A Woman in the Mind's Eye (and not): Narrators and Gazes in Chaucer's Clerks's Tale and in Two Analogues

Robin WaughPhilological Quarterly. Iowa City: Winter 2000.Vol. 79, Iss. 1;  pg. 1, 18 pgs

 

Subjects:

Literary criticism,  Poetry,  Philology,  Gender

People:

Chaucer, Geoffrey (1340?-1400)

Author(s):

Robin Waugh

Document types:

Feature

Publication title:

Philological Quarterly. Iowa City: Winter 2000. Vol. 79, Iss.  1;  pg. 1, 18 pgs

Source type:

Periodical

ISSN/ISBN:

00317977

ProQuest document ID:

76813714

Text Word Count

7190

Document URL:

http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=76813714&sid=7&Fmt=3&clie ntId=24632&RQT=309&VName=PQD

 

Abstract (Document Summary)

Versions of the Griselda story by Petrarch, Geoffrey Chaucer and Christine de Pizan present an opportunity to investigate the connections between one's gaze and one's desire and between one's gaze and one's sex. Chaucer's complex portrayal of gazing as a strategy within both narrative and language in the "Clerk's Tale" allows him to both promote and undercut the typical male gaze, and to present his version of Grisilde as an unexpectedly aggressive gazer who works from a superior vantage-point and who is surprisingly able to defeat the gazes of characters, narrators and readers.

Full Text (7190   words)

Copyright University of Iowa Winter 2000

As soon as one realizes that the act of seeing leads to selfconscious apprehension of spaces, distances, subjects, others, subjects as others, and others as subjects, this type of act raises questions concerning the connections between one's gaze and one's desire and between one's gaze and one's sex.1 Versions of the Griselda story by Petrarch, Chaucer, and Christine de Pizan present an opportunity to investigate these kinds of connections, for (obviously), one account has a female author and narrator, while the other two have male authors and narrators. The various retellings of this legend have often been compared, often in great detail;2 however such studies tend to investigate the non-- Chaucerian versions as possible sources for the Clerk's Tale, a process that leaves out Christine, and very few critics have examined the particulars that distinguish acts of gazing one from another in these three versions of essentially the same story.3 These differences provide the basis for my discussion of the Clerk's Tale and are in one respect remarkably predictable: through descriptions of gazing (and through other means) Christine offers a more feminist account of the events than her male counterparts. Nevertheless, Chaucer's complex portrayal of gazing as a strategy within both narrative and language in the Clerk's Tale allows him to both promote and undercut the typical male gaze, and to present his version of Grisilde as an unexpectedly aggressive gazer who works from a superior vantage-point and who is surprisingly able to defeat the gazes of characters, narrators, and readers.

All of the authors/translators that I discuss here feel free to alter their sources, often broadly, and Christine de Pizan, taking Petrarch's Epistolae smiles 17.3 as her chief source,4 radically changes entire gazing situations-even gazing possibilities. For instance, her account of Gliselidis in Le Livre de la cite des dames, as one might expect in a composition that polemically defends women against anti-feminist literature,5 makes fewer references to the heroine's beauty than the versions with male narrators, though it is still there. Correspondingly, Christine omits most of the moral qualities that Valterius has in Petrarch's Epistola, yet she retains the observation that the marquis is bel de corps, "good looking" (2.50.1, 900). Christine's narrator introduces Gliselidis by her singularity, her age, and her service to her father through work (901), whereas Petrarch's account introduces her by her desirability: unica illi . . . Griseldis nomine, forma corporis satis egregia (260), "an only daughter ... called Griseldis, remarkable enough in physical beauty." The Petrarchan narrator's discriminating eye for feminine beauty asserts his masculinity and assumes the cooperation of a male audience (who presumably would know how much beauty is enough). Valterius then joins this community of masculine gazers when his assessment of Griseldis matches the narrator's in its superior attitude: he In hanc virgunculam . .. quandoque oculos non iuvenili lascivia sed sendi gravitate defixerat (260) "upon the girl ... had sometimes glanced with his eyes, not with the lust of youth, but with the more serious considerations of a mature man."6 Christine reduces but does not eliminate the idea of seeing in the marquis's action when Gualtier comes into her version of the story "perceiving," avise firstly Gliselidis's "virtue and honesty," les bonnes meurs et l'onnestete (2.50.1, 901) and secondly her beauty. As opposed to Petrarch, Christine mentions no gaze as the story begins; in fact, instances of gazing are so vastly reduced as to be almost nonexistent after the marquis's initial assessment of his future bride. In contrast, Petrarch's (and Chaucer's) versions use the separation between the narrator's, the public's, and Valterius's gaze as a major theme of the tale: the discriminating ability of the marquis overshadows the surface assessments of the populace (260), the testing of his wife takes place under his nearly constant scrutiny (276, 286), and the story's distinct gazing communities are at last reunited in the communal appreciation of the beauty of his children (284-86), who represent (among other things) a mingling of the public and private "virtues" of both parents.

