Undergrad Wednesdays – Chaucer’s Envoy, Gone Girl, and Pseudo-feminism

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

The question of how we deal with texts that are problematic yet revered is one that pervades modern readings of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. “The Clerk’s Tale” is no exception, as it depicts the unwavering devotion of Griselda to her husband King Walter, even when he cruelly takes her own children away from her. In one of the stranger literary moves in the Tales, the “Clerk’s Tale” includes an “Envoy” with some concluding remarks on the tale proper. This envoy offers a seemingly competing moral than the Clerk originally gave in his tale. How we read this envoy becomes a complicated task. For one, we are unable to say for certain who is its speaker. While many scholars believe these are still the words of the Clerk, others offer competing arguments that they are actually Chaucer’s. While finding out the intended speaker would likely change the meaning of the “Envoy,” we will read this section as most critics currently do: as an ironic passage[1].

Walter taking Griselda’s child in the Clerk’s Tale

At face value, the “Envoy” of the “Clerk’s Tale” rejects the moral that women should strive to the levels of obedience that Griselda achieves. The envoy says that this is impossible, and women should instead hold no silence and take governance into their own hands. However, the “Envoy” goes even further to direct women to wield metaphorical arrows and binding practices offensively against men. While these are metaphorical images, the point is that women should rise up and achieve unjust levels of domination over men. Read ironically, as most critics do, the speaker is in reality still advocating that Griselda’s obedience is the ideal and that female dominance is to be sidestepped. The irony highlights only two extreme possibilities for women: the selfless obedience of Griselda to her husband, and the forced dominance of a woman similar to the Wife of Bath. These two characters of the Canterbury Tales are often analyzed in opposition to one another because they are polar opposites. They represent the two ends of the spectrum, and how there is no apparent middle ground for women to inhabit. Here we find the problem of the “Envoy.” Whether or not it advocates for the obedience of Griselda, it acts as if there is only one other alternative for women, which is unjust dominance.

The “Envoy” of the “Clerk’s Tale” is not the only relevant text to display this misogynistic phenomenon. In pop culture today, the 2014 film Gone Girl has garnered attention from critics for similar reasons. The film depicts Amy Dunne, who basically fakes her own kidnapping and murder to frame her husband. In carrying out her carefully orchestrated plot, Amy lies and even kills to punish her husband.

Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, 2014

As critic Veronika Kiss comments in a 2014 article, “she commits these reprehensible actions under the guise of being a feminist liberator, lending credence to misguided fears that all feminists are out to get men.” The “guise of being a feminist liberator” is an important concept because even though other critics saw Amy’s independence as a feminist action, we can more truly deduce that her violent actions against men have no place in the narrative of true feminism. Therefore, Amy represents the extreme end of the womanly spectrum, opposite to the “Clerk’s Tale’s” Griselda. Placing her at this extreme implicitly establishes an argument that there are only two possibilities for women: complacent, suburban Amy, or reckless, murderous, freed Amy. This phenomenon can be described as pseudo-feminist because it implies that the “liberated” woman must be an extremist one.

In a way, this idea confines women further because it denies them the possibilities of the spectrum, and places them into one of two categories. We can argue which category Chaucer or the Clerk thinks women should belong to, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that having only two categories is reductive in nature. However, recognizing this phenomenon in media, like the examples in the “Clerk’s Tale” and Gone Girl, is an important exercise in recognizing shortcomings in equality and formulating a more reasonable, modern feminist narrative.

Tess Kaiser
University of Notre Dame


[1] Cherniss, Michael D. “The ‘Clerk’s Tale’ and ‘Envoy,” the Wife of Bath’s Purgatory, and The ‘Merchant’s Tale.’” The Chaucer Review, vol. 6, no. 4, 1972, pp. 235–254. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25093203.

Undergrad Wednesdays – Chaucer’s Pardoner on Wall Street

[This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

Meet Jordan Belfort. The life of this silver-tongued salesman as detailed in The Wolf of Wall Street tells the story of a life fueled by greed, deception, and just about each and every one of the seven deadly sins. However, this is far from the first story of this type of lifestyle. The Pardoner of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is the epitome of avarice in medieval literature. He cheats his patrons, selling them fake religious relics, pedaling papal pardons for his own profit, and bragging about these exploits along the way. These themes of greed and boastfulness have existed throughout all of human history and are as relevant today as they were in Chaucer’s time. This begs the question, if Chaucer were writing today, where would his Pardoner fit into modern society? What would a day in the life of Chaucer’s greedy archetype look like if he were a Wall Street stock broker instead of a Pardoner?

