After reading explications of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a student is likely to come away with the impression that the Franklin is the critics favorite punching bag. To the average reader in the modern English-speaking world, the Franklin comes across as surprisingly fair-minded and level-headed, noteworthy as the man kind and inventive enough to resolve the marriage cycle with a tale of decency and openness. The critics, however, often depict the Franklin as a man primarily concerned with upward mobility, finding in his tale a number of remarks intended to win over the nobility and subtly assert his own claim to a kind of nobility. The contrast between the fawning Franklin of certain critical approaches and the open-minded Franklin of the more pedestrian reader can probably be summed up in the word "bourgeois." Some critics find in the Franklin a good example of the less flattering qualities of the word, while modern American readers -- products of a society in which the bourgeois lifestyle is considered the norm -- tend to find in the Franklin an intelligence, style and tolerance often associated with the upwardly mobile or the middle class. His "everybody wins" approach to the problems of the romance might even be an example of what Marxists and anarchists used to decry as bourgeois liberalism.
It might be best to first clear up what exactly is meant when we speak of a Marxist critique. Marxist literary criticism is based largely on the Marxist paradigm of historical materialism: the idea that social and cultural institutions -- including art -- are the product of prevailing economic conditions (Murfin 157-158). Not only is the medium the message, Marxists argue, the medium is a commodity which...
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...served. Here, whether he likes it or not, the Franklin is forced to endorse the system of contracts which turns Dorigen into a commodity. The success of his story, and possibly the validity of the worldview which produces it, depends on the Franklin's ability to postpone the expression of his listeners doubts -- to postpone them indefinitely, if need be. Perhaps this is why the Franklin is so insistent, at tales end, on asking which character was most generous, and why he insists on hearing answers immediately. His tale of the elimination of maistrye has turned into a tale of people mastered not by each other but by a system of exchange. The best way to hide the maistrye of the marketplace is to offer the audience a chance to argue while directing them away from the shocking moment when the gentillesse of the marketplace tramples on free will and personal integrity.
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