We have awaited the response of Arveragus to Dorigen’s confession with some curiosity, particularly as we have been deprived of her exact words. Yet his reply is difficult to interpret as the emphasis he places on holding fast to one’s “trouthe” (solemn oath) leads to some ambiguous behaviour. Firstly he advocates leaving matters as they are: “let slepen that is stille”, a strangely passive attitude in an action man. His philosophy seems to be that things may turn out well on that day, perhaps: “It may be wel, paraventure, yet today” but he insists that she keeps her vow: “shul” is a strong term meaning “must”. It is impossible to be sure of his feelings towards her potential adultery as he is conniving at just that but he may be assuming that his rival will be generous and release Dorigen from her bond.
His powerfully physical line: “I hadde wel levere ystiked for to be [rather be stabbed]” might be more appropriate to the thought of her having sex with Aurelius than her failing to keep her promise as it is backed by a decalration of love for her. We note that he is also thinking of death, so vital to him is the concept of dishonour following the breaking of “trouthe.” Yet in Christian ethics one is not obliged to keep a promise to do evil and so he is leaning on chivalric codes rather than religion. His focus on these conventions makes it impossible to know exactly what he intends when he sends his wife off to meet her suitor and we may find his morality and humanity questionable as he expresses no direct grief at the most likely outcome: her infidelity. He has promised not to command “maistrie” over her and yet he is giving her orders – although he may be recalling his earlier rejection of jealousy. It is worth looking back at their marriage vows and pondering on the chain of bonds so far created, particularly Dorigen’s conflicting promises to two different men but also Aurelius’ debt to the magician which is almost forgotten and in the background at this moment.
Arveragus extols “trouthe” as the highest value and does now weep, possibly because he visualises the adultery but more likely because he foresees the threat to his own reputation following it, since he forbids her (again using commands) to keep entirely silent on the matter on pain of death as long as she lives and breathes. His concern for appearances is stronger than his earlier renunciation of “maistrie” [supremacy] and his orders are powerful. All he has to do is to keep up a facade as best he can, enduring his woe and avoiding a sorrowful countenance which would make people suspect or guess “harm” [evil] of her. This is quite unlikely as his sad face would not immediately point to her culpability but he has lost adherence to reality because of his focus on reputation. It may be that the Franklin is unaware of a listener’s possibly critical response as he is himself focused on appearances. Yet we and the pilgrims may well think that Arveragus could have acted in some way, confronting the opposition and defending his wife.
What he does instead of taking action himself is to send his wife out with a squire and maid to meet her potential lover and adulterer. The companions do not know why they are setting off as Arveragus is too concerned with external appearances to admit his motive to anyone. Chaucer now allows the Franklin a moment of doubt when he accepts that a “heepe” [large number] of listeners may consider him a “lewed” [stupid, ignorant] man for putting his wife in jeopardy which may pre-empt us from arriving at just that conclusion. The narrator raises the question but does not answer it satisfactorily: he merely asks us to hear out the story before crying over Dorigen since her fortune may be better than one expects. When the Tale is over we may make our judgement. This is far from adequate as we have been invited to examine Arveragus’ conduct by the teller and may well have decided that he is too proud and self-concerned, being consumed by his own emotions and desire to keep up appearances and caring little for Dorigen’s position. The mask of gentility does not blind us to the fact that he is sending off his wife to commit adultery and therefore sin in order to keep her “trouthe”. We now expect a happy ending and feel that Arveragus also may be depending on Aurelius to cancel the oath but this does not mean that he has behaved well and honourably. The narrotor has gratuitously drawn our attention to what the husband has decided and, at the same time, cloaked the question of whether or not Dorigen is bound to agree since her conflicting duty is to be a faithful wife.
We realise that the narrator knows the end of the story and we suspect that closure is not far off and will be a happy outcome: we accept also that we have been invited to take a critical stance and make judgements on the concluding events and behaviour of the characters. In this next section (lines 791-811) the Franklin introduces the question of fate by the words “of aventure” [by chance] and later using the phrase “of aventure or grace” suggesting that the encounter is not entirely accidental. Although the plan is to meet in the garden, Aurelius (who, we are reminded, is very much in love with Dorigen) has been watching her habits and knows which way she will go: he can therefore intercept her in the middle of the town in the “quykkest” [busiest] street as she takes the most direct route to the garden. He greets her with cheerful “entente” [intention] and asks where she is bound. This amount of detail as to the itinerary, not essential to the onward drive of the Tale, is surprising at this point as the narration seemed to be speeding up but it does underline Aurelius’ devotion and raises questions of fate through chance. On a more pragmatic level, a meeting in a public place might predispose Aurelius to cancel the vow as a transfer to the garden for adultery could appear clumsy. It is not wholly irrelevant.
