The Franklin’s Tale page four

Now that Aurelius has, with craftiness and patience, achieved a possibly propitious meeting with Dorigen, he launches into a formal but somewhat hypocritical speech using the language of courtly love to persuade her that she ows him submission. He also claims he will not tell her how oppressed he is with grief whilst doing just that: “Noght wolde I telle how me is wo bigon” he says after such terms as “dede and love”; “swich disese [sorrow]”; “I mooste dyen heere at youre foot anon [immediately]”. He states that he does not wish to displease her whilst placing her in an impossible position and stresses that it is in her power to save his life and that she would be responsible for his death: “Ye sle me giltless for verry payne” and yet he is not innocent and is, at that moment, causing her considerable anguish. His utterances are full of amatory cliches and he claims to be acting in a correct fashion, appealing to her honour not her pity and yet, when he mentions the promise, his manner is quite threatening, saying that even though she might not care about his death she should consider well before she breaks her “trouthe” [solemn and binding vow] and brings God into the dilemma to add to her guilt.

He goes on to say that he is not claiming a right but reminds her that she knows very well what she has “hight” [promised]. Evoking the original setting of the garden brings realism and humanity into the high-flown verbiage and is less conventional. Yet he puts the moral onus on her, recalling the detail of how she gave him her hand and repeating the strong word “trouthe” to bring pressure to bear on her. The terms of courtly love are a cover for his intimidation as he calls her his “sovereyn lady” and asks for “grace” (religious language was often used in such a context). Humbly but speciously he acknowleges he is unworthy of her but comes close to blackmail to augment his hypocrisy when he states that he is not concerned with saving his own life but with her honour.

He knows that she and Arveragus are concerned with the ideal of honour and uses this in his manipulative approach, determined to have his way and not absolve her from her promise and, although he speaks of her loving him the best, he fully intends to possess her sexually and adulterously. In the courtly love ethic the suitor pines from afar in a hopeless situation but Aurelius steps outside this restraint, constantly pressing her by recalling her promise. Finally, after all this coercion and a few more lines of delay, he reveals that the rocks have been removed. Just before his final dramatic line he says she can go to look for herself whilst having her vow in mind as well as her power over his life or death. He has tortured her as much as possible whilst claiming to be the sufferer and has prolonged her bewildered misery by leaving to the very end the statement: “But wel I woot the rokkes been aweye.”

This episode has switched between convention and reality and now (at lines 631-2) comes a recognisable moment of human reaction: Dorigen’s stunned, “astoned”, silence. The Franklin here shows himself a skilled narrator as the plot pauses for a credible reason and one which draws our sympathy and understanding to her. Aurelius hard-heartedly leaves her there, pale and motionless and her reaction is conveyed with brief, simple and potent phrases. The teller’s comment is bleak and bare: “She wende [expected] nevere han come in swich a trappe” and we fully empathise with her as she is caught in a dilemma which we know rests on deceit. This capturing of true feeling precedes a long lament a few lines later and is joined to the first part of it by a clumsy rhyme: “trappe/happe” which diminishes the effect as does the fact that Dorigen repeats what the narrator has said using the same (“wende/nevere”) or similar words which also weakens the impression. Yet the listeners are sustained by curiosity as to how the problem can be resolved as the conflicting vows are so serious. She draws attention to the fact that the miracle is unnatural and a “monstre” [something abnormal] which shows that she now feels the rocks are part of an ordained order, possibly because Arveragus is home once more and her lonely fixation ended. Ironically the desired result, that the rocks are removed, is now a source of great grief.

She returns to their home sorrowfully, barely able to move and passes the next couple of days weeping, wailing and swooning, more conventional and less convincing behaviour. The Franklin encourages us to imagine this by saying “It routhe [pitiful] was to see” but we were more convinced by her earlier silence. She tells no-one why and need not as Arveragus is out of town: this detail is added hastily as if the Franklin has caught himself out and has to think of some explanation for her being able to conceal her suffering, albeit sudden, casual and not backed up by detail. We are forewarned to expect a lengthy and formalised lament by the clause “as ye shal after heere”, a clear signal typical of oral narration. Aurelius has tranferred his own misery to the woman he claims to love when he could release her from her vow if he chose to do so.

Dorigen’s formalised lament is lengthy and full of classical references, demonstrating the Franklin’s learning rather than her realistic thoughts. She starts in more human mode by appealing directly to Fortune in a device known as exclamatio, whereas she has previously invoked a Christian God as Providence. Fortune is conceived of as blind and dealing out fates to those on her wheel regardless of the merits or faults of the recipients and here we recognise that Dorigen has been weakly and momentarily foolish rather than immoral, genuinely believing that Aurelius could not remove the rocks. She feels wrapped in a chain without any hope of help in escaping and it is evident that this is the will of Aurelius who could free her. In a sense she has always been trapped since the departure of Arveragus, firstly by her loneliness and then by her promise to her suitor.

