Thursday, September 19, 2019
Whats Really Being Tested in The Clerks Tale? :: Chaucer Canterbury Tales
By any contemporary standards of behavior, Griselda actions are reprehensible; not only does she relinquish all semblances of personal volition, she deserts all duties of maternal guardianship as she forfeits her daughter and son to the--in so far as she knows--murderous intent of her husband. Regardless of what we think of her personal subservience to Walter, the surrendering of her children is a hard point to get around. Even the ever-testing Marquis himself, at his wife's release of their second child says he would have suspected her of malice and hardness of her heart had he not known for sure that she loved her children (IV 687-95). It is little wonder our students, in whom we try to foster a sense of personal responsibility and human sensitivity, initially find Griselda an insipid and morally reprehensible wimp. But we retrieve patient Griselda for them. Or at least we try. We say "this tale is not about a real woman: look, it is in rhyme royal. That meant something special to Chaucer. The tale's stanzaic form signals a tale of high moral, even religious, sentence; its flat characterization and formulaic epitaphs distance Griselda and Walter from real people." Then bowing toward Petrarch and siding with the Clerk, we say this tale is not about wives' duties to their husbands; it is about the duty of the human soul to God. As Griselda was to the tests inflicted upon her by Walter, so should we be to the adversities visited upon us by God. And so is Griselda redeemed for real women. But is she--really? If we look very carefully at the language used as Walter frames the rationales for his intent for testing Griselda, we find that it is not for the proving of her pre-marital vow per se that he put her thorough his series of contemptible and humiliating ordeals. True to its title, Petrarch's A Legend of Wifely Obedience and Faith (De Obedientia ac Fide Uxoria Mythologia) clearly and consistantly pictures Walter testing his wife for her fidelity and conjugal love promised before their marriage. Chaucer's Walter, however, more often frames his designs as trials of "sadnesse," "corage," or, ultimately, "wommanheede" (IV 452, 787, 1075). The result is that in the Clerk's tale, Griselda is tested not so much for her marital fidelity as she is for her womanly virtue. And the implications of this may be as frightening as the thought of a mother adandoning her children to the hands of a murderer.