He is more attentive to her than was Arveragus and listens to her distraught answer, which is given as if she were half mad. She says that Arveragus has sent her to the garden to keep her “trouthe” and follows this with two sighs of “allas! allas!” Dorigen is the most realised of the three main personages and her reply is simple and poignant. It is as though the Franklin is unaware of how we might judge the men and so far has not been fully capable of rendering sympathetic their supposedly aristocratic behaviour since he is not high born himself – but he is skilful at female psychology. A turning point seems to have been reached, emphasised by the hints at fate and the only machinery for a happy ending must the undoing of the chain of promises which has created the crisis. We sense that the Franklin will not have Dorigen go on to the garden for sex and those aware of analogues would know this will not be the case.
Now begins the first major and unambiguous movement towards self-denying “gentillesse” [nobility or graciousness of behaviour] since Arveragus’ acceptance of possible adultery was questionable. Aurelius takes pity on Dorigen (“gan” here has no sense of “began”) and has compassion for her and for her husband who is automatically referred to as a “worthy knyght” – a standard tag the accuracy of which we have already doubted – because he has ordered her to hold to all that she had pledged. It was hateful to Arveragus that she should break her “trouthe” [solemn vow], more unacceptable than that she should commit adultery. Aurelius conceives in his heart great “routhe” [pity] and this is a sign of true nobility. Considering every angle he decides he must abstain from his “lust” [desire] rather than do a “cherlyssh wrecchednesse” [a low and ungracious act]. The word “gentil” [or “gentillesse”] is the opposite of “cherlyssh” which is the behaviour typical of a low-born person and “franchise” [generosity] is a characteristic of an aristocrat, whether by blood or by actions. That pity runs quickly in a noble heart is a repeated line in Chaucer (“For pitee renneth soone in gentil herte” occurs four times) and there has already been debate about natural nobility in the Wife of Bath’s Tale. Pity was an admired emotion in Medieval times.
There is no doubt that Aurelius is now conducting himself in exemplary fashion and his “gentillesse” is absolute. Because of his decision he utters a few words (though more than strictly necessary as he is often prolix) to send her back home to tell Arveragus that he has appreciated both his nobility and Dorigen’s distress: he accepts that a knight could not endure the shame of his wife’s breaking of her vow. (There is a repeated and therefore memorable rhyme on “trouthe/routhe”, connecting the two words in our minds and even more so in a listener’s.) He generously prefers to live with his endless suffering rather than divide the married couple. At this point we wonder if Arveragus had foreseen this and, if so, why Dorigen did not. Aurelius releases Dorigen, using legal language, (“serement” [oath] and “bond”) and gives her back into her own keeping, a phrase that reminds us that a “trouthe” encompasses the whole person’s being. He cancels every pledge she has made to him and promises (the word “trouthe” is used again in this reversing process) that he will never reproach her, praising her as the truest and best wife he ever knew. His words have a ringing sincerity and selflessness set against the background of his earlier pining, albeit that it was rather conventional, and his continued dedication and watchfulness over her.
It may be difficult for us to see why Dorigen is the perfect wife since, apart from her fixated anxiety over the rocks and her long speech of exempla (which merely served to delay her suicide), she has made arrangements, albeit highly improbable or seemingly impossible, to commit adultery. The Franklin seems to be aware of this and issues a light-hearted generalised warning, that every wife should be careful of what she promises and remember Dorigen. He also points out that a squire can certainly perform a “gentil” deed as readily as a knight, meaning that nobilty resides in an action not in the status of the person. Dorigen thanks him kneeling on bare knees, returns home and tells Arveragus all. He is so well “apayd” [pleased] that the Franklin cannot describe his reaction, almost as though he now sees that the husband’s behaviour is ambiguous (and apparently forgetting that he is talking not writing.)
Using the rhetorical device of occupatio, he refuses to say more of their lives, except that they were led in “sovereyn [supreme] blisse”. There is never any anger between them, he cherishes her like a queen and she is completely faithful. Suddenly, the narrator descends into brusque language: “Of these folk ye gete of me namoore” and seems to have something of more importance to relate. The contrast in register from hyperbolic cliche to everyday bluntness suggests he is relieved to be near the end of the story and glad he is no longer required to deal with the behaviour of a knight with which he is ill at ease.