She perceives, perhaps wrongly, that her necessary choice is between death and dishonour: she must yield to Aurelius or be shamed by breaking her vow – and yet giving herself to him is also dishonourable. (Line 650 is two syllables short in most mauscripts which indicates an emotional pause as she contemplates her position.) At this point she prefers death to shame, or knowing herself false or losing her “name” [reputation], she and her husband being very concerned with outward appearances. She interpets shame physically also and sees death as an escape, although we may be surprised by her sudden despair. “Ywis” [surely] suggests that se is convincing herself, as does the long list to come of wives and maidens who have committed suicide to save their honour. There is a dogged intensity about her ruminations and the rhythm speeds up at lines 656-8 suggesting that she is attempting to gain courage, boost her own confidence and convince herself that there are noble precedents to any self-harm.

She now cites twenty-two allusions to maidens, widows and virtuous wives all drawn from St Jerome’s anti-feminist Adversus Jovinianum, a tome which praises the virtues of virginity and cites the difficulties of marriage. A modern reader may find these tedious but we should bear in mind that, in the Middle Ages, it was respectable to use exempla and authorities from classical writings or the Bible to underline the point the narrator is making, provided they were detailed and accurate. Also the Wife of Bath had based most of her reasoning on this book, referring indiscrimately to both Jerome’s own logic and Jovinian’s arguments which he quotes in order to refute them, and telling us that this book was in her fifth husband’s favourite collection which he read all night to her great annoyance. We can imagine her chagrin at having to listen to it all over again. Chaucer seems to be joking slyly by making the Franklin, through Dorigen, draw on this work but, as part of the narrative, it shows her psychology at having to convince herself and also the Franklin’s character as he shows off his learning. The speech is therefore part of the frame narrative of the pilgrims and their journey and the Tale itself. We note that, whilst the exempla are intended to spur her to action, they actually delay it. There is understanding of her realsitic behaviour as she procrastinates

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Dorigen starts enthusiastically and with energy with the story of the Thirty Tyrants who instigated a reign of terror in Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War and we sense the Franklin’s own horrified fascination at the moment the daughters are paraded naked before arrest. The grotesque entertainment where they have to dance in their father’s blood is graphic but the mass suicide to prevent loss of virginity is dealt with quite briskly with a pat rhyme on “welle/telle.” The next exemplum ends with a rhetorical question as she asks herself why she should not emulate the actions of the fifty maidens of Lacedaemonia who killed themselves willingly rather than be ravished: “Why sholde I, thanne, to dye been in drede?” Again we see that the Franklin is skilled at portraying the inner workings of the female mind as Dorigen is afraid and the negative wording of her question reveals her doubts. It also belittles Aurelius by the covert comparison to rapists. Then comes the case of Stymphalis who seized an image of the goddess of chastity, Diana, in her temple and would not let go until she was slain rather then yield to the tyrant Aristoclides after the murder of her father. All these show extreme behaviour brought about by external events whereas Dorigen has caused her own dilemma by a moment of weakness and irresolution. We wonder if those qualities will now save her and, also, whether or not she realises that she is indirectly comparing Aurelius to a tyrant.

Now Dorigen generalises, arguing that, if virgins are so indignant at the prospect of being soiled by the foul desires of men that they kill themselves, a wife ought to be more so. The language is strong (the word “foul” and associated terms meaning “defiled” occurs three times in four lines) until the end when a downward rhythm is used to convey doubt: “as it thynketh me” [as it seems to me] which underlines the lack of motivation in “Wel oghte” [surely] which appeared firm at that moment. There is some irrational disgust and fear of men expressed here and we, as readers or the pilgrims as listeners, may never have thought that she should commit suicide because of her dilemma. Chaucer via the Franklin has raised a question which is not answered although, in terms of the ethic that she professes to admire, she should kill herself – yet we sense that she will not. Another doubt which occurs to us is the relevance and seriousness of the exempla: the references which began with graphic detail tend to become less appropriate and are dealt with more speedily, becoming almost like a parody. The rules of rhetoric demand that exempla should be employed with care and skill in order to add authority to a discourse but here they are uncontrolled and interfere with the story even whilst adding psycholgical realism.

