, but youre grace."
Reminding her of her rash promise in this way represents an extremely attenuated form of coercion, compared with the imminent threat facing her exemplary women. In this light, it seems that the pressure to submit to him is as much her own invention as it is an effect of his divided discourse. As Alan Gaylord remarks, in another connection: "If Aurelius were to be 'chalanged' on the slightest point, his claims must evaporate on the spot."(FN28) If Dorigen assimilates her dubious contractual obligation to Aurelius to the brutal threat of the rapist, that is, if she represents herself as a being for whom suicide is the only form of agency left her, we are encouraged to consider the covert interests served by this appeal to her victimization. That she is distressed at the prospect of honoring her pledge to Aurelius is clear; yet the source of that distress is neither obvious nor necessarily singular.
Given that significant differences separate the situation of Dorigen from that of the heroic women she admires, it is not transparent why Dorigen should choose to cast Aurelius as a rapist and herself as his unwilling victim. The logic of her response makes some sense, however, when it is situated within a subjective topography. In psychoanalytic terms, the predatory version of the courtly Aurelius can be said to translate both a fantasy of illicit satisfaction and the threat of punishment associated with it. In effect, this translation of an unconscious drama into the lexicon of sexual violence offers an escape from a desire which is incompatible with her love for her husband. Under such conditions, it is not surprising that Dorigen should enlist the protection of her husband.
Dorigen, in consulting her husband, acts as though it is Arveragus who must resolve her dilemma. Her desire seems to be that he should make a decision for her, a choice that is frequently taken to reflect his retreat from the autonomy granted her at the time of their marriage. Contra the Wife of Bath, sovereignty does not appear to be the object of woman's desire. As A. C. Spearing writes: "She is acting instinctively, and instinct has led her to the submission that in Middle Ages would have been considered natural for a wife."(FN29) It is likely that Dorigen's decision at this crucial moment would have been understood according to a culturally specific perspective on woman's nature. However, the context provided by Dorigen's promise and her complaint to fortune suggests that it is the ambivalence of Dorigen's desire which is decisive. The latent thought that moves Dorigen to consult her husband obeys a double, contradictory logic. At the level of unconscious desire, which paradoxically encompasses mutually contradictory propositions, she imagines both that he will insist that she break the rash promise, and thus prevent a confrontation with her ambivalent desire for Aurelius, and that he will order her to "obey" that forbidden desire. Clearly, we are not dealing with a conventional mimesis of desire. The affective component of her relation to Aurelius can be understood as signifying an unconscious thought that elicits both desire and anxiety, so incompatible it is with her self-conception and love for her husband. Thus, if she is compelled to consult her husband, it is at once because she supposes that he will save her from her desire and that he will order her to honor her promise. She can only act on her unconscious desire on the condition that it is both prescribed and prohibited.(FN30)
Critical discussions with widely divergent assessments of the tale's gender politics share a preoccupation with the status and function of Arveragus, in particular with his rationale for enforcing the moral framework that gives Dorigen grief. Initially breaking the mold of Chaucer's abusive husbands--Jankyn, Walter, January--this submissive lover, far from relinquishing authority in marriage, ends up ordering Dorigen to keep her word to Aurelius. A return to mastery is legible, so it seems, in the way Arveragus responds to the news of Dorgen's promise, which takes the form of an order: "Ye shul youre trouthe holden, by my fay!" (V.1474). And when Arveragus sends for a squire to bring his wife to Aurelius and speaks of enduring his "wo" (V.1484), it makes sense to understand that he expects Dorigen to submit to Aurelius. In any case, Dorigen certainly acts as though in making her way to this suitor she were simply submitting to a force with all the inevitability of fate. The same tale that once counted as Chaucer's response to a central thematic articulation of The Canterbury Tales, the problem of marital harmony, has among many contemporary critics appeared to mystify a patriarchal status quo as the nature to which the couple must irresistibly conform.
A conspicuous indeterminacy of reference, however, marks Arveragus's injunction to keep "trouthe." Despite the fact that both Arveragus and Dorigen focus exclusively on her promise to Aurelius, they are also bound by the "trouthe" of their own marriage vows. It is not immediately clear why the couple should behave as though in honoring her agreement with Aurelius Dorigen would not also compromise the more substantial "trouthe" of her marriage. The silence surrounding their primary commitment gives the scene what Alan Gaylord calls its "strange quality of unreality."(FN31)
This curious exclusion is only a problem until we assume, as many critics have done, that the point is to notice a fault in Arveragus. If he insists on Dorigen's frivolous obligation at the expense of his marital commitment, it is because he thinks only of Aurelius and the register of masculine honor. The doubleness of "trouthe" would be an irony of the situation and would constitute a device designed to highlight Arveragus's failure to insist on the priority of her marriage vow.(FN32) Alternatively, Arveragus does indeed honor his initial vow, if we assume that his intention is to refuse to show Dorigen jealousy by forbidding her to go to Aurelius or to comply with her implicit wish to be ordered. In either case, the resulting gender politics are the same: Arveragus orders Dorigen to violate her integrity, sacrificing her authentic desire to his passion for an abstract purity under a patriarchal code of conduct. As Barrie Ruth Straus writes, "Arveragus is enjoining Dorigen to act like a man."(FN33)
That said, just how Arveragus understands the part he is called upon to play in the proceedings is less certain than we might expect. Upon learning of Dorigen's predicament, he puts a question to her which might be motivated by his sense that she is overreacting to the situation or that some more serious infidelity remains to be disclosed, some change of heart to be confessed:
This housbonde, with glad chiere, in freendly
Answerde and seyde as I shal yow devyse:
"Is ther oght elles, Dorigen, but this?"
