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Criticism of Geoffrey Chaucer's "Franklin's Tale" of The Canterbury Tales

Karl Mitchell

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Throughout this paper, I will be devoting myself to comparing, analyzing, translating (interpretation), and evaluating “Franklin's Tale" by Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales. I will be traversing and utilizing tools from the different ‘schools of literary criticism’ such as: biographical; comparative; ethical; expressive; historical; impressionistic or aesthetic; mimetic; pragmatic; psychological; social; textual, and theoretical criticism to reach my objective of this paper.

The setting of the Tale was mainly located in Brittany (formerly Armorica, France - south of the English Channel. However, Orleans and other French cities were mentioned, as well as Britain (as in the British Isles).

The Language used in the Tale was mainly French. Latin was used by an English Scholar who introduced Aurelius’ brother to the master magician/clerk of Orleans. It could be assumed that English (as in Middle English) was used, too, because of the expedition of Arveragus (knight) to the Britain and the presence of the English Clerk.

The clothing, of course, was like what was worn in those days of the time of Chaucer. The knight would be wearing armor while the typical clothing would consist of what's worn in Chaucer's time.

The setting of the tale occurred mainly during the spring (lines 901 - 909) -

"So on a day, right in the morwe-tyde,

Unto a gardyn that was ther bisyde,

In which that they hadde maad hir ordinaunce

Of vitaille and of oother purveiaunce,

They goon and pleye hem al the longe day.

And this was on the sixte morwe of May,

Which May hadde peynted with his softe Shoures

This gardyn ful of leves and of floures;"

-Therefore, the weather was sunny and balmy as it would be during spring in a temperate geographical location such as in Western Europe, particularly, in Southern France.

The events of this story progressed for over a two year period, whereas, Aurelius was literally sick (brought on by love sickness) (lines 1101 - 1103) -

"In languor and in torment furyus

Two yeer and moore lay wrecche Aurelyus,

Er any foot he myghte on erthe gon;"

until the final of the tale. There was no spectacular event (expect for the illusion), per se, the Tale was rather centered on ‘marriage and promises’ that involved the main characters in an abstract, circumstantial and literal way.

The mood of the story was very climactic. For instance, the “Miller's Tale" is very comical; the “Knight's Tale" is very staid, and etc. The “Franklin's Tale" is more moralistic tale hat is somewhat similar to the plot of the moral plays that use to be common after Chaucer's time. In the beginning of the Tale, it started out with a sunny disposition (see my first quote). During its climax, the mood became dark and gray (see my second quote), and then at its ending it became serene (with a sigh of relief) cloaked in morality.

The style of the Tale was one of gentility, grace and innocence, in contrast to the mood in the “Miller's Tale. " The latter was a parody (in a bawdy and “Jerry Springer Showesque" manner) of the “Knight's Tale" which was noble and romantic.

Like the style, the form and structure of the Tale is very conducive to the message of the Tale. For example, the Tale dealt with integrity, honesty and honor. It, also, borrowed from the “Knight's Tale" and the “Squire's Tale" of whom, ironically, the Franklin admires and emulates. (He wished to be like the Knight while he wished for his son to be like the Squire - a part of his ambition to become ennobled, ironically, Chaucer took the same route to nobility in his life). In short, the form and structure of the Tale act as conduit carrying water (the message) to a climactic ending.

In the Tale, we could perceive the imagery/style. We are able to see, hear, touch, taste and smell what the character's actions and environment. In other words, it appeals to our visual (the beautiful gardens), auditory, olfactory, tactile and gustatory senses. Moreover, the images are kinetic (in its movement) and synaesthetic (the lust of the Squire and the black rocks by the shore).

The style of course is maintained by the attitudes and tone of voice of the major characters: Arveragus (Knight); Dorigen (Knight's wife); Aurelius (Squire) and his brother, and the Clerk (magician). These characters cannot be divided evenly in the traditional protagonist/antagonist way. For example, in the “Knight's Tale" Palamon was the protagonist while Arcita was the antagonist, as well as, in the “Miller's Tale" Nicholas was the protagonist while Absolon was the antagonist. In turn, the major characters turned out to be extremely noble and genteel in the end of the “Franklin's Tale" by their noble deeds. (Lines 1620 - 1625) -

"Lordynges, this question, thanne, wol I aske now,

Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow?

Now telleth me, er that ye ferther wende.

