Essay on The Canterbury Tales: The Clerk's Tale

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Middlebury College
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Many scholars have debated for long about Chaucers Clerks Tale in a bid to come up with a more consistent view or meaning in a story that has various ambiguities. Clerks tale is ambiguous in meaning as can be deducted from the sympathetic narration style, Petrarchs allegorical depictions, and a deep humanization of characters. Chaucer invests heavily in characterization; the degree of realism with which Griselda is presented, her genuine sincerity and affection towards her husband comes out seamlessly hence she receives the readers compassion. On the other hand, Walters character manifests as a cruel and controversial man. These features are meant to provide varied views depending on how they are interpreted in context. Despite these conflicting views that manifest in Chaucers Tale, the majority of scholars have agreed that the thinly veiled but dominant lesson that comes out of this tale revolves around Griselda, how her husband Walter treats her, and how she reacts to these treatments (Sprung 349). The interpretations of this story have always been different. Some scholars have asserted that Griselda and Walters story in Clerks Tale is a biblical allegory that depicts how a married woman should behave in a marital union. Others have argued that this tale is about a clash of social classes and the oppression of women in a male-dominant society.

Due to the variations involved in such interpretations and understanding of Chaucers Clerks Tale, Gail Ashton proposes that the manner in which Griselda is presented is meant to show that this is her story and not Walters. The difficulties she goes through in her marriage with Walter, taking into consideration the difference in their social backgrounds, have something to be understood of women in the old times (Ashton 232). Griseldas commitment and submission to the cruelty that Walter puts her through have led this story to be interpreted or explained as a Christian allegory. The positions held by feminists as far as this story is concerned is that Walters cruel treatment of Griselda depicts not only the actual treatment but also the patriarchal view of womenfolk in the middle ages. An analysis of J. Burke Severs views on the same tale as well as the outcome of some historical events such as the Peasants Revolt in 1381, it becomes clear that Griseldas story appears to be a more subversive tale than what feminists and allegorical analysts think.

When viewed from another lens, Clerks Tale showcases the clash of social classes. The peasantry class is represented by Griselda while Walter represents the feudal aristocracy class. Vladimir Propp (Goldberg and Gilet 87) and Jack Zipes offer an intriguing definition of The Clerks Tale within the fourteenth-century historical frameworks and come up with a view that this story is about the conflicts associated with the social stratifications in the societies of old. Their view is shared and confirmed by Stephen Knight, in his Geoffrey Chaucer, that the tensions between the two social classes outweigh the fault line of social equilibrium (Knight 110). Knight also uses the Peasants Revolt which is an actual historical event to support his claim of the tensions that are observed between the two classes.

From another perspective, Michael Hanrahans analysis of the same tale leads to an interpretation that The Clerks Tale is simply well crafted political commentary. With an entire focus on Walter, he proposes that the preexisting political situations at the time, particularly during the reign of Richard II, were embodied in Walters character. From Hanrahans argument, Walters situation from the start of the story was the also kingdoms lack of a son who would be an heir to the kingdom. This bore a resemblance to Richard II familial situation. Hanrahan implies that the Clerks Tale resembles a rulers obligation to procreate as had been translated from the final reign of Richard II. The issues surrounding succession and inheritance are great significance to rulers. The heirless realm of the Ricardian rule provided Chaucer with an opportunity to imagine possible alternatives to the king and the heirless situation. Hanrahan later suggests in his article, that The clerks Tale talks largely about the study of governance. He defies what other scholars had put forward earlier that Griselda was the central figure in Clerks Tale.

William McClellan wrote an article about this tale. He claims, in his article that in a narrative, there are multiple voices interacting within the story to bring out layered meanings. McClellan asserts that Chaucer experimented his skills with a multi-voiced narrative discourse. The differing sounds present in the story present increased complexity and meaning of The Clerks Tale. He insists that the story opens peoples interpretations beyond the myopic view and, and is also a symbolic representation of government.

Although some readers would want to borrow McClellans assumption of moral allegory or an epitome of spiritual constancy, some elements from Clerks Tale seem to discourage women from following the style of Submission that Griselda exhibits. Chaucers controversy continues in that, despite wanting Griseldas situation to be understood as the proper way in which a Christian or superwoman should behave, the envoy to Chaucers contribution urges the woman not to follow Griseldas stance. Wendy Harding sympathizes with the readers of this tale because of possible challenges that they might face in making conclusions from this story. Harding thinks that the story should resemble how God tests the soul and the unwavering faith that Christians should show during adversities (Harding 167).

From this tale, Chaucer makes it clear that the source for his story is Fable of Obedience and Wifely Faith written by Petrarch in Latin. The same was also a derivation from Boccaccios Decameron.' These stories portray the traditions that were existed even before the reign of Richard II. The role of the wife as per the traditions was total obedience and submission irrespective of whether or not the husband was doing the same. From a personal perspective, I would like to interpret this story in a rebuttal perspective. Sometimes, people tend to go too far and complicate things in the name of getting the underlying meaning, which is not a big problem. The problem is missing something so basic through complicated means. Chaucers intention in the Clerks tale through Griselda and Walter revolves around the marital wrangles, conflicts, challenges and the abilities to overcome them in the long run. It represents long-term oppression and the long journey towards liberation. The strength of perseverance and constancy of will always results in something to be proud of. In the Last section of Clerks Tale, Griselda reunites with her family and children after facing a long battle for liberation. Her victory remains when the story ends. Even though the Clerk states that women should not follow the humility and patience Griselda showed, she receives praise as she finally rejoices in liberation.

Works Cited

Ashton, Gail. "Patient Mimesis: Griselda and the Clerks Tale." The Chaucer Review

32 (1998) : 232.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. "Clerks Tale." The Canterbury Tales. In The Riverside Chaucer.

3rd. ed. Ed. Larry Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Goldberg, Christine, and Peter Gilet. "Vladimir Propp And The Universal Folktale: Recommissioning An Old Paradigm: Story As Initiation." Western Folklore 58.1 (1999): 87. Web.

Hanrahan, Michael. "A Straunge Succesour Sholde Take Youre Heritage: The Clerks

Tale and the Crisis of Ricardian Rule." The Chaucer Review 35.4 (2001) : 335-344.

Harding, Wendy. "Function of Pity in Three Canterbury Tales." The Chaucer Review

32 (1997): 167-170.

Knight, Stephen. Geoffrey Chaucer. New York (N. Y.: Basil Blackwell, 1986. Print.

McClellan, William. "Bakhtins Theory of Dialogic Discourse, Medieval Rhetoric

Theory, and the Multi-Voiced Structure of the Clerks Tale." Exemplaria 1.2

(1989): 483-485

Severs, J. Burke. The Literary Relationships of Chaucers Clerkes Tale. Hamdon :

Shoe String Press. 1942.

Sprung, Andrew. "If It Youre Wille Be: Coercion and Compliance in Chaucers

Clerks Tale." Exemplaria 7.2 (1997): 349.

Zipes, Jack. Grimm Legacies: The Magic Spell of the Grimms' Folk and Fairy Tales. , 2016. Print.

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