Christine removes all of these references to sight, and, unlike Chaucer, lets many opportunities to expand on incidents of gazing slip by-until the reunion scene, when she seems to appropriate the gaze of men and give it to a woman. Before Gliselidis recognises her children, tant se tiroit voulentiers vers la pucelle et vers le fils que partir ne sen povoit, et regardoit ententivement leur biaute que elle moult louoit (2.50.3, 908), "she was attracted so steadily to the girl and boy that she could not go away, and assiduously gazed at their beauty, which she praised much." This attraction is not in the source (cf. 284), so the heroine's appreciation of the children's beauty in the Livre seems to originate in maternal emotion. Her powers of recognition persist despite the fact that her children are taken from her as infants, that years have passed, and that the children are reintroduced to her with concealed identities. One may contrast this treatment of Gliselidis's maternal feelings with those that Petrarch implies in his most conspicuous gaze-image. When Griseldis seems to be about to lose her son, she hands him over while diuticule oculis inherens (274) "clinging [to him] for a short time with [her] eyes." The image is slightly downplayed in the anonymous French translation that Severs includes with Petrarch's Epistola: un petit longuement le regarda (275). Eyes get no mention. Christine, on the other hand, removes the motif of the motherly eye from its original spot altogether and places it just before the recognition scene, where it makes her heroine look almost prophetic. In addition, the removal of the one distinguishing feature from the abduction of Griseldis's male child makes Gliselidis's love for her children more equally distributed between the two sexes, for the two abductions become virtually identical. Petrarch's gaze-image, in its situation, comes over as merely sentimental.7 Through Christine's innovations, one may see that she reworks the gazetheme in her version of the story so that the (revised) legend may support the attitudes on view in her Livre. the virtues of women and their more abstract qualities, as opposed to those (such as appearance) that tend to work within male conceptions of idealized love-objects.

I realise that I have dealt with Christine's version of the Griselda story rather schematically, but I think that this kind of reading suits her ambitions for the legend. My reading of Chaucer's Clerk's Tale must also begin rather schematically. I need to present a traditional treatment of the theme of gazing and show how this theme fits into a standard reading of the Tale before I can demonstrate how Chaucer not only asks for a traditional reading of his poetry from a male point of view but also disrupts this kind of reading. Certainly he places the heroine in the male gaze, in contrast to Christine and in spite of his use of virtually identical sources to hers. Furthermore, habits of sight make up a considerable part of the description of his marquis, as Chaucer builds on Petrarch's sight-theme by interposing, between the story and the audience of the poem, a narrator who possesses a gaze, and who comments upon the gazing of others.

At first, the clerk's commentary seems to be overtly masculine, as he seems to identify with his "hero." He and Walter together perceive Grisilde's virtues in a stanza that contains five verbs of seeing (232-38), and the narrative largely follows the earlier ones of the story as Walter's glance supposedly demonstrates discernment and intelligence.8 This marquis first sees Grisilde's "wommanhede" (237-38), as if he wants to see inside her with a morally superior "eye of the heart,"9 and his heightened insight receives emphasis from his higher vantage-point on horseback, which implies that his ability to see what the public cannot comes from social superiority.10 However, the reader gets more and more uncomfortable with the marquis's acts of gazing, as the testing of the heroine becomes more and more outrageous; as the hiding of information from Grisilde and the public becomes more and more paranoid (while less and less credible).11 Grisilde's triumph at the end of the tale and the clerk's condemnation of her ordeals prove that Walter's gaze is merely one more expression of (and implement of) the sadism at the heart of this legend (237-38, 25657), and Grisilde's victory strongly implies that her social rise contradicts the "characteristic" powers of the nobility that the marquis likely represents: he is much less virtuous than she is despite her lowly origins. These disparities make Chaucer appear to subject the very notion of social "betters" to searching criticism.12

Yet this treatment of sight as a theme of the tale leads readers into two problems. Walter's insight into Grisilde's character remains an undefined concept: how exactly does he (or anyone) see her qualities, and why does Chaucer insist on a visual faculty as the means of the marquis's knowledge of her virtue? In any case, the testing undercuts Walter's special insight by suggesting that he does not trust this insight. Also, despite Augustine's references to an "eye of the heart," experience tells one that to actually see someone's moral qualities is impossible,13 even if Walter finally seems to gain his desire when he "sees" in Grisilde an abstract virtue along with the countenance that he usually surveys: "And whan this Walter saugh hire pacience, / Hir glade chiere, and no malice at al" (1044-45). If this compulsive tester merely notes Grisilde's behavior when he sees her patience, then why has he not observed it before? Her behavior does not change in the tale.

