Bending The Rules Without Breaking Them English Literature Essay

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When Geoffrey Chaucer first started writing the Canterbury Tales sometime in the late 1300s, he touched upon several notions that were not yet thought of by anyone else. In many ways, he pioneered the concept of feminism and challenged the common misinterpretations of religious doctrines of the Middle Ages most impressively in his Canterbury Tales - something that a few others dared to do. The Wife of Bath's Tale and The Summoner's Tale are, not only in that way, very much interlaced, but they are also parallel to one another in several other ways, more so than being unique in other ways.

First and foremost, it cannot escape the reader's notice that in both tales, Chaucer is concerned with religion. That is the main theme that both tales are centered upon. Seeing as Christianity was the creed reigning and prevalent in medieval times, one can infer that Chaucer has set it up against the human experience, the holy sanctity of marriage and the powers each person has in a marital union in The Wife of Bath's Tale. He allows for those important concepts to react with one another on the pages of his manuscript and it is fascinating to watch how all the standards are redefined in the mock society he creates in this tale. Boldly, Alisoun - the Wife of Bath - uses religion to justify her choices and her way of living. Ironically however, she relies on Jewish figures such as King Solomon, Abraham, and Jacob - who have all had several wives - even though she is on a Christian pilgrimage (p 103, L 35, 55, 56). The fact that she uses examples of men to feed her excuse makes her even more blasphemous and daring. She says in L 52 that it is "Better to be wedded than to burn" and that shows that religion is open for interpretation as one sees fit, making it a very holey system of belief in Chaucer's eyes. Furthermore, Alisoun openly talks about virginity; that she wishes to leave it to the chaste but she condones her excess of libido because it does not say anywhere in any religious text that it is forbidden (p 105, L 138-142). In a way, Chaucer may be Alisoun, and he created her - a fictional character - to be able to voice an opinion he would not have otherwise expressed: that the current religious thought of the time was dissatisfactory to him and since prophets and kings were polygamous, then the monogamous teachings of Christianity do not have to be abided by everyone. It also signifies that Chaucer has a feministic view on the patriarchal society of the time. Both the prologue of the tale and the tale itself serve to reiterate Chaucer's belief that women should be autonomous and self-fulfilled - be it in the prologue stated in a more forceful way. That is manifested when Alisoun says she uses sexual fulfillment as a tool to get what she wants out of her marriages (p 111, L 401-2, 405-14). Thus, Chaucer more or less, uses Alisoun to challenge the clergy's false teachings. He also sharply contrasts the supposed purity of religious faith by highlighting the hypocrisy and heresy of the friar in The Summoner's Tale. Although there are no feministic views in the latter tale, the Summoner himself could be seen as another emblem of Chaucer's voice. Angry in his response to The Friar's Tale, the Summoner - or Chaucer - denounces the common blind faith in Christianity by associating friars with the devil's behind (p 140, L 1694-5) and then again with having the worth of a fart (p 150-1, L 2129-43). Upon a first impression, Chaucer would be deemed a religious heretic, but actually, he is merely criticizing the wrongdoings and misinterpretations of the Church's subordinates. Thus, the individual encounters that Chaucer has created in both tales have allegorically universal representations of phenomena people face in reality.

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Moreover, both tales allot similar vengeful streaks within their characters. The Summoner tells his tale simply to quit the tale told by the Friar, and Alisoun in The Wife of Bath does not delay in avenging herself against her husbands (p 120, L 800-22) either by withholding from them their sexual rights or by playing the part of the hurt and the dejected when she was hit by one of her husbands. Also, the friar in The Summoner's Tale does more thinking about profiting financially, using the Church as an excuse to go about collecting alms or food and claiming it is for the Church's sake and this hypocrisy is evident when the friar's servant erases the names they keep a record of and the friar keeps what the people give him in food and money (p 142, L 1755-60). Similarly, Alisoun is infatuated with the social and financial perks she gets from marrying several men (p 110, L 355-6). This exhibits both characters' superficiality and love of secular things. Even though both tales are practically devoid of any logic and hardcore facts that could enforce Chaucer's argument of misguided religious teachings - seeing as Alisoun is obviously merely an amusement to her audience, and the Summoner employs a blasphemously comical fart to reach the moral of his tale - his erudite and well-maintained style that are preserved in both tales (if not all of them) cannot but convince the reader of the message he is trying to convey. But at the same time, the characters love to dilate in their speech and tell long stories to prove their points: with Alisoun, she tells the story of the knight and crone and with the Summoner, he retells several stories the friar preaches Thomas about anger (Cyrus, the Persian and the wrathful Cambyses). Essentially, the common features in both tales are most certainly not coincidental; Chaucer has purposefully projected those likenesses - among many others - to be able to clarify his intention of attempting to rectify the things people do wrong under the banner of religion.

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Needless to say, however, both tales are different in many ways. Essentially, the reader can only begin to grasp at the complexity of Chaucer's personality seeing as he embodies a woman struggling against a tyrannical patriarchal society in The Wife of Bath's Tale and then an angry Summoner trying to get his part of the story heard in The Summoner's Tale. It also cannot be denied that the Summoner's account is more far-fetched to the reader of the twenty-first century. On the other hand, Alisoun has become a very typical type of woman these days and so, her stance is not hard to understand and support. But the origin and development of the Summoner's strife do not matter much to the common reader today. Quite in contrast to that theory, however, would be that Chaucer's creation of Alisoun would have been Chaucer going out on a limb since she was a woman that rarely existed in his time. But summoners and friars definitely existed in abundance. Thus, Alisoun was more original a character than either the summoner or the friar. The latter two frequently would quarrel in reality but Alisoun's persona was enigmatic and unreal. Furthermore, Alisoun's tale serves the primary purpose of amusing the audience and reader alike, and at it contains comic relief here and there, however, the Summoner's account - although including the story of the fart - nonetheless leaves the reader wondering what Chaucer's underlying message could be at the very end. Then again, the type of reader that Chaucer had in mind for each tale could have varied; for The Wife of Bath's Tale, the reader that Chaucer could have imagined would be the common colloquial one, while for The Summoner's Tale, Chaucer might have envisioned a far more religious reader, someone who would scratch their brain after reading or listening to the foundation-shaking tale.

Ultimately, and in concurrence, the fictional characters that Chaucer created are the puppets of his deepest thoughts, inquisitions, beliefs and doubts. He was the mastermind ventriloquist of his age and no matter what one may say about him, in support or rebuttal, one cannot but respect the nerve and courage he had to write those words. The Wife of Bath's Tale and The Summoner's Tale are merely two of several other tales Chaucer has written that encompass several similar themes emanating from a single man's mind, yet remain intrinsically individual in many more ways than one.