Joy and Agony in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
Perhaps the greatest pleasure comes at the expense of others. Geoffrey Chaucer seems acutely aware of this, and has his Parson —the final tale-teller in The Canterbury Tales, though the Parson’s is not really a tale at all— include in his sermon on the seven deadly sins a denunciation of envy, the “worste synne that is” (X 487). Envy, according to the Parson, is manifested as “joye of oother mannes harm”, a definition which must give the reader pause: much of the enjoyment of reading The Canterbury Tales is derived from comical depictions of misery, particularly in the fabliau (and fabliau-incorporating) tales. Indeed, one of Chaucer’s most memorable scenes is the one in which the cuckolded carpenter lies unconscious and broken-armed after he has been outrageously duped and made the laughing stock of his town. The violent humour of this tale certainly accounts for its popularity among both readers and pilgrims, who “laughen at this nyce cas” (with the exception of the Reeve, at whose expense the tale is told —a fact which undoubtedly heightens our enjoyment; I 3855).
We might, therefore, be tempted to regard the Parson’s speech on envy as mere lighthearted imitation of a long-winded clergyman, out of touch with human nature and the enjoyments of everyday people. It is, however, the purpose of this essay to show how the Parson’s declamation against envy is a vital key to understanding The Canterbury Tales, and to demonstrate how this apparent contradiction has much to teach us about the nature of the pleasure we take in Chaucer’s varying (and frequently exaggerated) dramas.
The Parson’s reason for describing envy as the “worste synne” is rooted in the complimentary definitions of envy he provides: on one hand, envy is “joye in oother mannes harm” (X 488, 493); on the other, it is “sorwe of oother mannes goodnesse and of his prosperitee” (X 492). Envy, “sory of alle the bountees of [its] neighebore”, is therefore “agayns alle vertues and agayns alle goodnesses”, making it “properly lyk to the devel” (X 489, 488, 493). But, as I mentioned above, this also defines the enjoyment we find in “The Miller’s Tale”; likewise, we join the miller character in “The Reeve’s Tale” in his delight at the “sely clerkes [who] rennen up and doun”, chasing their runaway horse with “Keepe! Keepe! Stand! Stand! Jossa! Wanderere!” (I 4100-1). “They get hym nat so lyghtly, by my croun!” rejoices the miller, and we laugh with him —keenly aware (as he is not) that his own undoing is imminent (I 4099). By the time the miller’s wife and daughter have been had by the clerks, we are prepared to relish the ensuing fight:
And on the nose he smoot hym with his fest
Doun ran the blody streem upon his brest
And in the floor with nose and mouth tobroke
They walwe as doon two pigges in a poke.
And up they goon and doun agayn anon
Til that the millere sporned at a stoon[…] (I 4275-4280)
The scene is undeniably comical, and our amusement is heightened by the animal imagery; this enjoyment is further augmented when the Cook reminds us that the tale is told at the expense of one of the pilgrims present—“‘Ha, ha,’ quod he ‘for Cristes passioun./This millere hadde a sharpe conclusion” (I 4327-8). We, too, take enjoyment at misfortunes of the clerks and millers.
Here one might object that, while the misery of others forms a large part of the enjoyment we find in the fabliau-style tales, this principle of pleasure (as it may be called) does not apply universally. In “The Man of Law’s Tale”, for example, we do not take the same enjoyment in Cunstance’s suffering. Indeed, were this principle all-encompassing, we should expect to enjoy this tale a great deal more, since the unfortunate events endured by Cunstance are certainly far worse than those which befall the miller or carpenter. Cunstance is witness to a brutal massacre, twice exiled on a “shipe al steerelees”, and accused of murder (II 439). Yet one of the the only scenes in “The Man of Law’s Tale” which might be described as comical is the one in which the lying knight is suddenly slapped, presumably by the hand of God:
And in the meenewhiles
An hand hym smoot upon the nekke boon,
That doun he fil atones as a stoon,
And bothe hise eyen broste out of his face
In sighte of everybody in that place. (II 668-72)
A crucial difference between the knight’s unanticipated demise and the misfortunes of Cunstance is that the latter is not devastated by her hardships; she endures with patience, planting her faith firmly in divine providence:
But nathelees, she taketh in good entente
The wyl of Crist, and knelynge on the stronde
She seyde ‘Lord, ay welcome be thy sonde.’ (II 824-6)
Cunstance’s sufferings are neither vividly described nor sudden, as are those of the unfortunate knight, miller and carpenter. Of her second exile, the text tells us little more than that she “…fleteth in the see in peyne and wo/Fyve yeer and moore” (II 9001-2). I therefore believe that, rather than discounting the principle of pleasure at others’ pain, Cunstance’s case provides further proof for my argument: we are unable to enjoy her suffering because it is neither sudden nor devastating; moreover its dramatic effect is significantly diminished by her apparently unshakable faith. In this way we follow the Parson’s corollary definition of envy as “sorwe of oother mannes goodnesse”: the possibility of delight at Cunstance’s sufferings is precluded by their lack of palpable violence, and by the saintly equanimity with which she bears them.
