Canterbury Tales Essay: The Epilogue of the Clerk’s Tale
The Clerk’s Tale is unusual among the stories we have read in several respects, including the in-text attribution to another writer, the distinct rhyme-scheme, and especially it’s use of multiple interpretations at the end, both by the clerk and (perhaps) by Chaucer as himself. In this essay I will consider how the addition of the Clerk’s interpretation of the story of Grisilde and the Envoy song at the end affect how I might interpret the meaning of the story.
Leaving out the epilogue, Grisilde’s perfect constancy, along with a conclusion wherein everything is restored to her, suggests that she is being held up as an ideal of woman’s virtue. In contrast with the tales of the Miller and the Reeve, she remains perfectly loyal and constant throughout, with no sign that she is seeking to undermine the desires of her husband; she maintains this submission from her own sense of morality and character, and does not even ask for sovereignty. Yet even so, there is something cold and inhuman about her submission; often more that of a subject than of a wife or mother. Perhaps she maintains her virtue and promise at the cost of her humanity, giving up even her children without so much as pleading on their behalf, not her own when she was cast out penniless and naked. Even so, because her suffering never breaks that constancy, and her plight is righted as much as is possible in the end, without the epilogues I would suppose the story to be showing her as an ideal of unconditional devotion, even if one that others could not be expected to emulate.
Half way through the final stanza of the story, when all is well for Grisilde and her family, the Clerk begins his comments: “This world is nat so strong, it is no nay, /As it hath been of olde tymes yoore./And herkneth what this auctour seith therfore./ This storie is seyd, nat for that wyves sholde/Folwen Grisilde as in humylitee,/For it were inportable, though they wolde..” (1139-44) Was her virtue really good, then, if it’s like would be “inportable” in real wives? Or is that the result of the world not being so strong as it was in older times? If it – and we – were stronger ourselves, could we then bear virtues like Grisilde’s? Then, a few lines later: “It were ful hard to fynde nowadayes/In al a toun Grisildis thre or two;/ For it that they were put to swiche assayes,/ The gold of hem hath now so badde alayes/ With bras, that thogh the coyne be fair at eye,/ It wolde rather breste atwo than plye.” If Grisilde is likened to unalloyed gold, then she must be good, but I’m confused by the metaphor, since she could not, in fact, “plye,” but rather, like iron, neither broke nor bent. There are, perhaps, no more Grisilde’s left in the world, yet would it be desirable if there were? Or would it be only desirable if the rest of the world could match her virtue – but as things stand, her very goodness is monstrous?
Since the Clerk cannot take the story at face value and really suggest that wives should treat their husbands with such complete submission, he goes on to offer it as an allegorical interpretation: “every wight in his degree/ Sholde be constant in adversitee/ As was Grisilde […] For sith a womman was so pacient/ Unto a mortal man, wel moore us oghte/ Receyven al in gree that God us sent”(1145-51). This interpretation strengthens the association between Grisilde and Job that had already been suggested within the tale (932). Whereas we cannot accept such unquestioning devotion to a mere man, it might be wise in response to the omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness of God. The epistle he references reads: “My brethren, count it all joy when ye fall into divers temptations; Knowing this, that the trying of your faith worketh patience. But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing” (James 1:2-4). It’s true that Grisilde has a relationship with Walter more like that of a man to God, or a servant to the king than one of husband and wife. In some ways there is an even greater divide, for whereas in christianity God no longer calls men servants, but rather friends (John 15:15), has taken our humanity upon himself, and tells us to ask things of him, the relationship between Walter and Grisilde are, more those of the Old Covenant, or perhaps of a monastic to their elder, under a strict rule of obedience. Perhaps the latter circumstance, in it’s ideal form, is more in common with Grisilde’s case, for she had sworn at the beginning of her marriage to Walter’s demand: “be ye redy with good herte/ To al my lust, and that I frely may,/ As me best thynketh, do yow laughe or smerte,/ And nevere ye to grucche it nyght ne day,/ And eek whan I sey ye, ne sey nat nay,/ Neither by word, ne frownyng contenance”(351-56), and though it could be argued that she hardly had a choice – or rather that her choice was between total obedience and remaining in abject poverty – she did still swear to it, and did not take the chance Walter offered to deliberate her choice. And she did understand what she swore, for why else would she respond by “quakynge for drede” (358)?