There is a change also in the material which can seem quite inept as Aurelius turns his attention to the money he has promised to the magician and has presumably lost without gaining his desire. Although abrupt, this fits the character of the Franklin whose daily dealings must involve debts and payments and who cannot overlook this aspect. It is also relevant since it is another promise which demands fulfilment. Aurelius is as intense in his lamentation as he was over Dorigen, cursing his birth and his pledge of a thousand pounds in weight of refined gold – and this does seem to us an excessive amount. In simple but emotional language he says: “I se namoore but that I am fordo [undone]” and foresees that he must sell his heritage and become a beggar – he is nothing if not melodramatic. He will have to move away to avoid shaming his family, showing that he too is concerned with appearances, but then has a more realistic idea which is to try to pay by instalments, on fixed days, year by year. This will need the magician to show “grace” and “curteisye” but Aurelius is determined to keep his “trouthe.” These are all strongly moral words applied to a financial situation rather than an amorous one and this whole episode could be seen as anti-climactic if we are judging the Franklin as narrator. Chaucer, however, is sly and skilful in implying that the man could not omit this mercenary aspect even if it lowers the tone. We may well be just as interested in it as we were in the love triangle and some of the pilgrims more so.
His heart is sore as he goes to his money chest, presumably reluctant to keep his promise and we wonder if he will have to pay for his vow as the others have not, in the end, had to pay, in a metaphorical sense, for their folly apart from some anxiety. He takes a deposit of five hundred pounds and ask the man, out of “gentillesse” to allow him days of respite for the remainder. He tells the magician that he has never yet broken a promise (suggesting possibly that he may do so now) and vows that he will pay, even if he has to go begging, scantily clad in his tunic. He asks for two or three years’ grace granted with security, at the end of which he will have paid or will sell his heritage. The philosopher thinks he is trying to break faith, using the strong word “covenant” to denote their agreement. Brief dialogue ensues in which each has an alternate line – this makes a change from the long speeches which have characterised the Tale and also is appropriate for money dealings. Aurelius admits that he has not enjoyed Dorigen as hoped and tells the story to the man but the Franklin again uses occupatio to avoid repetition (“he” should probably read “ye” as the magician has not heard it before and we have.)
The use of occupatio is not fully genuine as he then summarises the happenings, stressing the moral behaviour of the characters: Arveragus who would rather die in sorrow and distress than have his wife be untrue to her “trouthe”; Dorigen who was so loath to be a wicked wife that she might have killed herself and who only made the oath out of innocence since she has never heard of illusions. Here Aurelius seems to accept his own trickery. We query the use of “frely” to describe the way Arveragus pressed Dorigen to keep her tryst but this becomes a key ideal as has the concept of “gentillesse”. The story now seems like a competiton in noble behaviour as the magician is determined to be as good as the aristocrats: the ideal has moved slowly down the scale from knight to squire to ordinary man.
He wants no “drede” [doubt] that he can be as “gentil” as the others and acquits Aurelius legally from his debt as free from it as if he had just appeared and they did not know each other. Yet the language used; “cropen out of the ground” makes Aurelius seem undignified and the mention of the fact that he did pay for his food sounds a petty consideration to us if not to the Franklin. It adds humanity to the Tale, however.
It was a convention for a courtly medieval story to end with a question and the device draws in the (male) listeners to engage with the issues: in this case the notion of freedom has come to the fore, somewhat surprisingly. Also worth noting is that the money is here possibly equated with Dorigen’s sexual virtue and the question is unanswerable since the concepts are on such different levels. The Franklin is in a hurry to sign off but leaves us asking who has behaved the most admirably; even when we suspect that the Franklin would vote for Arveragus we might uphold the magician. We might also wonder which pilgrims would support whom.
The Franklin wants to acquire prestige by telling an admired genre of story, the Breton lay, but, as modern readers, we are more interested in other aspects. The Tale seems well suited to the teller who wants to portray aristocratic ideals and behaviour and yet is not fully conversant with these matters. The characters are somewhat wooden apart from Dorigen, whose fixation with the rocks is astutely transferred into her rash promise. There is no physical description of them and Arveragus is particularly unrealised. Structurally, Dorigen’s long speech about virtuous wives delays the thrust of the narrative just as it postpones indefinitely her suicide. but the Franklin generally handles the pace well. The Tale is built around contrasts: sping/winter; indoors/outdoors; absence/presence; appearance and reality; the natural order against the unnatural where the rocks are seen as both. It is about an imperfect world where people have ideals but are foolish and misdirected even though kindly. Focussing on both marriage and gentility, it contriubtes to the general debate on these issues in the whole work.
The question at the end, directed at the gentlemen in the audience, engages us and some may recall that in Il Filicolo, the husband is considered the most generous since honour is more precious than wealth or the pleasures of love. We may judge very differently however, recalling the line in the Wife of Bath’s Tale: “he is gentil that dooth gentil dede.” The world of authority and high values is subjected to the realities of ordinary life and this is reflected in the Franklin’s occasional descent from elevated language to blunt – as he warned his audience from the beginning, although he uses many of the rhetorical and literary devices of which he claims to be ignorant. He, as an older man and representative of a passing generation, has undertaken to speak of rare aristocratic spirits but views them from outside as his place in the social order is above a churl but below a nobleman, having achieved a proper station in life, devoted to prosperity and desirous of an easy time, which is what his characters obtain in the end.