The second problem is related to the first, and shows how thematic interpretations of the Clerk's Tale frequently lead to its oft-lamented interpretive crux. By not defining Walter's insight into his bride's virtue and by vilifying Walter's exercise of this ability (621-23), the poem risks condemning powers of perception altogether. One sees this effect in the characterization of the heroine. If Grisilde is the moral center of the tale, with Walter's and the public's gaze both condemned for different reasons but from the same standpoint of moral superiority (701-10, 9951004), her heroism amounts to lack of sight and only duty: a wholly spiritual duty that seems to exist outside of an ability to perceive; a duty that therefore cannot be learned from others. If she has spiritual knowledge, then where does she obtain it and how would she communicate it? If only through example, then her example is as cruel in its way as Walter's tests. The logical conclusions of Grisilde's supposed duty to be insentient occur most obviously when she "for wonder... took no keep" (1058) of Walter's kiss and embrace as he finally announces a halt to the testing. She is also unable to hear what he says (1059)-perhaps a positive step within the confines of her horrifying marriage, but this conclusion means that the poem appears to advocate insentience, or else advocate a superior sort of perception that receives no definition. 14 Yet, despite the difficulties in interpreting Grisilde's personality, this outrageously passive character seems to be the hero of the tale according to the clerk. His criticism of Walter leaves no alternative.

Critics try to resolve the contradictions at the heart of Chaucer's Clerk's Tale by trying to absolve Grisilde from total passivity, but sometimes, in making a case for her assertiveness, they downplay the emphatically male viewpoint of the poem, one of its very few consistencies. This gaze begins the poem, continues through it, and even persists through the various endings, because the narrator of this particular Griselda story cannot help but be a gazer himself, even as he criticizes the marquis. For the clerk, Grisilde is "fair ynogh to sighte" (209). He mentions her beauty before he mentions her name and says that she has "vertuous beautee" (211) and is "faireste under sonne" (212). He assumes that the public's gaze is male (988-91). Chaucer therefore seems to uphold a community of masculine gazers, thinkers, and readers through the opinions of his clerk. Not only does the narrator address a male audience in general, but he also has a particular kind of masculine audience in mind. As Carolyn Dinshaw and Seth Lerer notice, when the clerk seems to appreciate the story's landscape through Petrarch's eyes during the prologue to the tale (43-56), he expresses a desire to place his audience in "the brotherhood of literate men of all times and all places," a brotherhood that excludes women and the unlearned, and thus refashions his audience into a group of learned and literary male tourists, with Petrarch, who was familiar with this countryside by sight, as their particularly authoritative literary colleague and "companion" for the escapade.15 A passage like "Houses of office stuffed with plentee / Ther maystow seen, of deyntevous vitaille / That may be founde as fer as last Ytaille" (264-66), with its direct address to the audience and with its emphasis on seeing (Chaucer's addition), keeps the clerk's travelogue running throughout the Tale,16 so that the travellers seem to cooperate in the legend's telling. Even when the narrator addresses the women in his audience (696-97), asking them to judge if Walter's trials have gone far enough, he hives them off from the brotherhood of men by provoking debate between the sexes, and he puts them in Grisilde's place by challenging them to endure the story's extremes without complaint. The male view dominates.

I realize that here I part company with some of the poem's critics. For instance, I agree with Dinshaw that the clerk demonstrates sympathy with Grisilde, that he sometimes connects with the heroine, and that he "breaks th[e] man-to-man structure of clerkly translatio with his 'But' turned toward women" at the end of the tale, so that the discourse rides off into "contradictions in suspension;"17 but not before this narrator establishes an overwhelming male tradition. His "identification with the female" is far less prevalent.18 For instance, lines 1086-87, "a pitous thyng it was to se / Hir swownyng," imply that the clerk witnesses Grisilde's great emotion himself, just as he witnesses the countryside in his traveller persona, which reappears at strategic points in the narrative (1112) and re-establishes the male perspective. The most strategic of these points comes near the end of the tale: "But o word, lordynges, herkneth er I go" (1163). Go where? The clerk/guide seems to disengage from his topic, from the "sight" (Grisilde) that has dominated attention so far, and to hint at a restarting of the Canterbury pilgrimage.19 The traveller voice then continues with "It were ful hard to fynde now-a-dayes / In al a toun Grisildis thre or two" (1164-65). The visual image of a cluster of Griseldas in a town is bizarre to contemplate; but the Grisilde-countryside-journey connection recalls a motif established earlier by the clerk through the use of identical rhymes. Both couplets are parts of scene-setting prologues (at the start of the tale and at the start of Part Two). The first prologue leads into the story's setting, "And many another deli table sighte, / And Saluces this noble contree highte" (62-63); the second leads into the description of Grisilde, "A doghter hadde he, fair ynogh to sighte, / And Grisildis this yonge mayden highte" (209-10). The Tale thus establishes her as a wonderful "sight" that the people of Saluces and the audience of the poem might be amazed at, and then underlines this connection (332-34, 419- 20, 894-96). But the clerk virtually destroys any individuality that his legendary heroine might have with the vast understatement of the "Grisildis thre or two" image that makes her so common as to resemble women in any of the towns between London and Canterbury. Although only a few lines earlier he seemingly denies the usefulness of type-- characters (1142-48), he now super-charges his Grisilde with type-- ness. The suggested mini-pilgrimage to look for two or three Griseldas in town even hints at sexual tourism.