If Chaucer’s Pardoner lived today, he would likely find himself well equipped to succeed on Wall Street as a stock broker. Traditionally, a stock broker recommends stocks to his clients to buy, and should the client choose to place an order to invest their money in the suggested, or any stock, their broker will execute the order on their behalf and collect a percentage fee for doing so. In essence, they are salesmen who are paid based on volume of sales. This payment structure has resulted in widespread criticism of the profession for inspiring greed among brokers rather than effective stewardship of their clients’ assets, which begets the misleading sales tactics seen in the video. This image of greedy and untrustworthy brokers has also been perpetuated by several bad actors, such as Belfort. However, this stereotype of greed seems to perfectly suit the values and skillsets of Chaucer’s Pardoner.

In the Prologue to his tale, the Pardoner extols his own skill as a salesman as well as the deceitful practices he employs to enjoy such success. He ends the description of his sermons by asserting, “By this gaude have I wonne yeer by yeer / An hundred mark sith I was pardoner” (Chaucer p. 268, lines 389-90). Or translated, he is saying that by this trick (referring to his sermons) he has earned for himself 100 marks (a large sum of money at this time) since he became a pardoner. The video highlights a similar behavior as Belfort is pitching a garage operation as a “cutting-edge firm.” The Pardoner uses these same tactics: “he hadde a pilwe beer, / Which that he seyed was oure Lady veyl” (Chaucer p. 59, lines 694-5). In modern English, the Pardoner carries common items (such as a pillow case) and touts them as sacred relics (such as the veil of the Virgin Mary). It stands to reason that the Pardoner would adjust his own process of preaching to his new life as a Wall Street broker, a process which he describes in the Prologue to his tale. This Pardoner is a man who has honed his craft of taking advantage of people, and is proud of the success he has enjoyed in this manner. Throughout the movie, Belfort is seen flaunting the wealth that he has amassed from his shady dealings as the Pardoner does in his Prologue.

The Pardoner employs a carefully crafted approach to giving a sermon that could very easily be translated into a stock pitch to potential clients. He begins by sharing where he is from while he shows the audience his various licenses that prove both his own legitimacy, as well as the legitimacy of the pardons and relics he sells: “Bulles of popes and of cardynales, / Of patriarkes and bisshopes I shewe, … / And for to stire hem to devocious. / Thanne shewe I forth my longe cristal stones, / Ycrammed ful of cloutes and of bones” (Chaucer p. 267, lines 342-3, 346-8). This sounds similar to a stock pitch opening with casual banter followed by an assertion of a broker’s legitimacy given their affiliation with a respected financial institution. The Pardoner then displays his wares of various phony relics, telling stories of how these relics have saved many people from their vices and absolved them of their sins. This feels eerily similar to the vivid picture Belfort paints for his unsuspecting client in the video. From here, the job is complete. The average person will desire the same salvation, or the ability to pay off a mortgage overnight, that has been described to them and will turn to the Pardoner and the false broker in search of it.

The Pardoner exemplifies what it means for a literary character to have significant meaning. He serves as an archetype for greed that not only highlights topics that are still relevant today, but also does so in a way that can be translated into modern professions to see where these same behaviors of avarice still exist in society, such as the case study explored by The Wolf of Wall Street. He is the prime example of the dangers of avarice that he so fervently preaches against. While like pardoners in Chaucer’s day, stock brokers are not inherently evil, they can share some of the same negative stereotypes that these pardoners did, highlighting the inherent distaste that humans have for perceived greed in all its forms.

Zach Prephan
University of Notre Dame


Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Eds. Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor. Broadview Press, 2012.

Scorsese, Martin, director. The Wolf of Wall Street. Paramount Pictures, 2014.

The Wolf of Wall Street 2013 Selling thru Phone Scene.” YouTube, 11 Jan. 2014, youtu.be/MJXLV_DMKa0.

Undergrad Wednesdays – What is Love?: Or; Chaucer as Related to Modern Views of Love in Literature

 [This post was written in the spring 2018 semester for Karrie Fuller's course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. It responds to the prompt posted here.]

The idea of love is rather simple. However, artists from every specialty tend to exaggerate it in order to make it more exciting for their audiences. In other words, wild and adventurous love stories tend to garner more attention than timid, mundane ones. Life is not typically filled with love that takes people on an actual journey across the world and back, and the fantastic escapades that occur in literature and film are not common occurrences in the real world. Many novels that are popular today contain a chaotic love triangle or dramatic tale of love. However, such fantasies have always existed in people’s minds—several stories in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales even demonstrate these ideas. Unfortunately, these types of stories are often glorified in a way that can be harmful. When these stories are written in ways that highlight a daring romance while ignoring the problematic parts of relationships, people are presented with a warped view of love. People are slowly made to believe that possessive and jealous lovers are attractive, or that self-loathing is sexy. Tropes like these should be reevaluated, or, at the very least, people should not be persuaded into believing that such tropes truly demonstrate an ideal form of love. I will focus primarily on the “Knight’s Tale” in light of how less than perfect ideas of love continue to be romanticized in today’s literature.