"Nay, nay," quod she, "God helpe me so as wys!
This is to muche, and it were Goddes wille."
The pathos of his response to the dilemma suggests that he accepts Aurelius's claim on Dorigen. He appeals to God for mercy and proclaims that out of the "verray love" he feels for his wife, he would rather be "ystiked" than that Dorigen should neglect her promise, at which point he begins at once "to wepe" (V.1480). What is puzzling is that Arveragus should accept as fact that Aurelius has legitimately fulfilled the terms of the promise, despite the manifest impossibility of the task. It is not easy to ascribe to Arveragus the same naiveté that Aurelius attributes to Dorigen when he later recounts the affair to the magician:
And that hir trouthe she swoor thurgh
She nevere erst hadde herde speke of apparence.
This reference to a skepticism towards "apparence," whether or not it is adequate to explain Dorigen's belief, indicates that such skepticism would be natural, even within the romance world of this Breton lai. Indeed the fact that the news of the disappearing rocks does not provoke Arveragus's overt disbelief is puzzling. How does he imagine Aurelius carried out the impossible task, if not by deception?
One way of addressing this problem would be to suppose that Arveragus works to suppress his disbelief in order to countenance what he takes to be his wife's sense that she should honor this promise to Aurelius. For instance, he could be thinking of the promise he made to her on the occasion of their marriage. The tale begins by raising the question of Dorigen's will, an agency that her husband promises to grant the freest reign possible. The words of his agreement are important. He swears:
That nevere in al his lyf he, day ne nyght, Ne sholde upon hym take no maistrie Agayn her wyl, he kithe hire jalousie But hire obeye, and folwe hir wyl in al,
It is easy to assume that Arveragus knows very well that Dorigen does not want to keep her promise to Aurelius and yet forces her to act against her will, out of a patriarchal respect for the letter of a contract. Does he not arrange the escort to Aurelius and threaten her with death should she divulge this "aventure" (V.1483) to anyone? Yet it is also possible that Arveragus reads Dorigen's distress as something more complicated than a conflict between a simple aversion to Aurelius and a scrupulous fidelity to her word. Perhaps Arveragus assumes that her feelings for Aurelius preclude a simple rejection of his dubious appeal. Or he may think that only by facilitating a confrontation between them will he find out what she really wants. In either case, his appeal to "trouthe" would constitute his refusal to substitute his own desire for hers. For if Arveragus were to seek to avoid the mechanical response of a jealous husband, he would have to apply the principle of "trouthe" to himself as well as Dorigen. His refusal to dispel the specious claim of the rash promise, either by invoking her marriage vow or the illusory character of the fulfilled contract, would thus be motivated by a sense of fidelity to his pact with his wife. Rather than a hypocritical desire to hold his wife to her "trouthe," he would be reminding himself that "Trouthe is the hyeste thyng that man may kepe" (my italics, V.1479).
Whether Arveragus's appeal to "trouthe" makes sense from this perspective depends to a great extent on an estimation of his sensibility at this point. However, it does not depend on an estimation of Dorigen's desire, since what is at issue is the attitude Arveragus himself takes towards it. Although the tears that follow this stern pronouncement could be said to reflect the price Arveragus must pay to make good on his wife's promise, they might just as well represent a crisis in his sense of his wife's feelings for him; we need not assume that he takes at face value Dorigen's denial that anything else is at issue but the rash promise. If Arveragus does not mention her promise to be faithful to him, a motive for this omission lies in his unique marriage vow, which obliges him to forgo mastery. To honor it, he must resist the temptation to make Dorigen place her marriage vow above her frivolous promise to Aurelius: that decision can only come from Dorigen herself.
It is in this light that the position Arveragus takes in relation to the illusion of the rocks should be considered. If it is true that Arveragus sets aside his wife's distress when it comes to the superior claim of masculine honor, why then does his response take the form of consolation, as though she did not understand that there was a solution to the problem rather than the inevitable unfolding of the scenario she fears? Here are his words:
"Ye, wyf," quod he, "lat slepen that is stille, It may be wel, paraventure, yet to day. Ye shul youre trouthe holden, by my fay!"