However, despite the fact that male narrators and audiences dominate through most of the poem, one may not dismiss Chaucer as anti-feminist and firmly on the side of misogynist medieval writers. The dominating gaze receives implied criticism from the clerk. At many junctures, his bombastic attacks upon the public gaze as capricious implicate the brotherhood of travellers as well. Further implied criticism of the prevailing gaze occurs with the Earl of Panyk's appeal to the sense of sight upon his arrival in Saluces: "nevere was they seyn with mannes ye / So noble array in al West Lumbardye" (944-45). The passage strikes the reader as ironic because these pleasures for the eye amount to merely one of Walter's many deceptions. Moreover, as critics notice, Grisilde is less passive than she might appear and her subversive challenges to authority involve the use of her gaze. She certainly begins the Clerk's Tale as an object of masculine attention, but soon the tables are turned when her powers of sight are stressed three times within five lines: "nevere erst ne saugh she swich a sighte... she were astoned / To seen so greet a Best come in that place / . . . For which she looked with ful pale face" (336-- 40). These references to gazing are Chaucer's additions to the previous accounts of the story.20 Suggestive of desire, they clearly depict Grisilde turning Walter into an object. Unlike the careful distinction between lustful and mature seeing that appears in all versions of this tale as a description of Walter's glance at his future bride, one has to assume, if one wishes to take such a view of the heroine, that she has no lust for Walter when she looks at him. Her ascetic disposition might lead one to think so (214, 228), but the narrator does not mention any lack of "likerous lust" here. He says that Grisilde is astonished "to seen so greet a Best" as Walter in her house (337-38). This emotion seems unlike lust, but does not preclude it, and her marriage might well allow her a chance at erotic adventure as well as a release from her life of poverty. So, she does not escape the gaze of men as she does in Christine's version, but she gives as good as she gets.21

Later the heroine's assertiveness goes so far that she defeats Walter's gaze completely: "whan this markys say / The constance of his wyf, he caste adoun / His eyen two" (667-69).22 Only Chaucer depicts Grisilde as effecting the eyes of her tormentor specifically at this juncture. Petrarch has Valterius averting his face rather than his eyes,23 and, typically for Petrarch, a similar aversion marks the height of Valterius's control over his wife's will and of his attempt for control over her emotions: when Grisildis greets the bridal party, she shows her servant-status with vultuque demisso reverenter atque humiliter (284 n. 25), "[her] face respectfully and humbly lowered." Perhaps Chaucer deliberately transfers this aversion image from a female to a male character in order to strengthen her and weaken him.24

A further defeat of the eyes, of the "ye," takes place when, as Colin Wilcockson notices, Walter changes from using the formal "ye" to using the informal "thou" in his speeches to Grisilde.25 Where modern English connects the gaze with "I" through the "eye" /"I" pun, Middle English may pun on "eye" and "ye,""you." Connections between the various meanings of "ye" in the tale: "eyes," "you" (plural and/or formal usage), and "yes," hold many possibilities for analysis; however, I wish to remain tentative in ascribing such puns to Chaucer because he makes no explicit connection between any of these words,26 and to transmit Walter's change from "ye" to "thou" into other aspects of the poem is to interpret the Clerk's Tale in a very "literary" manner. Nevertheless, the graphic equality of "ye" ("eyes") and "ye" ("you") is remarkable, and there seems to be punning on this dual meaning elsewhere in Chaucer's work, particularly in the Nun's Priest's Tale. The "he that wynketh, whan he sholde see" moral (3431) of this tale obviously relates to powers of sight, and the line previous to this one contains the word "ye" meaning "eyes." Ten lines later appears "But ye that holden this tale a folye." "Ye" in this line surely recalls the previous use of its graphic equivalent; then follows the intensifying pun of "fol-ye." The purpose of this wordplay seems to be satire of the gentle folk in the priest's audience (usually addressed with the formal "ye"). For instance, he describes the fox inciting Chauntecleer to close his eyes and crow as his father did: "Lat se; konne ye youre fader countrefete" (3321)? Four lines later comes "Allas, ye lordes, many a fals flatour" (3325) and four lines after that "Redeth Ecclesiaste of flaterye; / Beth war, ye lordes, of hir trecherye. / This Chauntecleer stood hye upon his toos, / Strecchynge his nekke, and heeld his eyen cloos" (3330-33). The repetition of "ye lordes," the repetition of "ye" in "flaterye" and "trecherye," and the sight imagery of "lat se" and "counterfete"-followed by the figure of a rooster in the ludicrously blind predicament of shutting his eyes against his natural predator-all strongly suggest a pun on "ye" that associates foolish blindness with class-consciousness and pride in one's ancestry. A "ye" ("you") and "yen" connection also occurs in the epilogue to the tale (3457-62). The priest compares tales that one hears with texts that one sees, and comments on an audience's ability to perceive the "doctrine" (3442) in both of these kinds of works (3424, 3438-43, 3457-62). The Merchant's Tale (2258-66, 2340-41, 2370-86) and Pearl (301-08) also include possible puns on "ye."27

This play of "ye"-meanings fits the defeat motif of the Clerk's Tale. Grisilde defeats the formal use of "ye" (that is, she defeats the formalization through language of such class structures as Walter represents and Chaucer satirizes) because her virtue is greater by far than her supposed social status. Her very existence is a strong statement against tyrants and against the class-system of medieval Europe in general. By causing Walter to avert his eyes, she defeats the gaze that is the maintainer of this social hierarchy,28 and she defeats the gaze that fixes a woman or other servile figure in discourse and in society. In fact, Grisilde defeats Walter's will in that she ends his capacity to say "ye," "yes." He becomes increasingly tyrannical through the course of the story. The moment that he changes his pronoun for her from "ye" to "thou" is the moment of banishment through his royal command of the best ruler Saluces has ever had, and he knows it (as his hidden feelings betray to the poem's audience). He must also know of the implicit denial of his authority that exists in her ability to endure his "tests" without any outward effect on her disposition. Meanwhile, her willingness to say an implicit "ye" to him, no matter what he asks, causes him at last to relinquish his disguises and to rule "properly."

