Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales
- Length: 1734 words (5 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
Sit and Spin: Chaucer’s social commentary grows from so-called "intrusion" The relationship Geoffrey Chaucer establishes between "outsiders" and "insiders" in The Canterbury Tales provides the primary fuel for the poetry’s social commentary. Both tales and moments within tales describing instances of intrusion work to create a sense of proper order disturbed in the imaginary, structured universes presented by the pilgrims. The perturbances, conflicts born of these examples of, "intrusion into the inner circle," bear the responsibility for most of the ironic-comedic role reversal on which the Tales thrive. From the knight’s rape of a maiden in the Wife of Bath’s fantastic tale to Absolon’s jamming of a hot iron into Nicholas’ rectum in the Miller’s tale, examples of such invasion and inversion represent the foundations of most of the tales’ plots. Chaucer exposes his fundamental device in the opening stanza of the General Prologue. The first five lines of the poetry address only major natural forces—"Aprill with his shoures soote," (1) and, "Zephirus…with his sweete breeth" (5). Life forms, first grain and then birds, grow organically from these bricks of the earth. The poet creates a chain of existence molded into a comfortable hirearchy that culminates in "smale foweles maken melodye" (9) after the mountain of nature from which they were born jabs them into action. Man drops onto this finely constructed reality from an unrelated angle. The poet explains that Men, like birds, find Spring’s call irresistable and, "Thanne longen…to goon on pilgrimages" (12). However, people do not arise from the same flow of the narrative. Rather, they relate to it by feeling like the birds. Consequently, the appearance of Man in this first stanza presents The Canterbury Tales’ first example of intrusion and role-reversal. But the instance in which Man descends upon this happy structure could result from clumsy poetry. Perhaps the description tries to flow from the physics of the earth to the rise of Man and call for an evolutionary analysis of existence. Likely it does not. First of all, The Canterbury Tales could not have lasted so long as a classic of English literature if the introduction were so flawed as to misrepresent the point of the body as a whole. But, beyond this relatively simple, circumstantial point, no substantial evidence exists (once one looks past Chaucer’s noticable but far from momentous or strange ribbing of the Church) that indicates the poet proposed evolution centuries before Darwin sailed or that he sought to overturn any conventional institutions.
In fact, he seems more intent on displaying their separation from the natural state. And the old Christian conception of humanity conveniently segregated people from nature in similar fashion. So Chaucer’s introduction asserts and so his social satire continues throughout its tales. Man and his ways, like nature and hers, stumble outside of the well-designed configurations that we might like to superimpose on them. The Knight’s Tale represents the Tales’ most self-consciously structured story. In it the knight, who worries much about remaining sorties into the wrong territory generally lead to tragedy. Each of a series of such intrusions throughout the tale leads to disturbances which push towards the bloody climax. Theseus touches off the whole narrative by stepping outside of his own boundaries. The famous Athenean leader invades the tale’s protagonists’, Palamon and Aricte’s, homeland, Thebes. As the most notable noble involved in the war, Theseus wins. Consequently, the lonely survivors, Palamon and Arcite, find themselves forced far below the station that their "blood roial [royal]" (1018) would naturally secure for them. In this instance, Theseus’ transgression leads to Palamon and of the lowest holding cells possible, he situated their prison within a high tower. Consequently, Palamon and Arcite could spot Emily from their "purgatorie" (1226). Emily’s interloping beauty incites another fundamental switch in character interaction within the Knight’s Tale. The Thebians begin the story as friends, addressing each other as, "Cosyn myn" (1081). But almost immediately after Emily’s invasion "thurghout" Palamon’s "ye" (1096), the two knights fall into the conflict that dominates the rest of their lives. In under one hundred lines, Chaucer notes, "Greet was the strif and long bitwixt hem tweye," (1187). But two of the numerous changes born of the clash of inside and out in the Knight’s Tale present themselves as particularly interesting. The first remains primarily tethered to the earth. When both Palamon and Arcite manage to slide out of jail but return to Athens at risk of death, the two rise into battle with each other. In their exchange before the fight, Palamon assumes more of the martial, aggressive form generally attributable to Arcite who reveals himself as more placid and loving (though no less possessive of Emily as a goal). But this incident foreshadows the final step on the social pyramid that the Knight’s Tale describes. In this reversal, Palamon edges toward a martial disposition when he surprises Arcite in the woods and exclaims, "’Arcite, false traytor wikke,/ Now artow hent [caught]," (1580-1). But he is unarmed, and Arcite slides closer to a doctrine of Venus by sparing his life and