The Franklin's Fantasy


By Robert Levine


The Franklin's Tale has generated a great variety of skew critical responses, many of which result from an attempt to apologize rather than to account for apparent inconsistencies in the poem. Schofield, for example, read the poem as "...a simple story of an unusually happy marriage ... most of the inconsistencies in his narrative are a result of his effort to make the situation dramatic." Kittredge perpetuated the notion of the tale as charming and genteel, although he did recognize a problem some later critics have chosen to ignore: "The question is whether it (the tale) is appropriate to this particular Franklin under these particular circumstances, and at this particular juncture." Others have seen the poem as a working out of "the Christian notion of perfection,'' as an "'isolated moment when. the possibility of human goodness is proclaimed," and as "Chaucer's subtle and delightful parable justifying the ways of God to men." Reassuring piety, however, is not the tone Chaucer adopts in the poem; Paul Baum seems closer to accounting for what happens in the poem when he suggests that "...the Franklin's Tale is not to be taken quite seriously as a representation of actual life … in fact, by turning it all into a game or riddle at the end... he (Chaucer) may have hinted... that we regard the tale as something, from the realm of higher nonsense."


A failure to respond sympathetically to the nonsensical, or more precisely, the fantastic quality of the Franklin's Tale causes Alan Gay­lord to misdirect some very accurate observations when he argues that the poem demonstrates how “... a whole tale can be turned back on its teller to comment satirically on his character and the values he represents." Gaylord's paper concentrates primarily on the absurd inability of the characters in the poem to establish priorities for their promises, and he reads each of the incidents with zealously legal precision, ignoring the aspect of the poem which can best be described by Dorigen's words: "It is agayne the proces of nature (1345)." Typical of Gaylord's disapproval of what happens in the tale is his comment on Aurelius' expectation that Dorigen will keep her rash promise: "This kind of fanatical literalism cannot take "entente" or connotations into account at all., nor can it observe degrees of earnestness nor discriminate between (sic) various categories of vows and promises according to their intrinsic merit and importance. This is a very special brand of gentilesse which the Frank­lin is displaying and he obviously considers it heroic, even if the crit­ical reader may call it absurd." Presumably., however, the "critical read­er",, having read fairy‑tales to his children, Gawain and the Green Knight, Sir Orfeo., and Sir Launfal (inter alia)‑with his students, and perhaps some of his colleagues’ papers, is aware that a rash promise is a convention of fairy‑tale and romance, and that the convention is not necessarily a negative reflection upon the character and intellectual abilities of the narrators of such stories, That Gaylord's judgments proceed from a radical lack of sympathy for fantasy is very clearly illustrated when he writes:"...the moral assumptions behind the behavior of the characters in the Franklin's Tale diverge widely both from twentieth‑century common sense and medieval ethical counsel. 8 This observation is certainly an accurate description of the Franklin's moral assumptions, which, however, do not proceed from a simple inability to establish priorities for promises, as Gaylord would have it, but rather from the nature of fantasy, and, more specifically, from the Franklin's desire to idealize the behavior of the aristocracy. If we read the tale as an extended fantasy about sex and power, in which the Epicurean Franklin idealized the attitudes, behavior, and abilities of the class to which he aspires, most of the narrative and rhetorical inconsistencies in the Franklin's Tale may be resolved.


Such a reading of the tale hardly requires a revolutionary approach to the Canterbury Tales. The other tales in what has frequently been called the Marriage Group may be read as fantasies about sex and power: Alice of Bath in her tale articulates an elaborate wish‑fulfillment about beauty, time, and maistrey; the Clerk's Tale functions as a male fantasy, in which Walter plays God to Griselda's Job, establishing a neatly mythical sado-masochistic relationship; a kind of negative fantasy, the Merchant's Tale is a male nightmare on the theme of age and impotence.

