Monday, March 6, 2017

A Suggested Reading Of Chaucer's The Clerk's Tale


The Clerk's Tale 

I'm now reading the Merchant's Tale but I'm having trouble getting The Clerk's Tale out of my mind for its portrayal of sheer evil--the notion of existential evil occurs to me--in Walter's depthless tormented testing of Griselda, who, stretching all credibility  beyond any conceivable breaking point even when allowing for presentism, dutifully and lovingly takes it all and accepts it all. Why the exaggerated-to-the-point-of-disbelief abhorrent cruelty--the murder of her children as he has her believe; and why the beyond-belief docile and self abnegating acceptance of it all by Griselda? Is it all rescued and set aright by the Clerk's final editorial ameliorating words at tale's end--wives be not so meek and submissive but as well be constant in adversity? 

I think not. 

What I think is that the tale, apart from the usual noted contrasts in the treatment of marriage with the other tales, is radically subversive and subsumes too the Clerk's final moderating advice. To my mind, the radical subversion works in at least three ways: 

first, it savagely pummels into wretched absurdity the roles and conduct men and women were conventionally held to at the time; 

second, in a parallel way it explodes the literary forms, conventions and precedents that conveyed these conventions. It does so by stretching the tale first into sheer unbelievability in the cruelty and its acceptance, and second having that incredibility  make ridiculous in its insufficiency the temporizing final advice that platitudinously counsels, as noted, a balancing of less humility than Griselda with constancy in adversity. 

The Clerk says his story isn't a model for wives to follow Griselda in humility but that everyone ought to be constant in adversity. In that, the moral is discordant with the exemplum. And, is there scriptural allegory involved; might there be echoes in Griselda of the story of Mary? But if Griselda echoes Mary, what does that make Walter? He seems, to put it in modern terms, a case study in existential evil, evil, that is to say, which exists for its own sake and satisfaction but is dressed up in the tale as mere testing conduct;

and third, in the way (say) of black humour, the reader who follows the story uncritically and is satisfied by and accepts the Clerk's final platitudes of advice as resolving everything is made the unthinking fool in the way that those who laugh at the horror and cruelty of black humour become in a way complicit at what arouses their laughter.

Listen, what I know about Chaucer scholarship and criticism wouldn't fill a small thimble. I don't whether anything like my reading of the Clerk's Tale has ever been proposed. But the way I'm seeing it, especially with Chaucer appearing to be in the "devil's camp" with the Wife of Bath, the way it's said Milton is with Satan, is the only was I can make sense of it.

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