Finally, she also defeats the "ye" that is the audience of pilgrims and the reading audience of the Canterbury Tales by becoming increasingly distant from these audiences' sensibilities during the course of the narrative. She lacks realism almost completely by the end of the story when the shifting points of view and shifting attitudes (1139-1212) distance her even further. These are "a test that Chaucer performs upon the sharpness of the pitying eye; the eye of the reader is asked to penetrate through the meretricious attractions of theatrical events and exercise itself upon the still but ever-receding point of Grisilde's person."29 By receding, she defeats the "you" that any literary work addresses when that work assumes an audience of readers for itself. Her capacity to defeat knows no bounds.

Yet one does not need to resort to elusive puns in order to perceive Grisilde's victory over her husband's gaze. At the casting out, her walk to her former home in only a shift would seem to be a blatant example of spectacle, but, as critics observe about Grisilde during this episode, her speeches to Walter are forceful deeds that belie an interpretation of her as a mere passive receiver of gazes and misfortune, and in fact this scene shows Grisilde becoming the agent of almost all of the activity, and visual activity in particular. She uses the passive voice, "Be seyn," in her request for a garment, and thus reverses the action of gazing so that being looked at seems more "active" than looking. The same passage features many verbs that describe Grisilde's movement: "turne," "wente," "walkyng," "go" (872-80). The poem does not describe anyone looking at her during the return. The people weep and "hire folwe" while Grisilde "fro wepyng kepte hire eyen dreye" (897-99; my emphasis), and the reversal of gazing roles continues as the poem uses "Ne skewed she" to define (negatively, through a process of elimination) her steadfastness (922).' Grisilde's passivity seems to emit from her like a halo, so that her father cannot even put her old coat on her (915-17), while the lookers are reduced to passivity and to the futile emotions of childishness. At the same time, Walter's gaze has been utterly defeated. From the moment of her stripping, the narrative does not describe him using his powerful gaze until the poem's climax: "And whan this Walter saugh hire patience" (1044).

Grisilde's face also defeats the gaze of her husband and of the populace because it remains the same in public as in private: "neither by hire wordes ne hire face, / Biforn the folk, ne eek in hire absence, / Ne skewed she that hire was doon offence" (92022). This consistency, while it contrasts with Walter's dual nature and therefore criticizes him implicitly, also demonstrates that Grisilde's so-called character, which amounts to chiefly her immovable face (despite the many interpretations of her), exists ultimately for the legend's audience alone, the only possible witnesses to the total and unrealistic consistency of this face /character. Through allusions to Petrarch, travel, learning, and female attractiveness, the clerk has already established the kind of audience that he has in mind, so this heroine is utterly different from Christine's Gliselidis in one significant respect: she is completely and only a work of art created by men, who fix her in their knowing gaze and admire her Mona Lisa-like inscrutability along with her statue-like beauty; who chisel her out of the cold stone of their attitudes to women.31 Of course such works of art are by their natures non-human and incredible. For instance, the artist demands absolute stillness from his model, and Grisilde supplies it with her wall-like facial expression. If one visualises many of her actions throughout the tale, they come over as set-pieces, thoroughly modelled: a young woman fetches water from the well (274-77) and walks home in her underclothes. The idealism and the power that she almost seems to radiate (240, 413, 440) are also typical artist's subjects.32 One need only examine medieval paintings of and illuminations of saints for examples. Although the tears and melodramatic emotions at the discovery scene (1047) would seem to be a repudiation of her previous "mystic blankness,"33 these emotions are also highly artificial in that they are typical of sentimental reunion scenes with mothers. Ironically, then, if the Petrarchan brotherhood is defeated by Grisilde, defeat comes at the hands of a product (a work of art) that the brotherhood created out of its desires.

Walter's desire for this kind of artist's fantasy is not superseded when he at last reveals his intentions to Grisilde. He claims that the purpose in hiding his children was "for to kepe hem pryvely and stille, / Til I thy [Grisilde's] purpos knewe and al thy wille" (1077-78). He can never know all of her will and therefore seems doomed to a life of peculiar fantasies. And Chaucer shows this masculine delusion about women for what it is when Harry Bailey wishes at the end of the Tale that his wife had heard the Griselda legend once (1212d), and then comments, "As to my purpos, wiste ye my wille; / But thyng that wol nat be, lat it be stifle" (1212f-1212g). Grisilde, as a personification of the "stillness" that Harry mentions, is an art object, a "thyng that wol nat be," in this final (according to most manuscripts of fragment 4) and rueful comment on the tale. Harry's paradoxical mood of desire for an ideal object, mixed with resignation to its unattainability, comes through as well in the tension between stillness and action that exists in Walter's orders concerning Grisilde's smock when she is cast out: "Lat it be stifle, and here it forth with thee" (891).