The next two examples follow quickly and are in the form of questions suggesting that Dorigen is wavering as to their significance and relevance to her. The language used of Hasdrubal’s wife killing herself and her children by fire, “skipte adoun”, is not solemn and gives an impression of almost athletic alacrity for self-immolation. Dorigen seems to fear dishonour, “vileynye” rather than the actual rape and we recall that she has, albeit semi-wittingly, consented to Aurelius’ desires. The story of Lucretia’s rape by Tarquin was well known and written about by Chaucer himself in The Legend of Good Women but there is little emotion in the bare outline here. The citations become increasingly divorced from her particular plight and the case of the maidens of Miletus ends in the vague statement that she could tell more than a thousand similar tales. Presumably the listening pilgrims hope that she will not do so and she seems to be inducing panic in herself as the weight of exempla increases and she hardly knows when to stop. She is so carried away that she does not pause to consider whether or not she should simply tell her husband and hope for his sympathy: the list of references has its own momentum over which neither she nor the Franklin seem to have control. Chaucer is demonstrating his own mastery by having her and him lose it.

The next example is graphic but the relevance is less clear as she is vague about the exact threat to the wife of Abradates whilst describing her blood flowing into his deep, wide wounds after suicide, a clear and gruesome pictorial image. The word “defoulen” starts to appear and is repeated in the following citations like an obsession but she ends weakly with the filler phrase: “if I may” [if I can help it]. She then seems to be about to renounce her classical allusions but this merely draws our attention to the fact that she is delaying her fatal decision by quoting them at length: “What sholde I mo ensamples heerof sayn …” We sense through the rhythms that she is not at an end even when she states: “I wol conclude” and “I wol be trewe unto Arveragus” and we realise she would not be “defouled” in quite the same way as these women because she has put herself voluntarily into the power of Aurelius even though she did not fully realise it at the time and has been deceived. Indeed she starts up again at the end of this section by referring very briefly and unconvincingly to Demotion’s daughter, rushing past it although using the key word “defouled.” The topic of a daughter continues with that of Scedasus’ and is less appropriate than that of a wife. Each exemplum is brief now and the pace becomes nearly hysterical with an almost comic note at “or wel moore” when she cannot be bothered to extend her claim and give detail.

She keeps saying that the stories are similar (“dide right so”) although the question of rape is not entirely meaningful to her position and neither is that of the raped virgin of Thebes who set right the wrong done to her maidenhood by suicide – and we may feel that this action does not redeem the matter, even if it restores some honour. “What shal I seye” suggests that she is stumbling to find significance and piling on exempla because of panic and each is suggested by the one before rather than by her situation.

When she arrives at the case of Alcibiades’ beloved, there is no connection between her dilemma and that of a woman determined to bury a body: Dorigen now seems garrulous and rather foolish, although still retaining our sympathy for her human foibles. Chaucer deliberately takes sources from Jerome and uses them to diminish any real pathos or serious concern for Dorigen because of their length and presentation. There is a seemingly interminable list of proper nouns and names which might have tried the patience of listeners to oral narration. Also her focus is increasingly on death rather than sexual dishonour. The wives who cannot live without their husbands, such as Portia, would only be relevant if Arveragus were dead and those of Penelope, Arthemesie and Teuta are merely examples of good wives. By the end she packs three random references into two lines without explanation since Bilyea was best known for tolerating her husband’s bad breath and the others refused a second marriage. All contact with her own plight has been lost.

We are not given any physical description of Dorigen and so have to imagine her appearance: the focus is on the inner workings of her mind and emotions. There is both humour and sympathetic portrayal in the account of her lamenting for a couple of days, “Purposynge evere that she wolde deye” and not doing so. Our narrator is doing his best to create a moment in a possibly tragic tale but is undermining it by his own desire to show off his learning. The motives for Arveragus’ movements have never been made clear and now he suddenly returns on the third night just as she might be about to kill herself. Although he is called “this worthy knyght” little reason is added to substantiate the praise and he remains a cardboard figure whose reactions are difficult to forecast. He finds her weeping and asks why, thus causing her futher grief and forcing her to reveal what she might have kept to herself – if she were capable of so doing.
Her response is to bewail and a suggestion of pauses for sobbing is created by the repetition of “quod she”. The Franklin uses a brusque occupatio when he refuses to relate her confession which might have been of interest to us which has the effect of transferring the focus to Arveragus and his behaviour. This is not fully satisfactory as, although the Franklin states “as ye han herd bifore”, we would still like to hear how she expressed her problem and what exactly was in her admission: this would be more gripping than the list of suicidal women. However, there is tension as we wait to hear what Arveragus will say and do and this we are promised in detail: “as I shal yow devyse.”

He replies with “glad chiere” [a cheerful expression] and in “freendly wyse” which is admirable in view of the shock he has had but is also a symptom of his wishing to conduct himself in the character of a true knight and be seen to do so. We are not told how he feels within himself and this is significant. The stark simplicity of his question: “Is ther oght elles, Dorigen, but this?” shows restraint but also makes her earlier prolonged turmoil seem like irrational folly. She feels it is more than enough which makes us wonder if her husband will perform as perhaps he should and challenge the potentially adulterous suitor, querying the miracle and the bargain. Neither seems prone to act and both lose themselves in words.