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A Bakhtinian Reading of Geoffrey Chaucer

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  • Pages: 9
  • Word count: 2195
  • Category: Reading

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The Canterbury Tales are a collection of stories told by a fictitious group of travellers, pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. The group met at an inn, and choose to journey together, telling tales to pass the time. Many of the strata of the society are represented: from a knight, to the miller, and a Justice of the Peace, who travels with his own cook, to a friar. Bakhtin claimed that ‘out of the common time of collective life emerge separate individual life-sequences, individual fates. ‘2

Chaucer viewed his tales as ‘a mirror to the England of his times, and the world we live in. 3As such, it is the collective life of the people which gives rise to their individual life stories, and so too to the stories they tell. These tales can be read with reference to some of Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories, in particular, laughter and the carnivalesque, the grotesque, and his theories on language; heteroglossia and dialogism. Laughter as an overarching theme is developed not only through the tales themselves, many of which are comic in themselves, but also in the pilgrims, in their lives and interaction, mostly told in the general prologue and the prologues to each tale, which describe the teller.

One cannot help but be drawn in by the franklin, with his ‘sops in wine’4 and good living, or laugh at the image of his outrage at his cook if the sauce was not to his liking. The picture conjured by Chaucer’s description of the summoner, who ‘would speak no language but Latin’5 when drunk, although his knowledge of the language was limited to just a few words ‘questio quid juris’6 (I question the law) is just as comic. There can be something of a carnival atmosphere to their journey, at times.

Indeed, the host claims that on their journey, they will be ‘telling tales and making holiday. ‘7 Whilst the travellers are indeed, on a holy pilgrimage, and, as such, a holy day, it is more to the carnival than the religious that the host alludes. Bakhtin states that ‘nearly every church feast had its comic folk aspect, which were traditionally recognized. Such, for instance, were the parish feasts, usually marked by fairs and open-air amusements. ‘8 The stories told by the pilgrims can be likened to these distractions from day-to-day life.

The carnivalesque element in the tales frequently causes laughter: ‘The Miller’s Tale’, for instance, involves a ‘simple carpenter’9 who was deceived by a scholar into sleeping in a tub hung from the rafters whilst the scholar and the carpenters wife, Alison, spend their time in amorous ‘fun and frolic. ’10 The element of the carnivalesque is heightened by the presence of another admirer of Alison, resulting in a slightly grotesque incident in which he unknowingly ‘kissed her with his mouth smack on her naked arse’11 in a plan of Alison’s concoction, in order to humiliate him.

The Merchant’s Tale’, too features a deceived husband and overly-sexual wife: old, blind January tries to keep his wife, May, entirely for himself, keeping her always so that he can touch her, lest she would be unfaithful. He was so possessive as to refuse to give her a child, lest her attentions be divided. 12 However, she, like Alison, finds a way to be with her lover, deceiving her husband into lifting her into a pear tree where she meets with Damian, his squire. The situations are frequently farcical, apparently turning the world on its head, as would be the situation in the carnival of ‘feast of fools. 13

This is the situation in the Reeve’s tale, in which a plan by a visitor to tempt the daughter of the house into bed goes awry, ending with everyone in the wrong beds, and confusion of identities. Cuckoldry features heavily in the tales, and can be considered an element of the carnivalesque. January is cuckolded by May and Damian, as is the carpenter in the ‘The Miller’s Tale’. It can even be said to be present, although perhaps less intentionally in ‘The Reeve’s Tale’, where the miller’s wife is tricked into unwittingly sharing a bed with a visiting scholar.

The cook’s tale features a woman, a wife who ‘kept as a respectable front, a shop; but earned a living with her cunt. ’14 The language which we today see as that of the brothel seems ill-placed in the context of marriage. Carnival often featured some degree of cuckoldry: the May Day feasts placed women in charge,15 and it was said that in a couple married in May, the woman would have control over the relationship, and be likely to cuckold her husband, hence the cuckoldry of January in ‘The Merchant’s Tale’.

Family and gender relations could also said to be overturned in the tales: in ‘The Franklin’s Tale’, the traditional courtly love dynamic is upset: whilst Averagus, the knight, follows the traditional method of courtship, allowing his lady to take control, after marriage, he is not placed in control, as he should be: he is only ‘master in name’16 for the sake of appearances, and in fact ‘never in his life, by day or night, was he to exercise his authority. 17 The knight on pilgrimage can be seen as a confusion of identities present in Carnival, where the lowest were given a chance to be the rulers for the day, in the style of selecting a ‘Lord of misrule’. He, despite being a worthy knight, is ‘far from smart, and wore a tunic of coarse thick stuff. ’18 The Prioress, too, does not always fill her expected role, having a keen interest in etiquette and court manners: she was ‘at pains to ape the manners of the court’. 19

The Wife of Bath is perhaps the most notorious of the pilgrims in her reversal of gender relations: ‘five times married; and that’s to say in church, not counting other loves she’d had in youth. ’20 She is a businesswoman in her own right, taking the role of the man, although her weaving, making her ‘so skilled a clothmaker that she outskilled even the weavers of Ypres and Ghent’21 places her firmly into the category of female. Her role is an odd mixture between the two, allowing for a carnivalesque element. The public sphere, the domain of men, encompasses the worlds of politics, legal rights and obligations, and the market. . . the private or domestic sphere, to which women are confined by virtue of their role as wives and mothers, encompasses the family and the immediate household. ’22

The wife of Bath has moved beyond the sphere of influence given to her as a woman, and such has, in her everyday life, taken on the role she might fulfil in carnival. John M. Ganim has pointed out that ‘the carnivalesque seems an almost irresistible metaphor for The Canterbury Tales, Bakhtin seems to uncover at a stroke an entire social dynamic implicit in monastic satire, popular folklore, and goliardic parody, all of which offer an ‘unofficial’ medieval comic tradition for Chaucer’s tales and frame. ’23 The tales do indeed lend themselves well, with Bakhtin claiming the presence of a ‘folk carnival part whose organizing principles were laughter and the material bodily lower stratum’24 within every official ecclesiastical feast.