Thus do we follow Satan is his displeasure at Cunstance’s perfection (II 126); we follow him in his desire to see her destroyed, confirming the Parson’s assertion that envy is “properly lyk to the devel”. Our craving for depictions of human suffering will only be satisfied by devastating changes in fate described in vivid physical detail; Cunstance’s years at sea do not satisfy, because they merely portray a distressing situation, coupled with relatively undramatic reactions on her part. Indeed, in “The Knight’s Tale”, Palamon and Arcite’s distress is amusing precisely because it seems melodramatic: the wailing and bickering of the imprisoned knights over the lady they have just seen from between the bars of their prison window is laughably foolish, for they are both detained indefinitely.
A second possible objection to the principle of pleasure which I here elaborate is the (immense) problem presented by the vicious and imposing anti-Semitism of “The Prioress’s Tale”. The modern reader is horrified at the vivid descriptions of sudden and irreversible human destruction. We receive amusement neither at the death of the innocent boy, “Kut unto [the] nekke boon”, nor at the “torment and shameful deeth” of the “cursed Jewes” (VII 659, 628, 685). The Prioress, however, almost certainly takes delight at the latter; moreover the popularity of similarly unsettling tales in the Middle Ages suggests a reception different from the one it inspires in the modern reader.
This objection is more difficult to square with my argument for amusement at violent suffering than that of Cunstance’s weary and interminable misfortune. In truth, this sudden and vivid violence pricks the reader’s conscience too much to be enjoyable, primarily because the modern reader will have become too sensitive to ignore the blatant racism which drives this tale, but also because the violence seems fierce and unjustified. Consequently, I will have to amend my principle somewhat.
“The Prioress’s Tale” may be set in direct opposition to “The Clerk’s Tale”, its climactic opposite: the violence which concludes the former is too extreme —any possible enjoyment is defeated by the modern conscience. In the latter, on the other hand, the cathartic destruction we rightly anticipates never comes: Walter does not receive the punishment we think due for emotionally torturing his wife and exiling his children for years and, at the tale’s end, we are left dangling, without a sense of conclusion.
This desire for violence in one place and repulsion by it in another exposes the conditions under which we as readers want to be entertained by depictions of others’ suffering. We may avoid the problem raised by “The Prioress’s Tale” by saying that depictions of vivid and sudden violence must also seem merited punishments in order to be entertaining: enjoyment must not be tainted by irritations of conscience. The reader is already aware of the sin of envy as the Parson describes in at the end of the Tales; yet the guilt at this pleasure may be overcome by stories which apportion suffering characters which seem deserving, thereby justifying the pain as due punishment, disguising enjoyment of pain as enjoyment of justice. Thus is the conscience sated and guilt discarded, allowing vicious pleasure at pain and suffering to be maintained.
We therefore remorselessly laugh at the ageing January (of “The Merchant’s Tale”), because he has wrought his own undoing: he has aspired beyond his station, taking an attractive young wife who (inevitably, it seems) cuckolds and outrageously lies to him. His embarrassment is funny to us, just as the embarrassment of the carpenter, injured both in body and in pride, is funny to his townspeople. The narrative surrounding the Summoner and Friar provides delightful entertainment, as their mutual deep-seated animosity gives way to battling tales which, however poorly conceived, antagonise and humiliate them before their fellow travellers. We laugh to imagine the enraged Summoner who,
…in his styropes hye stood.
Upon this Frere his herte was so wood,
That lyk an aspen leef he quook for ire. (III 1665-7)
Likewise do we laugh at the poorly-mannered Friar, who embarrasses himself before the assembly, receiving a rebuke from the Host: “‘A sire, ye sholde be hende/And curteys as a man of youre estaat” (III 1286-7).
The speech on envy given by Chaucer’s Parson therefore lends much to our self-understanding, as we consider a fundamental “joye” we take in the dramas of The Canterbury Tales. Yet by ultimately taking the role of conscience, Chaucer shows us how guilt channels this impulse into a desire for justice: we delight in misery on the condition that it does not seem to excessive; we expect punishment of others when we feel that we have the right to demand it, and we feel disappointed when anticipated suffering fails to meet our expectations (as in “The Clerk’s Tale”). And, after revealing to us this appetite for depictions of suffering, Chaucer lambastes us through the voice of his Parson, decrying the cruel delights which we share with his pilgrims.
Indeed, Chaucer’s irony even extends into his Retracion, in which he admonishes his readers, “that if ther be anythyng in it that liketh hem, that therof they thanken oure Lord Jhesu Crist, of whom procedeth al wit and al goodnesse” (X 1082). Of course we would never feel compelled to thank Christ for the distinctly anti-Christian pleasure taken at human pain, yet the apparent universality of its appeal suggests that it takes root somewhere deep in our psychology. Chaucer has led us into a corner, only to distance himself by turning against the delights which we have been enjoying; we are left exposed —like the pilgrims in his Prologue— to observations to which we would rather not be subjected.
Chaucer, Geoffrey, Robert Boenig, and Andrew Taylor. The Canterbury Tales. Peterborough,
Ont.: Broadview, 2008. Print.
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