A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Canterbury: Chaucer’s Narrative Experiment Susie Phillips, Associate Professor of English
Tuesday mornings, 9:30-11:30 a.m., Norris University Center
This class will explore Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as a radical literary experiment, centuries ahead of its time. As we follow the pilgrims along the road to Canterbury, we will uncover the many ways in which Chaucer plays upon, and often frustrates, his audience’s social, religious and literary expectations. Indeed, by experimenting with character and genre, science and religion, philosophy and poetry, and above all, irony and humor, Chaucer transforms old, familiar stories into his new tales. Weekly lectures will examine individual tales, exploring how Chaucer’s “greatest hits” resonate with, and defy, their cultural, political, and literary context.
Two Chaucer websites:
http://sites.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/ The Geoffrey Chaucer Website—contains all things Chaucer related: historical background, lessons on Middle English, lessons on Chaucer’s language in particular (with a few recording), an interlinear translation of several of the tales, and a helpful glossary.
https://alanbaragona.wordpress.com/the-criyng-and-the-soun/ The Criyng and the Soun: Chaucer Audio Files—an archive of recordings performed by Middle English scholars of selections from the Canterbury Tales and several of Chaucer’s other poems read in Middle English. N.B.: The link to this site on the Geoffrey Chaucer Website is currently broken.
Some questions to consider as you read the Clerk’s Tale:
How well does the Clerk follow the Host instructions for his tale? What are we to make of the Clerk as a storyteller? How does his tale fit with the General Prologue description of him?
The word “wyl” recurs throughout the tale. What is at stake in the repetition of this word? Which characters maintain their will? Does Griselda in fact, leave all her will and liberty when she takes Walter’s clothing? Which particular moments in the tale highlight this question on the will?
What do you make of the characters in the Clerk’s Tale? With whom (if anyone) do your sympathies lie? With whom, ultimately, do the Clerk’s sympathies lie?
How does Griselda compare to Constance from the Man of Law’s Tale? How does this tale contribute to or complicate your sense of the gender politics of the Canterbury Tales as a whole?
What are the different reasons given—both by Petrarch (ventriloquized by the Clerk) and by the Clerk himself, both in the tale and in its envoy—for telling the story of Griselda? Which, if any, is said to be the “real” reason? How ultimately are we supposed to read this tale according to the Clerk—allegorically, ironically, as an exemplum? And how are we to interpret the envoy at the end of the tale?
Some questions to consider as you read the Prioress’s Tale and the Man of Law’s Tale
What are we to make of the connection between teller and tale in this instance? How is this story what we would expect from the Prioress, given the General Prologue description of her? How is it not? What specific moments in the text might reveal or dispel the Prioress’s “conscience” and charity?
How does the Prioress’s depiction of the Jews differ from the Man of Law’s description of pagans or Muslims?
What is the function of this kind of narrative? for the Prioress? for the pilgrims? for a medieval audience?
What kind of narrator is the Prioress? What is she trying to accomplish/teach? What are the features of her narrative style?
What do you make of the pilgrim’s response to the tale?
The Man of Law
What do you make of the Man of Law as a storyteller? How does he compare to other pilgrims we have read, to the Franklin, for example? What different kinds of knowledge does he possess/make a display of? What kinds of social issues does he address?
Is Constance an active or a passive heroine? Find a passage to support your view. You may want to compare descriptions of her to the way that the Man of Law comments upon the other women in the tale.
How does the Man of Law’s Tale contribute to or complicate your sense of gender politics in the Canterbury Tales?
How do you interpret the Man of Law’s depictions of pagans and Muslims in the tale? How do those depictions compare to one another?
What do you think is the function of this type of narrative? What is the Man of Law trying to accomplish by telling it? What is his agenda?
Some questions to consider as you read the Nun’s Priest’s Tale
What does the Nun’s Priest’s Tale argue about interpretation and misinterpretation? How do these ideas resonate with other tales we have read?
How do you make sense of Chaunticleer’s “sermon” on dreams? How does it experiment with the idea of the exemplum? How does the larger tale experiment with that genre? How does this tale compare to the Pardoner’s exemplum?
Many scholars have read the tale allegorically, interpreting each character and event as part of a larger narrative about salvation, sin, court politics, or clerical corruption (among others) and declaring that larger narrative to be the “fruyt” of the tale mentioned by the Nun’s Priest at the end of his narrative. Attempt your own allegorical reading, what narrative do you see below the surface of the tale? And what role in that implicit narrative does each of the characters play?
How might this tale fit into the marriage group and comment upon the other tales within it?
What do you make of the fact that we don’t know anything about this narrator? How does that affect your interpretation of the tale?
