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Canterbury Tales: Various Readings of The Clerk's Tale

Updated on November 28, 2016

Image from The Clerk's Tale

The taking of Griselda's children in the Clerk's Tale
The taking of Griselda's children in the Clerk's Tale | Source

The Wife of Bath is a character who happens to stir things up on this pilgrimage. She challenges the men and not many who are on this journey appreciate her stance on how a woman should act in a marriage. During this time women are expected to obey and be perfect wives that do whatever their husbands demand, but the Wife of Bath challenges this ideal world of silent women and with the Clerk's Tale being the follow up there are a few different theories on how the tale can be read. In all cases the Clerk's tale is essentially a reply to the Wife of Bath's Tale, but what kind of a reply. Does he agree with her, is he mocking her with a story of a woman who is so patient that she blindly obeys her husband without question even when her children's lives are at stake.

In the Clerk's Tale we have a woman, Griselda, who is fearfully obedient to her husband and never questions him not even when he orders that each of her children be put to death. This is a scary idea of women obeying their husbands because it creates a society of women who aren't willing to defend their rights as women. When a woman has a child her sole purpose after is to protect that child no matter what, and Griselda breaks this mold in ways that are unimaginable for women of this century. She allows her husband to take her children away to be killed, or so she is told. In fact her husband is doing all of this to test her obedience and to see if his wife will in fact follow his every order, and she does so without question.

Now women of today would rather lay themselves on the sword before allowing harm to come to their children, but not Griselda her purpose was to serve her husband however he saw fit. She was to obey him and go on blind faith that everything he did was necessary. Not only did she allow him to take each of her children away, she didn't even fight when he said he was taking a younger bride and that Griselda was to be her maid. She gladly did what her husband asked once again without question.

At the end of the tale her husband comes clean and explains that her children are alive and well and in fact the woman who he was supposed to marry is actually their daughter and this was all a test and she passed with flying colors. Now any woman of today's world would have laid into this man for his deceit and his cruel way of testing her obedience. Not Griselda she quietly accepted what her husband had did and went on her marry way.

Dramatic Reading

The Clerk's Tale could definitely have a dramatic reading, but there are some holes in this theory. The following statement is persuasive in convincing one of this reading, however, not all of the pieces seem to fit: The Clerk's Tale is best read dramatically, as the Clerk's direct reply to the Wife of Bath. The Clerk has been scandalized by the Wife's outrageous behavior and offers up the tale of patient Griselda as corrective, and example of how wives ought to behave. The reference to the Wife of Bath at the end of his tale is mocking and ironic.

This is persuasive because the Clerk's Tale throughout appears to be a direct response to the Wife of Bath in that Griselda is the way a woman should act. The Clerk is clearly trying to illustrate that the Wife of Bath's behavior isn't one that should be followed by other women. The problem with this reading is that the ending doesn't completely support it because the Clerk clearly says that there are no more women like Griselda and it's better that way. No woman should be completely submissive to a man's demands just like no woman should try to dominate over their husbands.

Even though this could very well be an accurate reading I am not completely convinced that this was the Clerk's intent. Sure most men would feel the need to challenge the Wife of Bath with a follow up story of a woman acting the complete opposite and obeying every word her husband says, but Griselda is a far fetched character. I am not completely convinced that a woman would just blindly obey her husband under the circumstances Griselda was put in. She allowed her husband to take her children away and told her they would be killed. I don't know of any mother who wouldn't fight tooth and nail to save their children.

Allegorical Reading

This idea suggests that this story is complete fiction and in fact should be read as this is how one should act when they devote themselves to God. The Clerk's Tale is best read allegorically, not as a realistic story because it's more of a guide to how one should be with God. Petrarch's moral translated at lines 1142-1162 of the Canterbury Tales is a good way of example to support this theory: we should understand Griselda's patience and obedience to Walter as an image of duty we all owe to God, and "lyve in vertuous suffraunce." What this suggest is that Griselda's suffering is one we should all go through in order to be tested by God. Now this theory on how the tale should be read is interesting because it's suggesting the readers take a step back and examine the reading. It is suggesting that they go further and not just take the story for what it is, a woman obeying her husband no matter the costs.

This theory is persuasive because there are other biblical references to God testing his followers in a similar way that Walter tests Griselda. The problem with this reading is that the idea of Walter being an image of duty owed to God is a bit of a stretch for me. Griselda is the patient one who should be seen as this duty owed to God. Walter is the tyrant who is toying with his wife so that he can gain control over her. I don't read that as Walter being God and testing those who are devoted to him. Walter is a tyrant, he only wants to show his wife is obedient in order to keep some kind of order in his kingdom. He is a man afraid to lose his title to the woman he had to marry. He doesn't want to lose his power or control so a way to ensure that is to put his wife through a series of tests to make sure she stays obedient.

I am not convinced that this is an accurate reading because believing the Walter symbolizes God testing those devoted to him is very far fetched. If there is a God I am not convinced he would test his followers in such cruel and unimaginable ways.

Image from Wife of Bath's Tale

Image from the Wife of Bath's Tale where the woman dominates over her husband. Here we see the husband cowering at his wife's anger.
Image from the Wife of Bath's Tale where the woman dominates over her husband. Here we see the husband cowering at his wife's anger. | Source

Agreement with Wife of Bath

Now it may seem far fetched to believe this reading simply because Griselda is the complete opposite of the Wife of Bath. Her character is one who submits and the Wife of Bath is a dominate woman who seeks what men seek, power and control in a marriage. The Clerk is in essential agreement with the Wife of Bath, and he finds the tale an example of extravagant if not pathological behavior, especially on Walter's part. There are no Griselda's in the world, he says, and it's better that way; wives should not dread but dominate their husbands. The "Envoy" is his final word on the matter, and should be taken seriously, not ironically.

This argument is very interesting, to think that the Clerk told this tale to agree with the Wife of Bath is, at first seems way off, but after close examination I believe this is an true theory. I believe the Clerk intended this reading to show the others on the pilgrimage that women who blindly obey are not the women you would want as wives.

This is persuasive because the ending of the tale supports the argument. The Clerk enters and says that women like Griselda don't exist and this idea definitely agrees with the Wife of Bath's take on refusing to be a silent and patient wife. The problem with this reading is that while I'm convinced he agrees with the Wife of Bath, I'm not convinced that the Clerk isn't mocking the Wife of Bath in some way. The Clerk doesn't feel women should be like Griselda, but I'm not sure he would want women taking direct lessons from the Wife of Bath either. I think the Clerk fears not only the Wife of Bath, but all women so he makes his concluding remarks appear to be in agreement with women in general. He appears to their better nature in saying that they should dominate their husbands.

So is the Clerk in agreement with the Wife of Bath or is he just placating her? Which reading do you find to be true?

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