At one point, Chaucer seems to allow Grisilde to escape from the male fantasy of art and stillness, but only in a very abstract fashion. I do not wish to endorse Grisilde as a model for human behavior (although this is one possible moral for her legend as Petrarch and critics suggest and as the clerk notes), but the Clerk's Tale briefly offers support for its heroine as a morally superior being. During the casting out episode, she declares that she does not consider herself to be the lady of Walter's house, "The heighe God take I for my witnesse" . . . "But humble servant to youre worthynesse, / And evere shah whil that my lyf may dure, / Aboven every worldly creature" (821-26). "Heighe" is Chaucer's addition, as is "Aboven ... creature." These terms allow Grisilde to assign God the most exalted gaze and viewpoint,34 and they perhaps recall the description of death, "But as it were a twynkling of an ye," (if anyone's, God's eye) from line 37. She therefore seems to put herself in God's position, "heighe," with the last line in the stanza, for "Aboven" (parallel to "heighe") could refer to her life as readily as it does to Walter in the structure of the sentence "whil that my lyf may dure.... / Aboven every worldly creature." With this meaning, the phrase puts her above the action in "heigh style," in the place an author or narrator occupies while addressing kings (18) or composing highly literate, travelogue-like prefaces (41); in the place of the clerk, Chaucer, Christine, or Petrarch.

The "twynkling" at line 37, the height that Grisilde reaches, and the height that she assigns to God raise the possibility of God's gaze as dominant in this story, and these passages might rekindle arguments that the Clerk's Tale is an allegory. Despite allegorical readings of the Tale that bring in Old Testament typology, secular hagiography, lay piety, Mariology, and etc., Grisilde's endurance of unjust suffering connects her most obviously with Christ, and this interpretation is the only allegorical connection that the narrator seems to invite explicitly with his references to an ox's stall (291, 395-99).35 The ideas that would spring up from pondering this connection, such as God as impossible to like and distant; a woman, masochist, victim, slave, monster, wall, and void, are I believe meant to be disturbing and meant to provoke an audience into thinking about the role and action of God in the world and in such a legend. Thus, in some ways, the problems of the Griselda story and its contradictory gazes are longstanding philosophical problems. People often find the ideas of the reversal of sex roles, the reversal of social roles, the existence of suffering, the existence of God on earth, the existence of a presence that watches one's every move, and the existence of evil (particularly unpunished evil) difficult to accept. I think that Petrarch, Christine, and Chaucer all knew how provocative they were being in retelling this legend: Petrarch with his acknowledgement that the story divides its audiences,36 Christine with her participation in feminist debate, and Chaucer with his complex and contradictory treatment of the act of gazing, a treatment that continues through the complex and contradictory conclusion to the Tale. The clerk insists upon the artificiality of his heroine when he dismisses her as "deed" (1177), disqualifies her as a model for women (1142-- 43), and restores her to object status by describing her virtue as gold compared to brass (1166-67; 1117). A golden image of the saint-like Grisilde suggests a keepsake, a statue, perhaps a commemorative medal of her and of this part of the pilgrimage, which a gazer could look at whenever he wants. But the conclusion of the Tale is no simple retrenchment of male gazes. It cannot be when it is directed to the wife of Bath (1172), and when women maintain the "heigh" vantage point that Grisilde achieves earlier in the narrative throughout the multiple endings of the Tale; the clerk asks God to maintain the "secte" of the wife of Bath in "heigh maistrie" (1172-3; 1183).

Chaucer's version of the Griselda story thus consistently displays a masculine gaze, but occasionally and briefly acknowledges the existence of a competitive female one. These acknowledgements force male perspectives (and perhaps all perspectives) into a state of unresolved tension, and tension is the prevailing atmosphere of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrimage


 

Wild Laurier University

[Footnote]

NOTES

 

[Footnote]

1 See Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology, trans. Hazel E. Barnes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1966), 340-400;Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1978), 67, 73-77, 83, 88-89, 103-04; Laura Mulvey, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen 16 (1975); reprinted in Visual and Other Pleasures (Indiana U. Press, 1989), 19.

[Footnote]

2 The most important source- and comparison-studies for my purposes are J. Burke Severs, The Literary Relationships of Chaucer's Clerkes Tale (Yale U. Press, 1942), 337, 135-80; Robin Kirkpatrick, "The Griselda Story in Boccaccio, Petrarch, and Chaucer," in Chaucer and the Italian Trecento, ed. Piero Boitano (Cambridge U. Press, 1983), 231-48; Judith Bronfman, Chaucer's "Clerk's Tale": The Griselda Story Received, Rewritten, Illustrated (New York: Garland, 1994), 7-50; Anne Middleton, "The Clerk and His Tale: Some Literary Contexts," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 2

[Footnote]

(1980): 121-50; Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer's Sexual Poetics (U. of Wisconsin Press, 1989), 132-33. Dolores Warwick Frese is researching this topic further.

