Essay, Research Paper: Canterbury Tales And Marriage

Literature: Geoffrey Chaucer

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Chaucerís The Canterbury Tales, demonstrate many different attitudes and
perceptions towards marriage. Some of these ideas are very traditional, such as
that illustrated in the Franklinís Tale. On the other hand, other tales
present a liberal view, such as the marriages portrayed in the Millerís and
The Wife of Bathís tales. While several of these tales are rather comical,
they do indeed depict the attitudes towards marriage at that time in history.
D.W. Robertson, Jr. calls marriage "the solution to the problem of love,
the force which directs the will which is in turn the source of moral
action" (Robertson, 88). "Marriage in Chaucerís time meant a union
between spirit and flesh and was thus part of the marriage between Christ and
the Church" (Bennett, 113). The Canterbury Tales show many abuses of this
sacred bond, as will be discussed below. One example of corruption in marriage
is The Millerís Tale. This tale includes a lecherous clerk, a vain clerk, and
an old man entangled in a web of deceit and adultery construed by a married
women. It is obvious in this story that almost each of these characters show
complete disregard to the institution of marriage. The two men, Nicholas and
Absalon, both try to engage in adulterous affairs with Alison, the old manís
wife. Both of the men are guilty of trying to seduce Alison, which shows their
indifference towards the sanctions and laws of marriage. Still Alison, who
should be the wiser, also breaks the laws of marriage. She takes Nicholas
because she wants to, just as she ignores Absalon because she wants to. Lines
104- 2 109 of the Millerís Tale show Alisonís blatant disrespect for her
marriage to "Old John" and her planned deceit: "That she hir love
hym graunted atte laste, And swoor hir ooth, by seint Thomas of Kent That she
wol been at his commandment, Whan that she may hir leyser wel espie. Myn
housbonde is so ful of jalousie That but ye wayte wel and been priveeÖ"
On the contrary, Alisonís husband loved her more than his own life, although
he felt foolish for marrying her since she was so young and skittish. This, in
turn, led him to keep a close watch on her whenever possible. The Millerís
main point in his story is that if a man obtains what he wants from God or from
his wife, he wonít ask questions or become jealous. Apparently the miller
feels that the male is after his own sexual pleasure and doesnít concern
himself with how his wife uses her "privetee" as pointed out in lines
55-58: "An housbonde shal nat been inquisityf Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of
his wyf. So he may fynde Goddes foyson there, Of the remenant nedeth nat enquere."
Stories like the Millerís tale are still popular in todayís society, those
which claim that jealousy and infidelity arise from marriages between old men
and beautiful young women. 3 Another story which contains a rather liberal point
of view of marriage is The Wife of Bathís Tale. The wife of bath clearly has a
carefree attitude towards marriage. She knows that the woes of marriage are now
inflicted upon women, rather, women inflict these woes upon their husbands. In
setting forth her views of marriage, however, she actually proves that the
opposite is true in lines 1-3 in her prologue: "Experience, though noon
auctoritee Were in this world, is right ynough for me To speke of wo that is in
mariageÖ" The wife of bath, in her prologue, proves to her own
satisfaction that the millerís perception of marriage is correct, and then
declares that it is indeed acceptable for a woman to marry more than once. She
claims that chastity is not necessary for a successful marriage. She also
claimed that virginity is never even mentioned in the Bible, as is seen in the
lengthy passage of lines 59-72 of her prologue: "Wher can ye seye in any
manere age That hye God defended mariage By expres word? I praye yow, telleth
me. Or where comanded he virginitee? I woot as wel as ye, it is no drede,
Thíapostl, whan he speketh of maydenhede, He seyde that percept therof hadde
he noon: Men may conseille a womman to been oon, But consellyng is no
comandement. He putte it in oure owene juggement. 4 For hadde God comanded
maydenhede Thanne hadde he dampned wedding with the dede; And certes, if ther
were no seed ysowe, Virginitee, thanne whereof sholde it growe?" She later
asks where virginity would come from if no one gave up their virginity. Clearly,
the wife of bathís prologue is largely an argument in defense of her multiple
marriages than an attempt to prove her idea that "if society was
reorganized so that womenís dominance was recognized, society would be much
improved" (Williams, 72). Her prologue depicts women as "a commodity