Outside the Marriage Group, the most striking example of a nightmare is the tale told by the Pardoner, whose sensualism, unlike the Franklin's, is perverted, and whose tale articulates an hysterical fear of the death of the body, the source of all sensations. The rioters in his tale parody with an absurd literalness the conventional Christian fear of death when they boast: "And we wol sleen this false traytour Death," but they are also attempting to come to terms (and quite literally "to grips") with the Pardoner's own greatest fear. Contrasted with the rioters' naïve notions about death, the speech of the old man who directs them to Death provides a precise vocabulary and imagery for death in the context of a death‑in‑life nightmare:


Ne Deeth, allas: ne wol nat han my lyf                                                    .

Thus wâlke I., lyk a restelees kaityf,

And on the ground, which is my moodres gate,,

I knokke with my,staff., bothe erly and late=

And seye 'Leve mooder, leet me in:

Lo how I vanysshe., flesh, and blood, and skyn.

Allasi whan shul my bones been at rest?                                                  °

Mooder, with yow wolde I chaunge my cheste

That in my chambre longe tyme hath beg

Ye‑‑;for an heyre clowt to wrappe in me! (727‑3ó)


These lines are, I suggest, a projection of the desire of a decaying sen­sualist to be free of that 4dying animal" his body. The identity of the old man has been the subject of some critical speculation., and he has been identified variously as the Wandering Jew.' as the personification of Death as Old Age' and as vetus homo. In terms of the Pardoner's nightmare, the old man has the additional function of serving as a projection of the Pardoner's vision of his own future. when his flesh has lost its power.

Not every sensualist's fantasy is a nightmare, however, and Chaucer himself indulged in fantasies frequently:


Suche fantasies ben in myn hede.,

S o I not what is best to doo. (BD, 28‑29)


As F.N. Robinson., no admirer of the genre of dream‑vision, compels himself to admit: "English would be much poorer in the poetry of fancy if he (Chaucer) had never practiced in that school and become one of its  masters." 10 Chaucer's portrayal of himself in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales also shows a playful awareness that he himself suffered from Franklin‑like tendencies of the imagination; the narrator constantly falls into hyperbole in describing his fellow pilgrims: "He was the beste beggere in his hour... So greet a purchasour was nowher noon. was nowher swich a worthy vavasour."' Perhaps Chaucer's sympathy for the Franklin was also felt by the illustrator of the Ellesmere I3, who provided for the Franklin and his extravagant imagination an unpretentious mount, in distinct contrast to the morally more suspect pilgrims, whose aspir­ations were limited to merely material articulations. Chaucer's attitude towards "Epicurus owene Sone" might be said to anticipate the attitude Swift expresses in the Digression on Madness in the Tale of the Tub:


…he that can with Epicurus content his ideas with the films and images that fly off upon his senses from the superficies of things, such a man, truly wise, creams off Nature, leaving the sour and the dregs for philo­sophy and reason to lap up.”


If we consider the poem to represent the functioning of an extra­vagant, but not morally dangerous mind, much of the critical discomfort that has been focused on the Franklin's Tale can be relieved. The passage that has generated the most critical perplexity is Dorigen's lament, partly because readers have too often ignored Kittredge's advice, preferring to follow an axiom which James Sledd propounded in his examination of the apparently random structure of the passage: "The most secure inter­pretation (of the passage) would be logically independent of any theory  concerning the marriage group., the character of the Franklin..." Since the inconsistencies in the Franklin's Tale stubbornly remain inconsistencies if we follow Mr. Sledd's axiom, I suggest substituting a principle which Charles Muscatine has set forth clearly, and defended at some length: "Each of the tales, by analogy and contrast, takes meaning from others. The effect of the larger form, a structure of juxtapositions and tensions, is to place and control the attitudes evoked separately by its parts, to reveal their virtues and limitations in context." Mr. Sledd's argument is based on what seems a patently false axiom, and in addition resembles Mr. Gaylord's argument in its misunderstanding of the genre. He finds it possible to speak of Dorigen as: "like the heroine in a child's story,' and yet of the characters in the tale as "recognizably human people."14 In a later article on the Clerk's Tale, Mr. Sledd continues to demonstrate a central misunderstanding of the nature of fan­tasy, preferring to pursue an investigation of the "probability of the characters and action" in a grossly improbable tale.


