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Signification Through Structural Irony in Chaucers Canterbury Tales

The structure Geoffrey Chaucer chose for his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, of utilizing a melange of narrative voices to tell separate tales allows him to explore and comment on subjects in a multitude of ways. Because of this structure of separate tales, the reader must regard as extremely significant when tales structurally overlap, for while the reader may find it difficult to render an accurate interpretation through one tale, comparing tales enables him to lessen the ambiguity of Chaucers meaning.

The Clerks Tale and The Merchants Tale both take on the institution of marriage, but comment on it in entirely different manner, but both contain an indictment of patriarchal narcissism and conceit. Chaucer gives us a description of the structure of The Canterbury Tales within the text. In The Merchants Tale, the narrator states, Diverse men diversely him tolde Of mariage manye ensamples olde: Somme blamed it, some preysed it(Bantam, 252)

Indeed, the reader is given such diverse accounts of marriage, and it is the intricate task of the reader not only to integrate the meanings of tales, but to individually excavate the narrative voice to understand this meaning. Both the Clerks Tale and The Merchants Tale utilizes an ironic structure to mean quite differently than the narrative voice says. M. H. Abrams defines irony thus: Some literary works exhibit structural irony, in that they show sustained irony.

In such works the author, instead of using an occasional verbal irony, introduces a structural feature which serves to sustain a duplicity of meaning. One common device of this sort is the invention of a nave hero, or else a nave narrator or spokesman, whose invincible simplicity or obtuseness leads him to persist in putting an interpretation on affairs which the knowing readerwho penetrates to, and shares, the implicit point of view of the authorial presence behind the nave personajust as persistently is called on to alter and correct. (Abrams, 90)

The structural irony within The Merchants Tale is announced at the outset. By comparing the prologue with the opening of the tale, the reader can understand that the narrative voice of the Merchant signifies contrary to what is denotatively stated. The Merchant opens the tale deriding the institution of marriage: Weping and wayling, care and other sorwe I knowe ynogh, on even and a-morwe, Quod the Marchant, and so doon othere o That wedded been. I trowe that it be so, For wel I woot it fareth so with me. I have a wyf, the worste that may be;

For thogh the feend to hire y-coupled were, She wolde overmacche, I dar wel swere. (Bantam, 240) Stating that his wife could take on the devil, the narrator goes on to open his tale lauding the institution of marriage. Preyine our Lord to graunten him that he Might ones knowe of thilke blisful lyf That is bitwixe an housbond and his wyf, And for to live under that holy bond With which that first God man and womman bond. Non other lyf, seyde he, is wortha bene, For wedlok is so esy and so clene That in this world it is a paradys. (Bantam, 242)

The Merchant is telling this tale instead of telling the true story of why he is so miserable as a result of his marriage. Thus we can expect structural irony in this part because he must first set man up as positive towards marriage to emphasize the cruelty when he realizes he has been cuckolded. But, what the Merchant is not aware of is that Chaucer is using this bias in conjunction with his own bias in order to criticize the male in the institution of marriage. Bernard Huppe notes that the Merchant probably does not perceive the real point of the tale he tells (Huppe, 162).

But the reader must ascertain that this story is again an indictment of mans self-justified and self-indulgent tendencies. Januarys plight is complicated by the allegorical significance that men consistently deceive themselves so as to remain content. Though the reader is aware throughout the tale that January is the motivator of his own cuckolding, the heart still wrenches with pity at his pathetic acceptance of his wifes explanation and deception: he yaf a roring and a cry, As doth the moder whan the child shal dye. Out! Help! Allas! Harrow! he gan to crye, O stronge lady store, what dostow?

And she answerede, Sire, what eyleth yow? Have pacience and reson in youre minde. I have yowholpe on bothe your eyen blinde. (Bantam, 292) She of course goes on to tell him that, though he saw them copulating, his eyes are faulty. Indeed, the reader must note that Chaucer is commenting on the masculine qualities of self-deception and narcissism in the Merchants Tale. Though, in the Merchant’ Tale, one must cringe at the gullible self-deception that January allows himself to fall into, the author has also continually indicated that the fault of this adultery lies with him.

Bernard F. Huppe concurs that our howls of execration are for the young girl May who is in marriage with old, self-indulgent January: The Merchants Tale in addition extends the theme of the marriage debate by placing the primary responisibility for the Wifes heresy where it belongs, on the husband (Huppe, 162). The tale, ostensibly criticizing women thus uses structural irony to indicate that the fault lies with the man. In both the Merchants Tale and the Clerks Tale the men are motivated solely by their own concerns.

In both instances, it is this narcissism that signifies the corruption of the marriage, for the reader understands that Marquis Walter would have been much happier, and Griselde no less loyal, if he had not faked the murder of her children, and the annulment of their marriage. Also, January would not have been cuckolded had he not recklessly pursue his own pleasure without concern for anothers. Note that January contends that I warne thee, if wisely thou wolt wirche, Love wel they wyf as crist loved his chirche; If thou lovest thyself, thoug lovest thy wyf.