Carnival, for Bakhtin was the representation of the life of the common people, just as The Canterbury Tales are. Bakhtin also claims that ‘it is only in literature that popular festive forms can achieve the ‘self-awareness’ necessary for effective protest. ’25 As such, The Canterbury Tales can be seen as a protest against accepted, everyday culture, a protest that would reach more people than the small pockets of Carnival spread across church festivals. The carnivalesque allows for the world of the ‘feast of fools’, where normality is turned upon its head.

Relations between the male and female are often reversed, as are social roles. ‘Carnival does not know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators. Footlights would destroy a carnival, as the absence of footlights would destroy a theatrical performance. ’26 The variety of social classes included by Chaucer perhaps adds to the sense of carnival: the world, whilst not ‘topsy-turvy’, as a carnival would be, and as some of the tales are, the journey brings all of the pilgrims to the same level, be they a knight, a justice of the peace, or a simple miller.

The sense of the theatrical is certainly present in carnival, hence Bakhtin’s use of the analogy of the stage: ‘carnival may be seen as a huge play in which the main streets and squares became stages, the city became a theatre without walls, and the inhabitants the actors. ’27 The carnivalesque can be thought of as a liberation, releasing people from their typical daily lives, just as literature, including The Canterbury Tales allows liberation into the lives of other people, particularly in the case of carnival, those of other social statuses. The grotesque is also common in Chaucer’s work.

Bakhtin describes the grotesque as having to do with ‘the lower bodily stratum… (Food, wine, the genital force, the organs of the body)’28. As such, the many bodily references in The Canterbury Tales come into play: sex is dealt with in a very informal manner in the texts and scatological humour is frequent. Damian, the squire in ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ ‘at once yanked up her smock and in he thrust’29, and earlier in the tale, January orders May to ‘strip stark naked, for her clothes got in the way, and he was looking for a bit of fun. ’30 Again, we have a sense of marriage being placed into the world of brothels and prostitutes.

Bodily functions, too, are often casually dealt with: the Miller’s wife ‘goes out to pee’31 and Absolon ‘was a bit squeamish of farting. ’32 Indeed, ‘The Summoner’s Tale’ is dedicated almost entirely to farting, and the inability to control the body. Thomas W. Ross claims that in Chaucer’s works, ‘there is hardly a word of bawdiness for its own sake… Chaucer uses risqui?? words for one major purpose: to delineate comic characters and thus to make us laugh. ’33 This is true, in the more epic or serious tales; there is less of the grotesque.

The Reeve’s Tale’ is comic in its farcical nature, as is ‘The Miller’s Tale’, the tale most noted for its grotesque and ‘bawdy’ nature. However, as Ross also points out, Chaucer is not truly offensive in his choice of words, choosing instead terms which can often have a double meaning, adding to the comedy. 34 Absolon’s dislike of farting would, according to Ross, have been seen as a comic aspect of his character as “excretion was an accepted and semi-public event. “35 The social variety present in The Canterbury Tales, with such a diverse group of people gathering for their pilgrimage, presents an opportunity for a heteroglossic reading.

Bakhtin stated that ‘The novel can be defined as a diversity of social speech types (sometimes even diversity of languages) and a diversity of individual voices, artistically organized. ’36 The tellers of the tales speak in different ways, with the miller as crude: ‘the miller would not curb his tongue or language for the sake of anyone, but told his vulgar tale in his own way’37, whilst the squire could ‘joust and dance, and also draw and write’38 and his father, the Knight, who ‘in the King’s service had fought valiantly. 39

‘The Oxford Scholar’s Tale’, however, is written in a high style, as is ‘The Franklin’s Tale’, in the style of a Breton Lay. Some of the characters in the tales themselves speak in dialects: despite the fact that ‘The Reeve’s Tale’ is set in ‘Trumpington, which isn’t far from Cambridge’40 the two scholars, students at Cambridge, speak in something like a Scot’s dialect, having both been born in ‘place called Strother- far in the North. ’41 The teller of the tale declares that he cannot say where it is, although the name suggests Anstruther, in Fife.

This case of two broadly-spoken, lewd young men attending Cambridge is yet another example of the carnivalesque, in particular, the ‘feast of fools’, in which the great take the lower place, and the lowly act the part of their betters for the day. The structure of the collection of tales makes it particularly suitable to exemplify heteroglossia: besides the differing voices of the characters, the voice is sometimes difficult to identify, even ambiguous. We have not only the voices of the characters within the tale, but also those of the teller of the tale, the author, and occasionally, the host.

In ‘The Miller’s Prologue’, we are told that ‘I am bound to tell, for better or for worse, all of their stories. ’42 Whether this is Chaucer himself or the host speaking is unclear. A similar situation occurs in ‘The Franklin’s Tale’: at the end of the tale, a question is raised: ‘Which of them was most generous, think you? Now tell me before you go any further. ’43 Whilst in the context of the question, who we answer is of little importance, but it does raise the question of which of the author or the franklin we are to address in response.

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