[Footnote]

3 Linda Tarte Holley, Chaucer's Measuring Eye (Rice U. Press, 1990) and Norman Klassen, Chaucer on Love, Knowledge and Sight (Cambridge: Brewer, 1995) examine sight as a theme in Chaucer's works, but the Clerk's Tale does not come under close scrutiny. On the subject of the gaze in this tale, the closest view to mine is that of David Wallace, Chaucerian Polity: Absolutist Lineages and Associational Forms in England and Italy (Stanford U. Press, 1997), 291.

[Footnote]

4 For Petrarch's Epistolae smiles 173, 1 use Severs, Literary Relationships, 254-92. I also use Severs's text (255-89) for the anonymous French version of Griselda's story from Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, MS fr. 12459. I use Maureen Curnow, ed. "The `Livre de la Cite des Dames': A Critical Edition," 2 vols. (Ph. D. diss., Vanderbilt U., 1975) for all quotations from Christine. All subsequent references will occur in the text and translations are my own.

[Footnote]

5 See Judith Laird, "Good Women and Bones Dames Virtuous Females in Chaucer and Christine de Pizan," Chaucer Review 30 (1995): 62, 68 For examples of studies of Christine's feminism, see the notes on page 69 of Laird's article.

6 The moral aspects of this look by Valterius occur in all versions of the story under investigation.

[Footnote]

7 At the abduction of Walter's son, Chaucer, like Christine, removes any reference to sight: The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), Clerk's Tale, lines 673-86 (subsequent references will occur in the text). Perhaps he wants to stress that Grisilde only has eyes for Walter. Certainly this omission shows that Chaucer carefully thinks about each character's use of a gaze and does not merely expand upon images of sight when he happens upon them, or whimsically insert them when they seem to suit his momentary designs.

[Footnote]

8 Both Chaucer and Christine seem to work from Petrarch's version together with a French translation of the Epistola, though Chaucer's French translation is almost certainly a different one from the one Christine uses. See Severs, Literary Relationships, 27; Earl Jeffrey Richards, trans. Christine de Pizan, The Book of the City of Ladies (New York: Persea, 1982), 265-66. One can only speculate that the two retellings of Petrarch's story diverge from the original so widely and also from one another because one author is male and employs a male narrator and the other author is female and employs a female narrator.

[Footnote]

9 See Augustine, De civitate Dei 22.29-30 for a discussion of the different kinds of sight. See also Eph. 1:18. A kind of supernatural sight appears also in job 19:2627, which makes the clerk's reference to Job even more apt (932).

10 See Wallace, Chaucerian Polity, 284. For the Clerk's and/or Chaucer's satire of Walter as a political figure, see Carl Lindahl, Earnest Games: Folkloric Patterns in the Canterbury Tales (Indiana U. Press, 1987), 150-51 and Wolfgang E. H. Rudat, Earnest Exuberance in Chaucer's Poetics: Textual Games in the Canterbury Tales (Lewiston: Mellen, 1993), 176-81.

[Footnote]

11 Walter's unique sense of sight also seems to work in reverse in that he plays a game of secrets with his people. He desires to conceal whatever is his desire, to

[Footnote]

the point that his concealment amounts to political, social, and individual abnegation of his responsibilities as ruler, husband, and father. See Patricia Cramer, "Lordship, Bondage, and the Erotic: The Psychological Bases of Chaucer's `Clerk's Tale,'" JEGP 89 (1990): 497; Rudat, Earnest Exuberance, 169-70, 175-76, 187-88. Walter's secret life suggests connections between him and such hypocrite as Faux Semblant in Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Roman de la Rose, ed. Ernest Langlois, 5 vols. (Paris: Societe des anciens textes francais, 1914-24), Book 11. 2326, 67, 219-22. See also Dinshaw, Chaucer's Sexual Poetics, 134, 141, 143.

[Footnote]

12 See Kathryn McKinley, "The Clerk's Tale: Hagiography and the Problematics of Lay Sanctity," Chaucer Review 33 (1998): 92.

13 Perhaps one may "see" a virtue only as a written text (Chaucer, the Nun's Priest's Tak, 3438,43), or as a work of art.

[Footnote]

14 Her ignorance of his kiss and embrace also allows her to maintain a separation from most physical expressions of love. For the difficulties in interpreting Griselda's actions as anything but "void of meaning," see McKinley, "The Clerk's Tale: Hagiography, 96,106. For another view of Griselda's insentience, see Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender (U. of California Press, 1992), 19-94, 205.

[Footnote]

15 Dinshaw, Chaucer's Sexual Poetics, 150; Seth Lerer, Chaucer and his Readers: Imagining the Author in Late-Medieval England (Princeton U. Press, 1993), 30; 28-29. See Middleton, "The Clerk and His Tale," 135, and Richard Neuse, Chaucer's Dante. Allegory and Epic Theater in The Canterbury Tales (U. of California Press, 1991), 222-27, who sees the clerk's relationship with Petrarch as "ambivalen[t]." See Chaucer's Dante, 226. In contrast to Lerer, I think that the appropriation of Petrarch's gaze by the clerk makes the Italian poet into a "maker" who goes beyond the status Lerer gives him: "only ... another maker for a locally and temporarily defined community." See Chaucer and his Readers, 30.