A number of scholars have argued that the Nun’s Priest Tale would have been the winner of the tale-telling competition. Do you agree or disagree and why?
How does humor work in the tale?
Some questions to consider as you read the Miller’s Tale, the Reeve’s Tale and the Shipman’s Tale:
The Miller’s and Reeve’s tales are examples of a genre known as the fabliau. Given your reading of these two tales, what do you think are the features and rules of this genre?
The Miller tells his tale in response to the Knight’s romance, explaining that he is quitting/repaying/responding to the knight. How does the Reeve respond to the Miller?
How does the humor work in these two tales?
How do these two tales depict “smarts”? What’s their attitude towards intelligence?
How are the two tales different in tone? What are the consequences of that difference and where does it manifest?
How do the female characters in these tales compare to one another, and to other tales we have read so far?
How does the Shipman’s Tale adhere to or deviate from the fabliau conventions deployed in the Miller’s and Reeve’s Tale?
How does fabliau justice work in this tale?
How does the humor work in this tale? How does it compare to the other fabliaux?
Scholars believe that this tale was originally intended for the Wife of Bath. How is this tale appropriate for her? How is it inappropriate? How does it resonate with her Prologue and/or her Tale?
And if you have time now—or after the course ends— here are some questions for the Merchant’s Tale:
How does the Merchant’s Tale adhere to or deviate from fabliau convention?
How are the standard fabliau characters (husband, wife, intruder) depicted differently in this tale?
The Merchant (Chaucer?) adds a number of features to his tale that don’t typically belong in the fabliau. How do they work and how do you make sense of them?
o For example, what do you think is the function of the Merchant’s use of deus ex machina—the divine intervention of the gods (Pluto and Proserpina) at the end of the tale?
o Similarly, what is the function of the debate on marriage at the beginning of the tale?
The Merchant’s Tale is half-fabliau, half-romance. How do the two genres conflict with or engage with one another? How do the romance elements complicate the fabliau and how do the fabliau elements comment on romance?
The Merchant’s Tale is considered part of the “Marriage Group.” In what ways does the tale resonate with or respond to the Wife of Bath? to the Franklin?
Some questions to consider as you read the Franklin’s Tale and the Squire’s Tale:
The Franklin interrupts, and ultimately silences, the Squire. How do you make sense of this disruption? How do you make sense of the Host’s reaction to it? How does this dramatic framework influence your reading of both tales?
What kind of narrators are these two pilgrims? What do they have in common? How do they differ? How do their tales resonate with or comment on one another? What claims do they make about social order and social roles?
How do you interpret the claims the Franklin makes in his very short Prologue? How do they shape your reading of the tale?
Both tales are romances—stories of chivalric virtue, courtly love, and idealized codes of behavior. What do these tales have in common with one another—that is, how do they adhere to your expectations of them? And in what ways do they depart from your expectations? How are these tales similar to or different from the romance Wife of Bath tells?
How do you interpret the Franklin’s claims about marriage? Does his tale make good on the claims he makes? Does he agree with or contradict the Wife of Bath? Is the marriage between Dorigen and Arveragus an equal one?
How is the Squire (and behind him, Chaucer) using the Eastern setting of his tale?
What is your answer to the Franklin’s demande d’amour—“Which was the mooste free, as thinketh yow?” (Who was the most generous)? N.B. the question in the Modern English edition is much narrower “Which seemed the finest gentleman to you?”
Some questions to consider as you read the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale:
What kinds of arguments does the Wife of Bath make? How persuasive is she?
What tactics does she use to make her points? What kind of evidence does she provide?
What is the nature of her relationship with texts?
What is she trying to accomplish in her Prologue? What is her “entente”?
How does she try to get the audience on her side?
Is the Wife of Bath’s tale the kind of narrative you were expecting from her? If not, what kind of story were you expecting her to tell?
In what ways is the tale appropriate for the Wife of Bath? In what ways does it extend or resonate with her prologue?
In what ways does the tale depart from or contradict the prologue?
Finally, how do you make sense of the tale’s resolution?
Some questions to consider as you read The General Prologue:
Among the pilgrim band, who are the scoundrels and what traits or actions earn them this distinction? According to the narrator? to the poem? to you, as reader? How do the answers to these questions differ and how does that shape your interpretation?
By contrast, how do we know which pilgrims are exemplary? What traits make them laudable? From where and from whom does the evidence come?
What is your sense of the narrator? Do you trust his judgment? Why or why not? When and when not?
What does the General Prologue framework allow or enable? What expectations and interpretative guidelines does the General Prologue establish for you as the reader?
What details does Chaucer include to make this elaborate fiction seem real?