In Private: the Promise in The Franklin’s Tale

July 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

In the Franklin’s Tale, Dorigen’s hasty (and unserious) promise precipitates a crisis when Aurelius completes a task that Dorigen felt certain was impossible. Aurelius faces a similar problem when, consumed by his inordinate passion, he unthinkingly promises to pay a staggering sum to a magician in exchange for completion of Dorigen’s task. The power of the promise is apparent throughout this story‹between Dorigen and Arveragus, Dorigen and Aurelius, and Aurelius and the magician, three promises of great importance are made. These promises direct the action of the story. Examination of these promises reveals that in the Franklin’s Tale, the promise binds two people together into a relationship which is profoundly private; this private relationship functions on a mechanism of trust. Grounding promises firmly in the private world, the tale argues that privately oriented values (as opposed to publicly oriented values, like shame) are the guarantor of harmony in relationships.The first of these relationships is formed by the touching promise of equality made by Dorigen and Arveragus, establishing from the beginning of the story that a promise lies totally in the realm of the private. Arveragus gives his word:Of his free wyl he swoor hire as a knyghtThat nevere in al his lyf he, day ne nyght,Ne sholde upon hym take no maistrie Agayn hir wyl, ne kithe hire jalousie,But hire obeye, and folwe hir wyl in alAs any lovere to his lady shal,Save that the name of soveraynetee,That wolde he have for shame of his degree. (ll. 745-52).The phrase, “Of his free wyl” establishes that Arveragus did not make this promise because of social convention or custom. His promise to her is totally private, a secret between the two of them. Their arrangement actually flies in the face of social norms; word of their relationship’s equality would lead to a loss of face for the knight. The two will be equals, “Save that the name of soverayntee, / That wolde he have for shame of his degree.” Essentially, Arveragus and Dorigen are to have two marriages, one of which is public and one of which is private. The public marriage takes as its foundation the assumed sovereignty of husband over wife, while the private marriage is based on a promise of equality. This promise structures their private relationship; it is part of the reason for their strong affection and love for one another. The Franklin asserts that “When maistrie comth, the God of Love anon / Beteth his wynges, and farewel, he is gon!” (ll.765-6). By saying what some couples get wrong, the Franklin makes an argument for what this couple gets right. Nor does a promise need to stand in the light of social surveillance to be honored: Arveragus promises that he will “ne kithe hire jalousie.” True to his word, when he returns after two years’ absence, he does not worry about his wife’s faithfulness:No thyng list hym to been ymaginatyf,If any wight hadde spoke, while he was oute,To hire of love; he hadde of it no doute.He noght entendeth to no swich mateere . . . (ll. 1094-7).Arveragus not only keeps his promise not to show his wife jealousy‹it never occurs to him that his wife’s virtue has been compromised. He had no doubts, he gave no thought to it; such strong language suggests a man whose faith in his wife’s private conduct is unimpeachable. The Franklin’s long arguments about the need for equality in love argue for the basic correctness of the couple’s approach to marriage; the reader can infer from this argument that a promise of equality would lead to strengthened affection. Their exchange of promises, without external surveillance, leads to increased private happiness. The promise’s power extends into the most private of places: the interior self. Even Arveragus’ thoughts seem to be shaped by it‹so certain is he of his wife’s affection (strengthened by their promise of equality) and so in tune with his promise to eschew jealousy that he does not even consider the possibility of impropriety on Dorigen’s part. The promise creates a private relationship based on trust.Dorigen’s hastily conceived promise to Aurelius is also in the realm of the private. Not only are the two alone together when the promise is made‹the reader is assured that Dorigen’s friends “nothing wiste of this conclusioun” (l. 1014)‹but the promise occurs in a moment when very private thoughts are being revealed. Aurelius has long kept his infatuation secret. Dorigen has no idea of his feelings until their moment in the garden: “But nothyng wiste she of his entente” (l. 959). After he bares his soul and is unambiguously refused by Dorigen, she gives her conditions for love. Just as Aurelius reveals his private, secret feelings in the garden, Dorigen’s promise hints powerfully at her private mental state (Pearsall 2/22). The narrator leaves no room for doubt that her promise was not serious, made “in pley” (l. 988), but Dorigen is choosing a rather inappropriate time to be playful. No indication is made previously that she dislikes Aurelius, and yet here she makes a strange joke when he has just told her that his life is in her hands. The rocks have become a deep obsession for Dorigen, revealing itself in this moment through her odd behavior. Her promise is made in an intensely private moment in a garden where two people who are alone share a secret and reveal mental states. There is a strange kind of trust here, as well‹unspoken is the assumption, made on both sides, that no one is to know of their moment in the garden. After all, Dorigen does not even tell her husband about the situation until she is forced to by Aurelius’ completion of her task.Made in private, the promise is kept in private. Arvaragus keeps his promise not to show jealousy even to the point of mentally internalizing an attitude of non-jealousy, and he expects his wife to be faithful in the keeping of her promise to Aurelius: “Ye shul youre trouthe holden, by my fay!” (l. 1474). But fear of public dishonor is not the motivation for keeping her word‹although Aurelius claims to fear for Dorigen’s honor should she fail to keep her word (l. 1331), there is no indication that he is blackmailing her. “Honour” here is apparently not located in a public space. Why do Arvaragus and Dorigen choose to honor her promise? Her promise was made in jest and there is no real threat of public exposure. If anything, the threat of public shame hangs over the keeping of the promise: Arvaragus demands that “nevere, whil thee lasteth lyf ne breeth, / To no wight telle thou of this aventure” (ll. 1482-3). He also says that they must avoid showing grief so that their friends will not ask about the cause of their sadness (ll. 1485-6). A similarly costly faithfulness brings Aurelius to the magician even though he knows that paying the magician’s price will bring poverty: “My trouthe wol I kepe, I wol nat lye” (l. 1570). Yet Aurelius makes no mention of any possible repercussions for not paying the magician’s money, save that it would mean breaking his promise. In both of these cases, then, the keeping of a promise is motivated not by the publicly oriented concept of shame but by the privately oriented concept of trust. Trust is the foundation of the three major promise-formed relationships of the story. The primacy of trust in the characters’ value systems is apparent in Arvaragus’ willingness to risk social disgrace and Aurelius’ willingness to face financial ruin, all to uphold a promise. Optimistically, upholding trust in this story is always reciprocated. Dorigen and Aurelius are released from their promises by the only person who can release them‹he to whom the promise was made. Through these acts of mercy, the story teaches that trust’s upholding will not be abused. The magician’s final act of mercy is preceded by a statement where the idea of trust is implicitly praised: “Everich of yow dide gentilly till oother” (l. 333). Although promises are the cause of the crises in the story, adapting a correct, privately-oriented attitude toward promises protects the stability of human relationships. Grounding promise-keeping firmly in the privately-oriented notion of trust, the tale argues that socially oriented values (like shame) need not be the guarantor of harmony in relationships. Trust and mutuality are enough. In the world of the Franklin’s Tale, privately oriented values ensure that those who make promises will keep them‹and those to whom promises are made will not abuse them.

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