         Perhaps the most amusing result of considering the complaint without reference to the character of the Franklin, or to the nature of the Marriage Group, is contained in the following remarks of Germaine Demp­ster: ",...another clear fact to be inferred from the order of the heroines is that Chaucer,, at least from exemplum eight onwards, worked with a manuscript of Adversus Jovinianum open on his desk. Nothing else would account for his producing an order so obviously haphazard." Miss Dem­pster goes on to comment on "...the absence of any planning of detail, pre­vious ordering of material, or reordering after writing," and finally suggests an economic motive for the random order: "Dorigen's twenty-two exempla all come from the same source .... The cost and rarity of manuscripts may have very largely contributed to the formation of such a  habit."17


Miss Dempster's suggestion, however, seems far more appealing, and certainly has more apparent integrity, than the modish combination of T.S. Eliot and Charles Muscatine which E. B. Benjamin makes to reinforce his notion of the function of Dorigen's complaint: “H er long formal complaint at this point is, I think, an attempt on Chaucer's part to find an objective correlative for the state of chaos that now prevails." 18 nflationary rhetoric, however, is no help in understanding what happens in Dorigen's complaint. Instead I suggest, a brief consideration of what happens in the source of the complaint's exemplar Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum,, may help. As David Wiesen describes Jerome's techniques., they seem to articulate a fantasy about sex and power far less idealized than that of the Franklin, In his comments on Jerome's use of Theophrastus, Mr. Wiesen writes: " anxious is Jerome to combat marriage and so filled is his mind with rhetorical arguments derived from the misogynistic trad­ition that he has ignored an important consideration ‑‑ that the satiric excerpt from Theophrastus is not entirely suitable to his case, He wants to. show that for women virginity is superior to marriage. But then why take the trouble to ridicule women as a terrible burden to men. Obviously Jerome was so fond of vivid, satiric exposures of women that he could not resist inserting Theophrastus' description, even though it was not completely applicable to his argument." Mr. Wiesen concludes: "The depth of Jerome's fear and the hatred of marriage is based on the grotesque argument that  the love of woman renders the virile mind effeminate."20  Consequently., the structure of Adversus Jovinianum reflects Jerome's conscious purpose of writing propaganda as well as his conscious and unconscious fear of impotence.

Material, them which Jerome used to generate a sexual nightmare is borrowed by the Franklin to represent the interior thoughts of an extravagantly idealized lady. Although the result of such a process may be comics as it is in this passages we need not follow Mr. Gaylord in condemning the Franklin's strenuously paradoxical effort, Perhaps instead the rhetorical heroism involved in attempting to achieve the ultimate victory of the imaginations to make what is foul fair, to turn the abhorrent into the ideal, should be applauded.


Such a reversal seems to have been Chaucer's intention in the tale which can and often has been read as an antithetical response to the Merchant's Tale. The resemblances between the two tales area as C. Hugh Holman has remarked. “ …almost too self evident to need enum­eration. In each are three main characters: a husband‑knights his wife and a squire who is the would‑be lover of the wife: In each., the squire., wasting away for love of his lady makes known his passionate desires; In each the husband is temporarily removed from the scene .... In each a major crisis hinges on supernatural happenings .... In each a garden plays an important part as the intended place of rendezvous,... In each the wife is finally restored to her husband.” 21 The central contrast between the two tales involves the potentially adulterous relationships which remains ideal and unconsummated in the Franklin's Tale, but which is consummated in the Merchant's Tale, partaking of abhorrent sacrilegious and excremental overtones, If the Franklin in his attempt to oppose the notion of sexuality as nightmare, felt the need to use adynata of plot, character, and rhetoric, the critic who chooses to examine "moral assumptions" or "probability of characters and action" would seem to have gone considerably astray.