saying he would kill his old friend were he not, "sik and wood [mad] for love" (1600). Chaucer indicates here that he will enthrone the gods at the peak of the power structure he has created as soon as Theseus stops the earthy war. At the beginning of the third narrative of the tale, Arcite, Palamon, and Emily each pray to a god—Mars, Venus, and Dianne—and symetrically organize the climactic confrontation of the poem. Arcite wishes to fight well, Palamon wants his love to triumph, and Emily desires to hunt and remain single. Each of the gods sides with his or her representative character, and, unlike other situations within the poem, each succedes, at least at some level. Arcite and Mars win the fight. However, Dianne and Emily grab some success when Arcite’s horse toses the knight who sustains fatal injuries and never gets a chance to consumate his new-won marriage. Finally though, some years later, Theseus hatches the plan through which love might finally overcome all of it obsticles and creates the situation where Emily and Palamon might wed, entrating the knight: "‘I trowe there nedeth litel sermonyng/ to make yow assente to this thyng/ Com neer, and taak your lady by the hond.’" (3091-3). The Knight’s Tale begins at a human level—wailing women interrupting Theseus’ procession with his new wife—and builds to an immortal conflict, checking the integrity of the social structure it is scaling along the way by testing the result of deviations from it. Consequently, the story functions as a figurative introduction to the whole of The Canterbury Tales. The General Prologue presents a format in which Chaucer can create social comedy, but it provides no justification for the poet’s sniping. For instance, when Chaucer comments in the General Prologue that the friar "hadde maad ful many a mariage/ Of yonge wommwn at his owene cost"(212-3), he remains noticably aloof and without the "auctoritee" (1) he so exalts in the Wife of Bath’s famous prologue. However, Chaucer solves his problem at length. The description of the havoc caused by straying from a fariy-tale strict and respected social order gives Chaucer a reason to make his snide comments. Simply, the poet devotes a couple thousand lines to explaining that his poetry aims at social commentary rather than just discontented insult. The Canterbury Tales flesh out their exploration of intrusion through other literary devices than plot twists. Chaucer also uses focused physical forrays into "the inner circle" in the text of his verse and in minor elements of his stories. These tangible interruptions fortify the technique of raising his comedy from inverted social situations. A slew of momentary, physical insertions arise throughout the Tales as reminders of the poetry’s plan. When Absolon rapes Nicholas with a searing poker in the Miller’s tale and when the university students have sex with all of the women in Symkin’s family in the Reeve’s Tale, Chaucer reminds his readers exactly what his stories describe with defined, actualized inner circle penetration. The rampant sex and rape found in The Canterbury Tales works harder than to simply supply a low comedy crowd-pleaser. Then, the poet further bolsters his argument with actual, textual insertions. Immediately following the Knight’s Tale of the neccesity of class integrity, the miller, spurred by the quickly-discarded device of inebriation, disrupts the pre-established social hirearchy that all of the poem’s readers would understand (in harmony with the host who protests the man’s brazeness) in his Prologue. He blurts out, "‘By armes and by blood and bones,/ I kan a noble tale for the nones,/ With which I wol now quite the Knyghtes tale.’" (3125-7). The miller succedes in asserting at least a temporary homogeneity on the group of pilgrims. He grabs his chance to speak and immediately reinforces the idea that the Knight’s Tale represents a secondary introduction or a sort of foreshadowing of the general plot of the complete body of The Canterbury Tales. Immediately after the nobleman finishes explaining why such events must not occur, the miller responds—hey, I am just as good as the knight. Of course, alcohol provides him with the courage to assert himself so effectively, and that essentially destroys any revolutionary overtones such a move might carry. But it does not completely dissipate the effect of the miller’s boldness. Rather, it focuses purer attention on the effects of disruptions in the societal food chain. Chaucer reminds readers of his social comedy in many ways. His method of creating situations in which class relationships are questioned or bent by forcing incongrous objects or people together represents the major device in his examination. But the work seems to remain no more than a study; the poet does not clearly indicate the direction of his humor. He appears to riducule everyone more or less evenly depending upon stereotypes which fit the characters’ station. Chaucer’s knight appears too straight and boring, his Wife too whorish and calculating, and his Summoner too evil. Perhaps he fancied himself as something of a relativist—he believed he could objectively assess each character in a humorous fashion. But that theory seems to discount some of the soul of his work. The only conflict he creates sparks between social classes, but he makes no winners or losers, no good or evil. So there exists a floating, amorphous quality to the poetry, perhaps born of Chaucer’s premature death.