to be bought and used in marriage, one whose economic and religious task was to
pay the debt in a society where Ďal is for to selle" (Robertson, 209).
However, she claims to have control over this process. For example, her first
three husbands gave her economic security in exchange for the sexual use of her
body. This "degradation of sexual life" in the culture is greatly
evoked, and supported by the Churchís command to "pay the debt"
(Robertson, 210). The wife of bath clearly rebels against male domination with
regards to her first three husbands but still accepts the ways in which she
survives economically. Overall, marriage for the Wife of Bath is much more than
sexual pleasure; it provides her with a "vast sense of power in the
exercise of her sovereignty; it makes her feel the godlike powers which the
serpent promised Eve would follow the eating of the appleÖ" (Rowland,
358). Through obstinacy, the wife of bath declares that a wife will achieve
sovereignty in marriage, which is good for both, the wife and husband, as a
womenís sovereignty provides for peace. She also 5 sees women as objects and
commodities to be purchased, which is probably why she has such a great lack of
respect for marriage. On the other hand, The Franklinís Tale is one story
which provides a tale about a marriage where the laws of courtesy rule. For
example, the knight in the tale promised his wife that he would never try to
dominate her or show any form of jealousy, and at the same time he would obey
any command she gave him. This is projected in lines 17-22 in The Franklinís
Tale: "Of his free wil he swoor hire as a knight That nevere in al his lif
he day ne night Ne shold upon hime take no maistrye Again hir wil, ne kithe hire
jalousye, But hire obeye and folwe hir wil in al, As any lovere to his lady shal."
Arveragus and Dorigenís love and respect for each other is apparent at many
places throughout the course of the tale. Dorigen reciprocates his vow to her in
lines 25-32 of The Franklinís Tale: "She thanked hym, and with ful greet
humblesse She seyde, "sire, sith of youre gentilesse Ye profre me to have
so large a reyne, Ne wolde nevere God bitwixe us tweyne, As in my gilt, were
outher werre or strif. Sire, I wol be your humble, twere wyf, Have heer my
trouthe, til that myn herte breste." Thus been bothe in quiete and in reste."
6 The franklin goes on to describe the blissful happiness between Arveragus and
Dorigen and goes as far as to say that married couples share a happiness that
someone who isnít married couldnít appreciate or measure. This occurs in
lines 75-77 of The Franklinís Tale: "Who koude telle, but he hadde wedded
be, The joye, the ese, and the properitee That is bitwixe an housbonde and his
wyf?" However, later in the story, the coupleís happiness takes a turn
for the worse when Dorigen makes a pledge of copulation to Aurelius in jest, and
Arveragus makes the noble decision to make Dorigen stand by her word. While one
might say the knight was foolish not to fight for his beloved Dorigen, it can be
argued that he knew the value of a promise and would go to great lengths to keep
his word and honor; both of these views were appreciated by the franklin. In
summation, comparing Alisonís adultery and infidelity to Dorigenís faithful
love to Arvegus and the wife of bathís attitude toward chastity or lack
thereof, we have seen Chaucerís The Canterbury Tales portray the concept of
marriages in several different ways.

Bibliography
Bennet, Henry. Chaucer and the Fifteenth Century. London: Oxford University
Press, 1942. 113. Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. The Complete Works of
Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. F.N. Robinson. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1933. 19-314.
Robertson, D.W. Concepts of Pilgrimage and Marriage. Critical Essays on
Chaucerís Canterbury Tales. Ed. M. Andrew. 1st ed. Buckingham: Open University
Press, 1991. 87-210. Rowland, Beryl. Companion to Chaucer Studies. London:
Oxford University Press, 1968. 358. Williams, George. A New View of Chaucer.
Durham: Duke University Press, 1965. 72. 7 Works Cited Bennet, Henry. Chaucer
and the Fifteenth Century. London: Oxford University Press, 1942. 113. Chaucer,
Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. F.N.
Robinson. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1933. 19-314. Robertson, D.W. Concepts of
Pilgrimage and Marriage. Critical Essays on Chaucerís Canterbury Tales. Ed. M.
Andrew. 1st ed. Buckingham: Open University Press, 1991. 87-210. Rowland, Beryl.
Companion to Chaucer Studies. London: Oxford University Press, 1968. 358.
Williams, George. A New View of Chaucer. Durham: Duke University Press, 1965.
72.
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