Placing the emphasis on the last of these lines, it is easy to hear a self-interested Arveragus giving his wife an order: Dorigen must keep her word to preserve his honor and everything will be well for him. Arveragus could also mean to say that the outcome "may be well" for her because he assumes that Aurelius will not descend to villainy. Yet it is interesting to note that Arveragus begins by urging his wife not to create a problem where one does not exist, as if to reassure her that there is a simple solution to her problem. This element of reassurance, which presupposes Dorigen's desire to keep her word, makes sense only if Arveragus means to indicate that he will not prevent her from keeping her word, though without specifying which word or what keeping it might entail. The difficulty lies in the word "shul," which signals an order at the same time that it anticipates a future outcome. To declare that Dorigen shall keep her "trouthe" in the latter sense implies that to do so corresponds with her authentic desire. The duplicity inhabiting the signifier "shul" gives rise to a double exposure of Arveragus, at once ordering and accommodating his wife.
Given her visible distress, we might suppose that Arveragus regards his wife's desire as narcissistic: she cannot bear the thought of breaking her word to Aurelius, even at the cost of compromising her virture. It remains possible nevertheless that Arveragus construes his wife's distress differently. Arveragus's injunction to "trouthe holden" may reflect his commitment to furnishing the conditions under which not her narcissism but her desire might find expression, the same commitment which finds expression in his renunciation of mastery at the beginning of the tale.
It is worth pausing to consider how Arveragus can be said to be renouncing mastery, even as he seems to order her to keep her promise: "Ye shul youre trouthe holden, by my fay!" (V.1474). After all, he arranges for his servant to escort Dorigen to Aurelius in order to keep "trouthe." Yet to insist on keeping "trouth" leaves open the question of which "trouthe" to keep. In what sense might Arveragus be leaving the decision to her? That a commitment to Dorigen's freedom might be indicated by the appeal Arveragus makes to "trouthe" follows from the peculiarly double significance of his injunction to her.(FN34) Here it is important to reiterate that Dorigen is in a double bind. Since she has also given her husband her "trouthe" on the occasion of their marital agreement--"Sire, I wol be your humble trewe wife--/Have heer my trouthe--til that my herte breste" (V.758-59)--Dorigen finds her honor compromised by each of the alternatives presented to her, bound as she is by contradictory promises to two different men. Whatever she decides, she will both have kept her word and broken it. Strictly speaking, then, what appears as an order to commit adultery at the same time articulates the principle that honoring one's word is the highest value. This statement leaves open who should be constrained by it (everyone, including himself, or just Dorigen?) and which word should be privileged (hers to Aurelius? Arveragus's to her?). The narrative context of Arveragus's words to Dorigen ironically underlines that it is impossible for either of them to conform to the letter of their contractual obligations. To translate "Ye shul youre trouthe holden, by my fay!" into the realm of human action necessarily involves the subject in a selective reading of the text, a decision at once covering over an essential overdetermination of meaning and answering to the requirements of desire. Arveragus's words, independently of his intention, should be heard as articulating the paradox of multiple obligation that constrains Dorigen: "Trouthe" requires that Dorigen make a decision.
However unsettling the predicament figured by the invocation of "trouthe," Dorigens's response to this suggests that she hears him insisting that she keep her word to Aurelius. Whereas the earlier complaint to fortune presupposes her limited agency, here Dorigen silently conforms to what she hears Arveragus telling her to do. Encountering Aurelius on the way to his garden, Dorigen responds "half as she were mad" when he questions where she is going: "Unto the gardyn, as myn housbonde bad,/ My trouthe for to holde--allas, allas!" (V.1512-13). Her words imply that she has acted under duress; yielding to the wishes of her husband, she will honor her word and satisfy Aurelius. Her conscientious effacement of her own wishes in this matter allows her to maintain an image of herself as trustworthy and obedient, even as her submission does the "werk" of desire. The condition under which she can approach the object of desire inscribed in the rash promise is that she know nothing of what she is doing, a condition she uttered in the lines leading up to that promise: "Ne shal I nevere been untrewe wyf/ In word ne werk, as fer as I have wit" (V.984-5). Unable either to embrace or to reject Aurelius, Dorigen fears him, or the desire he threatens to awaken in her; and yet she delivers herself to him under the guise of an absolute obedience, passing over in silence the binding force of her primary, marital commitment.
To make evident a latent structure of desire in Dorigen's speech and action is not to offer justification for the treatment she receives from Aurelius or Arveragus, regardless of their intentions. While a psychoanalytic reading of The Franklin's Tale follows the trace of a desire excluded from the discourse of the subject, isolating effects of power and compulsion at the level of subjective processes, such an investigation does not obviate the need to analyze the gender politics of the tale, the evidence it gives of a social and discursive climate that erodes the autonomy and agency of women. Yet Chaucer's distinctive contribution to new histories of medieval women in the last decade will have been a disclosure that an adequate genealogy of mastery in the Middle Ages must take account of the agency of desire.
JOHN A. PITCHER
University of South Dakota
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