It is that vow that presents the greatest difference between Grisilde’s submission and that of Job. For though there is a strong parallel wherein both are raised to great wealth, have everything taken from them through no fault except ostentatious righteousness, then restored after showing constancy, the larger part of the book of Job is his questioning of God and his friends. People disagree on whether God’s response to Job proves that he was wrong in his questioning, but he did have the freedom to do so, even if the answer was only God’s transcendence. Grisilde’s promise precluded any such questioning, and likewise any thorough understanding of her character – it is not her acceptance, but rather her silence in the face of adversity that makes her so incomprehensible; not even to plead for her children’s lives, or the wrongness of being cast out with nothing. It is that silence that makes her goodness questionable, and makes her as much an accomplice as a sufferer of her husband’s injustices.
The allegorical interpretation may be more satisfying than taking the story at face value, but it is not in keeping with the rest of the Canterbury Tales, because in moving from the realm of husbands and wives to that of man and God it has gone outside the conversation of the rest of the tales to this point. Edifying or no, it’s beginning to do just what the host has concerned about: forsaken the company for sermonizing. So it’s appropriate that it then comes back to the company, specifically the Wife of Bath, answering her tale, and especially her prologue, as a kind of counterpoint. In place of companionable chatter is a vow never to grumble; in place of sovereignty, submission.
It’s unclear whether the Envoy is supposed to be the Clerk speaking, or Chaucer in his own person. Sometimes it’s called Lenvoy de Chaucer, and sometimes just the Envoy. The stanza that introduces it (1170-76) comes without anything I understand as suggesting a change of character, and yet the Envoy itself is in such a different tone that it doesn’t sound like the Clerk as he has shown himself to that point. The first stanza agrees with what he has already said: “Grisilde is deed, and eek hire pacience,” don’t try your wife hoping otherwise. But not only are there no Grisilde’s left in the world, but perhaps there shouldn’t be – and here that’s stated much more strongly than anwhere previous. The Envoy is dedicated to the Wife of Bath, and vindicates her outspokenness over the meekness of Grisilde with outright assertions that wives should speak up, stand up for themselves against their husbands, dress in gay apparel, and be very much like the Wife of Bath. If this conclusion is meant to be read back into the story of Grisilde, it turns it from a perhaps impossible ideal to something more like a horror story. Rather than a story of unconditional love, patience, and constancy, it becomes one of acquiescing to oppression and heartless tyranny, made all the worse by the difference of social standing, and instead of virtue Grisilde is showing cowering weakness. Is that really how it should be understood? “O noble wyves, ful of heigh prudence,/ Lat noon humylitee youre tonge naille,/ Ne lat no clerk have cause or diligence/ To write of yow a storie of swich mervaille/ As of Grisildis, pacient and kynde,/ Lest Chichivache yow swelwe in hire entraille!” But I’m not certain that this is really any more sincere in it’s aim than the original tale; it sounds at least as sarcastic as true. No humility? No reticence? throw scorn on patient and kind wives? This interpretation may be livelier and interacts with the Wife of Bath, but how satisfying is its view of marriage? In the chattering, bickering, finery, and “crabbed eloquence” there may well be some charmingly familiar domestic arrangement, but where does it leave room for the mutual submission of love? What of the greater virtues?
The epilogues of the Clerk’s Tale present several possible understandings of the true meaning of the story, none of which are wholly satisfactory. The tale itself, without the epilogue shows a terrible kind of goodness that is as repulsive as it is beautiful; the interpretation offered by the clerk is sound enough as far as it goes, but is hardly entertaining, and fails to interact with the tales that have gone before; finally, the perspective of the Envoy succeeds in interacting with at least one other tale, and shows a reality that is more in keeping with family life as we know it, but if taken seriously, it leaves little room for an ideal or virtue that is beyond what we have already, and may be worth striving for – or at least considering. In superimposing those different views, do we end up with an understanding of wifely virtue that is more comprehensive than each of those views by itself?