Perhaps the most improbable of Dorigen's responses occurs just before her complaints when Aurelius informs her that he has removed the rocks from the coast of Brittany. Instead of submitting Aurelius' assertion to a testy by going to look at the coasts she almost immediately breaks into her complaint. The reason for her lack of interest in testing verbal assertions in the phenomenal world is, I suggests that in the aristocrat­ic worlds as the Franklin idealizes it, everyone tells the truth, and to challenge anyone's word would be unthinkable. As Arveragus says in the midst of his pains, “Trouthe is the hyeste thyng that man may kepe (7.479)," Each of the four characters in the tale keeps his word under the most difficult circumstances., not because of an inability to establish priorit­ies for promises but because the Franklin requires such behavior, of the exquisitely impossible creatures of his imagination.

A n amusing illustration of the degree to which the Franklin's charac­ters are able to overcome difficult circumstances occurs after Arveragus has directed his wife to fulfill her promise; the assignation between Aurelius and Dorigen takes place in a gardens in the middle of winter. Clear­ly the Franklin's imagination requires that the passions of aristocrats be sufficiently spiritual to transcend meteorological exigencies.

The inconsistent or, more exactly, the improbable behavior of the characters in the Franklin's Tale can be accounted for by considering the tale as a product of the idealizing, Epicurean imagination of its teller. That Chaucer was sympathetic to the Franklin's imaginative excesses seems likely when we compare the Franklin's Tale to the Merchant’s Tale, when we consider Chaucer's ironically indulgent attit­ude towards the hyperbolae of his persona both in the Prologue and in the Tale of Sir Thopas, and when we consider the kinds of fantasy Chaucer uses in the Marriage Group and in the Canterbury Tales as a whole. A severely judgmental attitude towards the Franklin such as Mr. Gaylord makes is clearly the result of overlooking the central aspect of the poems articulated by Aurelius when he responds to the task Dorigen sets for him:


"Madame." quad he, "this were an inpossiblel"





W. H. Schofield, 4Chaucer's Franklin's Tale,'4 PMIAs XVI (1901)


pp, 406., 448.



G. L. Kittredge., Chaucer's Discussion of Marriagey'i MPG IX (1912)


p. 161.



Donald R. Howard “The Conclusion of the Marriage Group,” MP., LVII (1960) p, ?‑33; Helen S. Corsas Chaucer, Poet of Mirth and Morality, Notre Dames 1964, p, 181 Gerhard Joseph "The Franklin's Tale: Chaucer's Theodicy,”

Chaucer Review,I (1966) p, 32.                                                                                       



in Chaucer, A Critical Appreciation Durham 1958 p. 132.




"'The Promises in the Franklin’s  Tale.' ELH, XXXI (19610: p, 334.



All references to Chaucer are to F. N. Robinson's edition, Cambridge 1957





0p. cit, P• 347.



Ibid. P• 356.



See Robert P. Miller, “Chaucer's Pardoners the Scriptural Eunuchs and


the Pardoner's Tale,” Speculum (1955) pp. 180‑199.



Op. cit., p, 267,



See Maurice Hussey, Chaucer's World A Pictorial Companion. Cambridge,


1968 p, 29.



“Dorigen's Complaint,” MP CLV (1947), p, 36, n,3,



Chaucer and the French Tradition, Berkeley., 1957, p. 222.




. cit.'.Pp• 42s 44.



"The Clerk's Tale: The Monsters and the Critics," MP, LI (1953‑54).,


p. 73.



4Chaucer at Work on the Complaint in the Franklin's Tales"‑' MIN, LII


(1937) p. 21.



Ibid o 3 PP. 22‑«2,'j.


18 .

"the Concept of Order in the Franklin's Tale,' PQ.., XXXVTII (1959)


p. 122.




St, Jerome' as a Satirist, Ithaca, 1964, pp. 157‑58.




Ibid,, p, 158,




C, Hugh Holman,"Courtly Love in the Merchant's and Franklin's Tales,'k ELH, XVIII (1951) ., g. 212,