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canterbury tales - the franklin's tale and the clerk's tale

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Sentence and Solaas

The tales in Canterbury tales all purport to offer both sentence and solaas, however the Clerk’s Tale and the Franklin's can be seen as particularly interesting in that their tales, ostensibly directed towards teaching, enact a struggle between a lesson in perfection and the imperfection which breaks in throughout and at end of the stories they tell. 

D.W Robertson has argued that all medieval literature must be read in terms of the exegetical impulse or double vision which sees all visible things as signs pointing towards an invisible reality. This is central to the Canterbury pilgrimage as a whole, but it is overt in the Clerk and Franklin’s tales as both pilgrims encode the values and lessons in their narrative, among their characters, and even in the structure and language of the tales themselves.

The Franklin’s Tale has in the past been seen as Chaucer’s model conclusion. Kittredge’s argument however can now be seen as outmoded, as critics such as Howard have pointed out that the characterisation of the Franklin in the portrait suggests Chaucer would not have assigned a ‘summation’ to him. However the Franklin incorporates the previous views of the marriage group in his tale, taking issue with Wife of Bath's idea of maistry, the Merchant’s cynicism, and incorporating the Clerks idea of pacience. In terms of the look backwards, the Clerk’s Tale has frequently been seen as an answer to the Wife of Bath, pointedly showing, as Kittredge says, that clerks can ‘speak well’ of women. 

Both pilgrims believe that they posses an answer to some of the problems raised by the drama of the marriage group, and put their solutions in terms which argue for a universal relevance. In the Franklin’s case, the mutuality, based on gentilesse, between Dorgien and Arveragus is seen by Kittredge as a bold challenge to the idea of the incompatibility of courtly code and marriage. Beyond this recipe for perfect marriage however, there is a wider lesson, as Burlin notes. For, in tracing Dorigen’s development from stylized grief to melodramatic complaint, the tale’s sentence for her as for Aurelius and in Burlin’s argument for the Franklin as well, is the need to ‘lerneth to suffer’. The Clerk similarly presents his case in universalising terms, arguing that Griselda’s patience is a lesson of virtuous sufferance, broadening the view to negate the idea that he is prescribing female code of conduct. This is not only evident at the end but within the tale; in Janicula’s acceptance of Wlater’s authority, for example.

Yet perfection, as Mann says, often suffers from a poverty of plot. It can also face problems of probability. Sledd argues that the Clerk’s Tale often faces hostility on the two points of being unrealistic, as well as immoral in its ‘shocking’ portrayal unvarying submissiveness. While Griselda’s ‘perfection’ has been seen as reprehensibly unnatural and unmaternal, the Franklin’s sentence is problematized from the beginning by his position as Epicurus owne sonne, enamoured of the notion of gentilesee. His tale is demanded by the host to interrupt a compliment to the squire and in part this illustrates the paradox which leads to a tension between the solaas and sentence of his tale. 

Kittredge argues that the Franklin takes delicate vengeance on the host by proving that gentilesse can be entertaining. There is certainly a ‘buoyancy’ to the tale which seems to point to its ‘breakthrough’ status as Howard says, yet it is also qualified by the Franklin’s narrativity, which is brought to our attention throughout. The fact the he chooses a Breton lay is significant in its aspiration towards high form, but it is also as Tatlock notes, indicative of his unfamiliarity with what he imitates- it is in the best taste but the taste of the previous generation. The way the high rhetoric and sententia are abruptly re-explained in prosaic terms, addressing both the gentils and the lower class, captures the ambiguous vacillation between solaas and sentence.

Dorigen’s complaint is frequently given as an example of imitation gone wrong, showing the Franklin’s lack of control and collapsing what is intended as a noble parade of exemplum into garrulousness. Burlin points to the increasing brevity and decreasing relevance of the examples, ending with Bilia whose martyrdom was that she never complained about the smell of her husband’s breath. This certainly seems as though ‘the Franklins tragedy is developed simultaneously with Chaucer’s comedy’ or in other words, that the Franklin’s sentence is given the form of solaas.

Sledd however has seen this as an indication of ‘rhetorical suavity’ on the Franklin’s part, furthering sentence while offering solaas by keeping the reader at distance. Thus, the tale is a tragicomedy of recognisably human people with a serious moral.

A parallel to this can be seen in the Clerk’s tale. Although the structure is strict and stanzaically parcelled, there is a similar mediation on the narrator’s part between the tragedy of the plot and the reader. 

It could be argued that if Griselda is presented as good, straightforwardly, with her typically medieval single quality a symbol for all virtues and her superhuman patience a marvel, the problem of improbability becomes solaas – the high morality of such virtue is close to fantasy, offering gratification. This becomes the narrator’s role, disarming and making realistic while at the same time reassuring the reader that "al is for the beste".

In the Franklin’s Tale, Dorgien knows that ‘clerkes wol seyn, al is for the beste’ and yet shows that she in unable to live by this sentence. As Burlin points out, this dissatisfaction is answered precisely by granting the characters wishes, and in a way the removal of the ‘rokkes blake’ is a parallel to the moment in which Walter cries ‘this is ynogh’ in The Clerk’s Tale, the climax which in traditional terms should offer the moral, the recognition that ‘pacience is an heighe vitru, certeyn.’

Yet the tales do not end here. The Franklin’s tale ‘tumbles to it’s conclusion’ shifting from Dorigen to the thee male characters and their willingness to make a deal, which enables the question of gentilesse the whole plot has been negotiating towards. This is an ending propelled by ‘a spirit of bargaining’ which Howard argues, the Franklin has ‘mistaken’ for gentility. In this merging of gentilesse with practicality, there could be an indication of how close they are. In viewing women as a prize for example, Emily in The Knight’s Tale and Dorigen’s situation do not seem far apart. Yet, even if it is taken as a conscious or unconscious challenge to gentility, inevitably the serious note of the Franklin sentence is subsumed within the ‘joke’ of his ‘mistake’. The Clerk’s mockery in the envoy on the other hand, functions like the Franklin’s consistent use of the modesty topos, discrediting the tale he has told while validating the ideal. Such perfection is impossible in a world which ‘is nat so strong’. 

Finally, however, the Merchant shows that this strategy of offering sentence and qualifying it through solaas is not unproblematic, as he takes ironic solaas for high and discerning sentence. 

Ultimately, both the Franklin and Clerk’s Tale recognise that, as Sledd puts it, "pious reflection can grow from a story but a story does not evolve from pious reflection". The fact that Chaucer saw that ‘mirth can serve doctrine’ as Howard puts it, may be behind the fact that the Canterbury Tales ‘can still make us laugh, make us ponder.’ 

written: 2007
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