I kan namoore; my tale is at an ende. "

In continuation, the characters played out in the plot of the story in the following manner. Arveragus made a pact with his new wife, Dorigen that their marriage will be like unto courting where he'll continue to serve her needs as how a suitor serve his prospective belle. He wished not to have dominion over her (which differs from the “Clerk's Tale" - husband domination and the “Wife of Bath's Tale" - wife domination) but rather to be mutual friends whereas they could share their innermost secrets with each other. Afterwards, Arveragus went to Britain to reap his knightly glory in the world. Dorigen, alone, went to a dance during the springtime (which goes against the morals of those days, in that, a married woman shouldn't be at any public outings without her spouse, especially, at a dance) where she danced with a lusty squire who wanted to have sex with her. In response, opting not to be rude nor disconcerting (which is common practice by ladies of her class) she tried to eschew his advances by promising him the opportunity to copulate with her if he could remove some rocks of the shores of Brittany. In her mind, the task seemed to be impossible. In unbridled lust, Aurelius suffered his carnal predicament for over two years until his brother came to his aid by introducing him to a magician who could bring his wish to pass with the help of astrological illusion. In turn, he promised the magician a fortune. The magician performed the act. To Dorigen's dismay and surprise, the insurmountable task was accomplished. In honor, she realized that she cannot dishonor her promise to Aurelius. In trepidation, she turned to Arveragus (which refutes the idea of equal partnership in a relationship because, now, the husband is the one who's being decisive and thus perpetrating the cliché - “helping the damsel in distress") for aid. In dignity, he told her she has to honor her promise. However, she must be discrete as not betray their unorthodox, marital arrangement to their peers (society).

Next, after many excruciating mental torture, she turned herself over to Aurelius who was figuratively drooling at the mouth like a glutton loosed at a banquet. Eventually, she told him about her husband's knowledge and response. The Squire was so moved by her story that he sent her home still ‘an extramarital virgin. ’ Oh by the way, Aurelius realized he still has that small fortune to pay the magician for his arcane services. Instead of ‘pulling a disappearing act, ’ he decided to nobly negotiate with the magician about the payments (the Squire was not exactly worth a fortune). In a domino effect way, the magician upon realizing what transpired throughout that uncanny sequence of “goodness is contagious as the bubonic plague in Medieval European countryside" let him off the figurative hook. As in a fairy tale, everyone (well the married couple) lived happily ever after.

During the plot, we could witness several forms of conflict such as: man vs. man; man vs. nature; man vs. supernatural; man vs. himself; man vs.deities, and man vs. society. In the first conflict, we witnessed Dorigen vs. Aurelius. In the second, the magician uncannily manipulating nature to create an illusion by the aid of astrological means. In the third, Dorigen's recollections of stories that related how vestal virgins of Ancient Times sacrificed their lives in order to honor their virginity and their gods and goddesses while she tempestuously struggled with herself and her predicament over how to get out of the promise without breaking her promise with the Squire nor breaking her marriage vow (to refrain from adultery) to her husband. Fourth, the unorthodox interpretation of the Knight's marriage vs. societal view of what a marriage should be like - patriarchic in nature (no ifs nor buts. . . ).

From the conflicts and the plot we could extract the theme of this story which deals with gentility and nobility of spirit. Throughout the conflicts and tests, the major characters proved themselves worthy and noble which is supported by the last stanza in the Tale which proposed a question “who's the best of them all?" Of which, I replied the Knight because he risked the most by his unconditional love and trust to author and to live in such an unconventional society that's not befitting his status in his society.

The point of view of the poem is omniscient. Also, it is three-folded. In other words, the Franklin's, Chaucer the narrator's and Chaucer the author's played a role in shaping the story. First, the Franklin tells the story to depict his idealism of gentility and civility (even faux nobility). (The importance of this point of view to the tale is depicted, somewhat ironically, in the “General Prologue" portrait of the Franklin). Chaucer the narrator pointed out the connection between the story in regard to the Knight's and Squire's stories (whom he admired); his retaliation to the host who treated him harshly, and the middle ground his story took betwixt the clerk's and wife of bath's stories in regard to marriage and male-female relationship. Chaucer the poet basically transmitted his own personal (in my opinion) beliefs in marriage which reflected the Franklin's story which was in conflict with Chaucer's society in his times. (It was once reported to my high school senior advanced English class, by Mr. Lambert, an alumnus of Cambridge University and a native British, that Chaucer was fined for beating up a friar during his lifetime). As I maintained, the Franklin's life somewhat resembled Chaucer the poet's because of the life path Chaucer took in order to become a faux nobleman during his lifetime, instead of, been born into nobility via the ‘traditional blue blood route. '

I did not locate where Chaucer borrowed this story. In fact, I fervently believe this story was an inspiration from Chaucer's own imagination and beliefs.

In regard to the Tale, modern readers (of the late ‘90s) would see this story as more befitting Chaucer's time (14th century) rather than ours where we are molded by raunchy talk shows (Jerry Springer) and soap operas, instead of, morality plays and religious entertainments of Chaucer's time.

Personally, I'm very much - in love - with this Tale. I appreciate the nobility of the characters and its themes. The Tale was superbly written and related by the Franklin; Chaucer the narrator, and Chaucer the poet.

Karl A. Mitchell


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