16 Severs, Literary Relationships, 145.

[Footnote]

17 Chaucer's Sexual Poetics 152-53 This relationship is not the only possible connection between the clerk and characters in the tale. See Rudat, Earnest Exuberance, 188-90.

18 Chaucer's Sexual Poetics, 137. 1 also disagree with Dinshaw and Lerer in their readings of the relationship between the clerk and Petrarch: Dinshaw says that the clerk's changes to Petrarch's version of the story hint at "aggression 11 toward the older "translator." See Chaucer's Sexual Poetics, 136. Certainly Chaucer's narrator makes much of the fact that the older poet is dead, but this fact is not as important as Petrarch's connection to the tale, to its environment, and to its audience. Dead, he nevertheless passes his mantle to the clerk. Cf. Lerer, Chaucer and his Readers, 30.

[Footnote]

19 See Neuse, Chaucer's Dante, 237.

20 See Severs, Literary Relationships, 262-63; Rudat, Earnest Exuberance, 160-64; Gail Ashton, "Patient Mimesis: Griselda and the Clerks TWA" Chaucer Review 32 (1998): 234.

[Footnote]

21 Grisilde's imitation of male activity in no way makes Chaucer into an egalitarian. The power of the male gazer persists through the tale. Cf. Wife of Bath's Prologue, 596-602, 723.

22 On Grisildis's defeat of Walter at this moment, see Rudat, Eanest Exuberance, 16064. Later still, at the casting out scene, Walter leaves her presence before she strips.

[Footnote]

23 The French text omits this action. Cf. the accounts in Severs, Literary Relationships, 274-75. Wallace notices that Grisilde defeats Walter's gaze, but he concentrates on Walter's political power in his reading of the tale. See Chauceyian Polity, 291.

24 The passage is probably not Petrarch's and may well not have been in the sources that Chaucer uses. See Severs, Literary Relationships, 284 n. 25.

 

[Footnote]

25 See Colin Wilcockson, "'Thou' and 'Ye' in Chaucer's Clerk's Tale," Use of English 31(3) (1980): 41; Chaucer, Clerk's Tale, 889.

26 See for comparison his laboriously explicit pun in the Miller's Tale, 3275-76 and R. A. Shoaf, "The Play of Puns in Late Middle English Poetry: Concerning Juxtology," in On Puns: The Foundation of Letters, ed. Jonathan Culler (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), 44-61; Archibald A. Hill, "Chaucer and the Pun-Hunters: Some Points of Caution," in On Language: Rhetorica, Phonologica, Syntactica, ed. Caroline Rose Duncan and Theo Vennemann (London: Routledge, 1989), 66-78.

[Footnote]

27 I use Pearl, ed. E. V. Gordon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953).

28 See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1979), 202,

29 Kirkpatrick, "The Griselde Story," 244. Michaela Paasche Grudin, Chaucer and the Politics of Discourse (U. of South Carolina Press, 1996), 178, says that the ending of the tale "revels in ... aperture rather than closure."

 

[Footnote]

30 See A. C.Spearing, Criticism and Medieval Poetry. 2nd ed. (London: Arnold, 1972), 95-96.

31 For discussion of the significance of Griselda's immovable expression, see Thomas H. Bestul, "True and False Cheere in Chaucer's Clerk's Tale,"JEGP 82 (1983): 500-14, Andrew Sprung, "'If it Youre Wille be': Coercion and Compliance in Chaucer's Cleek's Tale," Exemplaria 7 (1995): 350-52. For Griselda as a work of art, see Muriel Whitaker, "The Artist's Ideal Griselda," in Sovereign Lady.- Essays on Women in Middle English Literature (New York: Garland, 1995): 87-91.

[Footnote]

32 See Roland Barthes, S/Z (Paris: Seuil, 1970), 40-43.

33 Kirkpatrick, "The Griselde Story," 243. See Ashton, "Patient Mimesis," 235.

34 See Severs, Literary Relationships, 278-79, and see the Nun% Priest's Tale, 3217, for "heigh" as a vantage point where one may see widely, almost with divine omni

[Footnote]

science.

[Footnote]

35 Lynn Staley, "Chaucer and the Postures of Sanctity,' in The Powers of the Holy: Religion, Politics, and Genders in Late Medieval English Culture, ed. David Aers and Lynn Staley (Pennsylvania State U. Press, 1996), 241; cf. McKinley, "The Clerk's Tale: Hagiography," 106.

36 "Letter 17, 3, to Giovanni Boccaccio," trans. J. H. Robinson and W. H. Rolfe, in Chaucer. Sources and Backgrounds, ed. Robert P. Miller (Oxford U. Press, 1977), 139-40. As Severs says, Petrarch's discussion of the legend's reception actually makes up a second Epistola See Literary Relationships, 10-11.

 

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