Bantam, 248) However, Chaucer means quite the opposite: loving oneself has nothing to do with loving ones wife. In fact, women are depicted as both the most noble and impotent of the pair in marriage. They must suffer as Griseld does in the Clerks Tale, and have little choice in the matter. Chaucer obviously intends the Merchants Tale and the Clerks Tale to be told in conjunction. The Merchant states, Ther is a long and large difference Betwix Grisildis grete pacience And of my wyf the passing crueltee. (Bantam240)

Though this ostensibly states that the tales will mean different things, it is a testament to Chaucer that he means something very similar; he just approaches from two different angles. The Clerks Tale does not obviously utilize allegory, but instead relies on telling this tale of such incredulity in the style of straightforward realism. Huppe elucidates: The story outrages credibility, but not through its use of supernatural devices. The story is told realistically, and the motivations are psychologically, not allegorically based (Huppe, 138). G.

L. Kittridge notes further that the Clerk is aware of this and purposefully utilizing irony: He knew perfectly well that the real moral of his story was not that which his hearers would gather. He was aware that Griselda was no model for literal imitation by ordinary womankind. If so taken, his tale proved too much; it reduced his argument ad absurdum (Kittredge, 16). This tone, though, serves to render satirical irony, because the incredibility of what is said can thus be understood as pointing towards the masculine need for affirmation of power.

This satirical irony is pervasive in this tale. Huppe notes that it was not a mistake on Chaucers part to render this tale with such gravity: Yet Chaucer has shown great respect or the Clerk, so that it is hard to understand his putting him at a disadvantage, and, of course, he has not. What he has done instead is to present the Clerk as a master ironist (Huppe, 138). On the purely content level, there is fundamental irony in the fact that Marquis Walter makes his wife, and probably his marriage, miserable in his quest to affirm her loyalty.

Furthermore, he is duplicitous and manipulative to her, making him the betrayer. The tale begins with the Marquis Walter deciding to marry at the behest of his people. It is not his inclination, nor does he have a specific girl in mind. But he listens to his constituents, who state, For certes, lord, so well us liketh you And all your work, and eer have done, that we Ne coulden not ourselves devisen how We mighte live more in felicity, Save one thing, lord, if it your wille be, That for to be a wedded man you lest, Then were your people in sovereign heartes rest. (Saunders, 285)

It is ironic that Marquis Walter is taking on a wife to appease his people, and for Griseldes sake we certainly wish he had not. But marriage to this feudal lord becomes merely another area in which he must exercise total control and demand allegiance. We note that his proposal to Griselde reeks of contractual obligation, and foreshadows a marriage that is based on control: I say this, be ye ready with good heart To all my lust, and that I freely may, As me best liste, do you laugh or smart, And never ye to gruthc it, night nor day, And eke when I say Yeah, ye say not Nay,

Neither by word nor frowning countenance? Swear this, and here I swear our alliance. (Saunder,s 246) Of course, the narrative voice is inconsistent with the authors purpose. We can understand the structural irony in this tale to allow Chaucer to liken mans marital habits with that of a lord; the problem, as Chaucer sees it, is that man marries as a power relationship. The narrator notes, The Clerk, whan he is old, and may noght do Of Venus werkes worth his olde sho, Than sit he doun, and writ in his dotage That wommen can nat kepe hir marriage. (Saunders, 242)

Certainly, we can realize that in the case of Griselde, this was not true. It was the Marquis Walters constant testing that was the fundamental problem. I believe exploring this is the most apt route for apprehending meaning in the Clerks Tale. This tale is a satirization depicting a continual increase in the horrors that Marquis Walter puts Griselde through. We must ask what the function of this is to the meaning of the tale. I contend that it is another assertion by Chaucer that a fundamental problems in marriage is the masculine need to continually affirm the loyalty of his partner.

It is, paradoxically, this trait that Chaucer would suggest is the cause for disloyalty. To read this tale as anything but a moral satire is to lose the purpose of this tale. This tale has been lambasted as exhibiting cruelty towards women, but in actuality the function of this is to criticize such cruelty. Were, for instance, Griselde to ultimately rebel, the tale would lose its ironic meaning. When the sergeant comes to take her baby, it is a painful reading process because of her meek submittance: Grisildis must all suffer, and all consent,

And as a lamb she sitteth meek and still, And let this cruel sergeant do his will. (Saunders, 294) And furthermore, it seems to me that the irony is certainly obvious at the conclusion. Chaucer writes, Thus hath this piteous day a blissful end; For every man and woman doth his might, This day in mirth and revel to dispend; Till on the welkin shone the starres bright; For more solemn in every mannes sight This feaste was, and greater of costage, Than was the revel of their marriage. (Saunders, 307) Certainly, this was no blissful end.

In both The Merchants Tale and the Clerks Tale the reader is urged by Chaucer to empathize with the wife. The narrative voices, however, express quite differently, especially in the case of the Merchant. The issue of marriage is raised many times, and to excavate Chaucers meaning, the reader must situate these in relation to each other. The use of structural irony allows the author leeway to create meaning. Those that have attacked these tales as misogynist are guilty, then, of perfunctory criticism, for Chaucer proves that narrative is quite separate from meaning.

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