Love and Marriage in Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

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4th Sep 2017 English Literature Reference this

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Love and Marriage Insanities

Making sense out of love and marriage ideals is not an easy task, especially as human actions in emotional circumstances do not follow any logic. It is a fact that has been proven consistently over time, across cultures and is also corroborated by many of the stories within Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In particular, The Knight’s Tale and The Miller’s Tale, that take place in two different social settings, make fun of conventional beliefs about love and marriage in the context of values such as bravery, street smartness, morality, and faithfulness. Through their plots, the narrators’ styles, and the contrast they set up between cherished and practiced values, the two tales highlight that human behavior in romantic situations is often unpredictable, crazy and colored by one’s social class, confirming that there is no such thing as a model love or marriage.

Although The Knight’s Tale plot is set in the halo of honor, chivalry and courtesy, the story’s events and the characters’ actions show the silliness in how they treat love. As an example, the two cousins, Arcite and Palamon, are ready to kill each other for a woman neither of them has talked to. After escaping from the prison, Palamon discovers Arcite’s love for Emily and angrily challenges Arcite to a fight. Arcite responds, “And I denounce all covenants that stand / Or are alleged, between you and me / remember love is free / And I will love her! I defy your might.” (Chaucer 46) It is ironic that Arcite, who as a knight should keep his word and follow principles, is willing to break his earlier oath not to come in the way of his cousin’s love pursuit. Arcite justifies breaking his vow because as a free person he is not constrained whom he loves. He is willing to do whatever it takes to get Emily and doesn’t care how strong Palamon is. Even though people can behave irrationally in matters involving love, both Palamon and Arcite are being stupid in this instance. Neither of them knows what Emily thinks. Isn’t it exemplary love a two-way relationship? Whom are they courting and quarreling about? Are they willing to go to the extremes of killing each other for a woman who at this moment doesn’t represent anything other than an image, symbol or trophy that they’ve seen from a distance? What makes this even more bizarre is that Emily doesn’t even want to get married. She prays to Goddess Diana, “That I would be virgin all my life, / And would be neither mistress, no, nor wife. / … of thy company, / A huntress walk the woodlands wild”. (Chaucer 65) Emily doesn’t like a man’s company, prefers hunting and doesn’t want to marry or bear children. This exposes the foolishness of what Arcite and Palamon were up to, even though they supposedly follow all the ideals of aristocratic class such as bravery, honor, bond and courtly love.

The Knight’s Tale depiction of love is strongly influenced by its narrator, a knight, and his worldview. In the Prologue, the narrator is introduced as someone who “… followed chivalry, Truth, honour, generousness and courtesy.” (Chaucer 4) Since in a knight’s world, bravery and physical fights resolve disputes, it is no wonder that in his story, a tournament clash is the best way to settle the rivalry between Emily’s two suitors. She is no better than a trophy to be won in a contest. The King Theseus treats Emily, in the traditions of the aristocratic class, as a gift to win peace and harmony. Even though she apparently doesn’t have any say, her suitors try to woo her with flowery language as per their traditions, customs and code of conduct. As an example, Arcite, while in prison, describes his feelings towards Emily to Palamon, “And with a deep and piteous sigh he said: / The freshness of her beauty strikes me dead / Unless I at least see her day by day, / I am but dead” (Chaucer 33) Arcite is using fancy language to say that he’ll die if he doesn’t the object of his love every day. Although the story represents love in flowery terms and as a bravery contest, reflecting the narrator’s perspective, the plot and characters’ actions speak of the irrational twists and turns in romantic pursuits.

In contrast to the polished language and high-minded principles of the knights’ world, The Miller’s Tale depicts romantic situations in vulgar and comical tones, and in the process, makes fun of conventional do’s and don’ts about love and marriage. As an example, the way Alison handles her two suitors, Nicholas and Absalon, is not only hilarious but also a not so subtle middle-class snub of the upper-class imposed view about love. When Alison’s husband leaves for work, Nicholas tries to woo her with aggressive sexual advances. In response, she reacts, “Swearing she’d love him, with a solemn promise / To be at his disposal / When she could spy an opportunity.” (Chaucer 91) She is so attracted to the street-smart Nicholas that she has no problems in being at his ‘disposal’. She just wants to wait for the right opportunity when it is safe for her to cheat on her husband. In stark contrast to falling for the physical advances of Nicholas, Alison refuses the dignified courtship of the parish clerk Absalon. Not only does she spurn his affection, she does so by tricking him to kiss her genitals. After this trickery, “Teehee!” she laughed, and clapped the, window to; / Off went poor Absalon sadly through the dark.” (Chaucer 103) Alison’s contrasting responses, towards her suitors, highlight the qualities, a middle-class girl like her, admires the most: street smartness, boldness and physical attraction represented by Nicholas. On the other hand, she humiliates Absalon, making a mockery of his gentlemanly approaches and sweet words. Further, by being part of an extra-marital affair, she is being unfaithful to her husband. She also participates in Nicholas’s scheme to deceive her naive husband, that ends up making him a laughing-stock of the town. When John fell from the boat and no one listened to him, Alison and Nicholas told the town people, “That he was mad, Some sort of nonsense about ‘Nowel’s Flood’ All started laughing at this lunacy”. (Chaucer 105) This episode, in addition to her infidelity, was Alison’s payback for her marriage with the much older carpenter and his extraordinary protective nature. Maybe, she was married to him because he was rich, a practice that was common in arranged marriages in the medieval middle class.

The Miller’s Tale narrator’s drunkenness and middle-class perspective shapes his story in direct, crude, and vulgar terms. In the Prologue, he proudly states that “One shouldn’t be too inquisitive in life / Either about God’s secrets or one’s wife. /God’s plenty all you could desire / better not enquire.” (Chaucer 88) Through these words, the narrator expresses his view that men shouldn’t care about their wives’ or God’s private affairs. There are lots of women in this world to choose from and men shouldn’t ask about the rest. Maybe the narrator has loose morals. Or, his middle-class outlook conditions him to talk frankly about subjects like physical sex and infidelity. In the narrator’s real world, instant gratification is more practical than high-minded principles or morals. It’s also an environment that rewards street smartness and “land grab” mindset of Nicholas and looks down upon the poetic verbiage of Absalon. In any case, the narrator’s choice of words and the substance of his tale sets up a significant contrast with the polished language and plot of the Knight’s Tale.

Although the two tales, set in different social contexts, are influenced by their narrators’ style and language, both stories spotlight that there is no universal standard one can use to judge human actions in love and marriage. The Knight’s Tale, despite its depictions of idolized values such as honor, bravery, and courteousness, boils love down to essentially a competition instead of a two-way relationship. The Miller’s Tale, despite its vulgarity and crudeness, presents the day-to-day happenings in love and marriage in ordinary folks’ lives, in stark contrast to the “ivory tower” world of the aristocratic class. Both stories, however, confirm that human behavior in love and marriage circumstances is often moody, irrational and erratic. It is, therefore, foolish to make predictions about human behavior in such matters where one’s heart rules the brain.

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