Pertelote is Much More Than a Mere Hen: How Far Do You Agree With This?
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I feel that this comment is extremely justified. Chaucer with the use of a beast fable has helped to elevate what would be considered a conventionally boring set of animals, and turn them into portrayals of human beings. As a cock he may have came from the same batch of eggs as his hens, but as poultry it would not matter whether chauntecleer mates with his sisters. However some critics suggest the introduction of the human concept of love, allows Chaucer to make an indiscriminate joke about the behaviour of chickens and the impropriety of such behaviour among people. This suggests that the farmyard is a microcosm of society, which leaves in no doubt that Pertelote must be much more than a mere hen.
Such words as ‘gentil’, ‘governaunce’, ‘plesaunce’, ‘paramours’ and the description of Pertelote are appropriate to a romance description of aristocratic lords and ladies. This introduces the theme of courtly love as Chauntecleer and Pertelote behave as noble lovers, whose formality of address and behaviour towards each other demonstrates the nobility of their love. However the narrator does not let the readers forget that his characters are birds.
This liberal humanist approach means Chaucer is able to satirise human qualities with the elevated style of description to the appearance and behaviour of poultry therefore he creates humour. Some critics suggest the device of talking birds and animals is a familiar one in such fables but in the Nun’s Priests tale the power of human speech seems to arise naturally from the details of the descriptions. The other main aspects are the contrast between colourful and gracious portraits of Pertelote and the ‘povre wydwe’.
Parallels between the characters are important in the Nun’s priest Tale, and Pertelote’s similarity to and juxtaposition to the characters is vital to the understanding of her role. Her juxtaposition with the widow helps to emphasise the theme of rich and poor. The widow is described using the practical details of her life for e.g. ‘litel was hir catel and hir rente, and her devout patience and acceptance of her situation is shown by ‘by housbondrie of swich as god hire sente.’ whilst Pertelote is described by her appearance ‘as of colours; of whiche the faireste hewed on hir throte’, and by her personality with words such as ‘curteys’ ‘discreet’ ‘debonaire’. This helps to emphasise her similarity to the prioress and demonstrates realism with the reference to upper class nobility. This Marxist approach in turn proves that Pertelote is much more than a mere hen.
The prioress in the general prologue is described as feeding her dogs finer ‘wasteel breed’ than the widow eats. This helps to emphasis the stark differences between rich and poor. Critics suggest that Chaucer by contrasting them in this way could be criticising the state of the medieval church, which was believed to be the only way for poor woman to lead a good life, whilst benefiting the rich. Although others believe that although the widow lives in a ‘povre estaat’ she is healthy, content and where she wants to be, whereas Pertelote is discontented with a coward of a husband. ‘I kan nat love a coward, by my feith.’ This suggest that characters such as Pertelote and the Prioress and even the monk, are far from god as they are discontented with their life and strive for material things and outward appearances are all that is important to them. This was emphasised with the capture of Chauntecleer.
The introduction of the theme of dreams helps to prove that Pertelote is more than a mere hen. Pertelote reacts exquisitely to her husbands fear, her practical nature asserts herself and she takes control to cure her lord. Whilst many feminist critics may suggest that the Nun’s priest’s tale is one of extreme oppression of women, I disagree as it is a ‘povre wydow’ who rules over Chauntecleer for e.g. ‘a yeerd she hadde… in which she hadde a cok, hight Chauntecleer.’ This suggests that she has dominance over her pretentious cock. The prioress is the one who rules over the procession travelling to Canterbury.
Pertelote acts like a wife who does not want the inconvenience of a sick husband. Form the initial ‘Fy on yow, herteless, I of the beloved’, her speech becomes full of medical knowledge and erudition and ends with the triumphant homely distinction ‘pekke hem up right as they growe and ete hym yn’. She is far from a suppressed individual and acts like a learned diagnostician and doctor. This is a far cry from the role of a mere hen.
Pertelote’s confidence in her opinion of the dream as a ‘somnium naturale’ is shown by the assertion of lines 174 – 175 and the pedantic balance of the effects of choler and melancholy. Her exactness is suggested by the repetition of ‘of..’ such an impression is also created by the list of herbs. Her deference to Chauntecleer is suggested by ‘pardee’. The following lines then show her smug common sense in not overwhelming her husband with her erudition, although she cannot resist a reference to Cato. This suggests that she is trying to impress her husband so that she will do as he asks.
This sections tone is full of encouragement and concern. The imperative ‘for goddess love, as taak some laxatyf’ is followed by reassurances of Pertelote’s good faith. Her own guidance will result in the purge. ‘foryet not this, for gods owene love’ this second instruction warns him to be careful not to develop a more serious complaint, which is followed by a list of plant purges. This speech reflects three aspects of Pertelote’s character, first the affronted lover, and then the learned lady, and finally the concerned and encouraging wife. The comforting, fussy nature of the final section with its hints of colloquial speech seems appropriate to nature of a hen.
A clever rhetoric technique of circumlocution where Pertelote provides a point for point analysis of Chauntecleer’s dream is used. The long passage is used as a means of moving from dreams to the main plot. However it delays Chauntecleer’s adventure, it is as if the Nun’s priest is tantalising his audience. On the one hand the device of circumlocution increases suspense but on the other it is a frustrating distraction.
Critics suggest the character of Chauntecleer helps to emphasise the fact that Pertelote is more than a mere hen. Chauntecleer suggests that dreams are prophetic ‘han wel founden by experience that dremes been significaciouns’. Whilst arguing for the veracity of his dream, he cannot recognise the danger shown to him in his ‘visio’ when he comes face to face with Daun Russell. This introduces the theme of predestination versus free will. The narrator raises the question is man free to choose his own course of action or whether god’s foreknowledge of all events means the actions is predetermined. The psychoanalysis theory suggests that the pompous bird wanted to be caught and killed. I feel that this would fit into Chaucer’s satire nature as Chauntecleer could then brag about how he outwitted the fox. This has an allegorical value with Chauntecleer presented as Adam. Mankind (and Chauntecleer as a projection of that) fail to recognise their own folly. This helps to emphasise the moral of the tale. This elevates Pertelote above the role of a mere hen as she would be the portrayal of eve.
After the portrayal of why his dream is important Chauntecleer slips from being authoratively assertive to colloquial honest ‘I love hem never a deel’ book learning and laxatives are both dismissed as he turns to Pertelote whose elevated courtly image is ironically deflated by the true to life description of the ‘scarlet reed about your yen.’ Chaucer makes us laugh by establishing a lofty ideal only to deflate it again. Is he mocking human pretension by telling us to accept life as it is rather than turn it into something it is not? Or is he being realistic himself in recognising the pilgrims would rather be entertained than preached at.
The narrator also helps to show that Pertelote is more than a mere hen by capturing the avian and human aspects of Pertelote’s characterisation, for it is as a hen and quasi human being that she must respond. This is done by commenting on the hens in a sand bath which was an avian past time. Mock epic also emphasises that she is more than a mere hen. The references to the tragedies of Troy, Carthage and Rome and the mock epic similes comparing Pertelote’s shrieks with the lamentations of the grieving classical heroines suggest she is in no less a tragic state then her human counterparts. However like her counterparts the heroes are comically incongruous when applied to a not uncommon farmyard setting.
I believe that through the use of mock epic and a number of themes and ideas Chaucer has helped to elevate Pertelote above the role of a mere hen.