Throughout history, people have viewed knights in literature as chivalrous and noble men. When discussing the “Knight’s Tale”, however, some would argue that the knights, Arcite and Palamon, do not necessarily exhibit these traits, as they are not very considerate of the object of their affections, Emily. They function in their own world of fantasized love before Emily even knows they exist, and they do not honestly consider the situation from her point of view. The tale is set up to be rather romantic—two men fighting to the death for a woman’s love has often been considered an act of pure devotion. However, the romance in the “Knight’s Tale” is counteracted by the fact that Emily does not truly want to marry either of the knights (The Knight’s Tale 2304-2305). Her own desires are placed after everyone else’s, but the tale is considered romantic on the surface nonetheless. Essentially, the romantic ideals of protective knights and a beautiful woman are able to distract readers from the less-than-ideal treatment of Emily in which she is mostly ignored and forced into situations whether she likes it or not. Ashtin Ballard addresses Emily’s plight in regards to the oppression of her expressions in her essay as well, and this idea highlights the neglect Emily suffers throughout the “Knight’s Tale;” she is rarely able to discuss her woes, and no one seems to even want to hear about how she feels. Modern readers should be careful when reading to not accept this idea of love as ideal. Even if it is decorated with knights and princesses, it still contains many problematic aspects that continue into today’s literature—especially young adult fiction.

One of the more iconic love triangles of young adult fiction has its home in the popular Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. This idea of competitive love resembles the one in the “Knight’s Tale,” and it is present in many other pieces from the young adult genre. Glorifying this trope could be problematic, though. Generally speaking, only one love interest ends up with the main character, but this indicates that the main character was meant to be won from the start. Nevertheless, people want to feel wanted, so the thought of two people fighting for one person’s affection is seen as exciting. It could be argued that if the main character has feelings for the love interests, then it is acceptable for such a rivalry to take place. I would argue, however, that this mainly works to make it more palatable to readers, and the idea of reducing a person to a prize is still present. Even if authors do not intend for this to happen, fans of books with this trope often make the rivalry into a competition. (See screenshot above of “Why Katniss Should Have Chosen Gale Over Peeta In the Hunger Games,” article by Mehera Bonner.) Thus, it is easy to see the connection between society’s romanticizing of competitive love and literature. Because the trope of the love triangle has evolved over time, people may write off Chaucer’s version as archaic, but it seems that today’s standards of love have not actually diverted that much from pieces considered outdated. People could learn a thing or two about unhealthy relationships if they understood where many of their beloved clichés gain inspiration.

To take it a step further, the idea of possessive lovers has become especially alluring. Similar to how Arcite and Palamon decide that Emily will belong to one of them, literature today contains characters that forcefully claim another (typically a young woman) as their own. A handful of people have claimed that abuse is romanticized in works like the Twilight saga by Stephenie Meyer. In her piece “Twilight: The Glamorization of Abuse, Codependency, and White Privilege,” Danielle N. Borgia argues that Edward’s “extreme dominance of his female partner is characterized as ideal masculinity” (Borgia 155). Likewise, the knights in the “Knight’s Tale” are often read as wonderfully noble men who embody true masculinity. When a possessive or jealous lover is idealized, people begin to honestly believe that such a lover is to be desired. Many readers of young adult fiction are very impressionable, so these ideas have the potential to twist their views of love and devotion into harmful ones. Therefore, Chaucer remains relevant because, even though people claim ideas set forth in tales like the “Knight’s Tale” are outdated, popular literature being published today often promotes the same ideas decorated in different ways.

The literary examples I have mentioned have been undeniably popular in the past few years, and it goes to show how society worships unhealthy relationships that are embellished to appear lovely. Even though people try to distance themselves from medieval ideas that they think are archaic, they unknowingly tend to enforce those ideas with only a few slight modifications. Readers should understand that some ideas from popular books are not new, so if they admire problematic love stories, then they run the risk of admiring the dynamics of stories like the “Knight’s Tale.” I think The Canterbury Tales is a useful text to compare modern works with, as people would be able to identify unsavory ideas in today’s writing if they could make connections to a text that they may already view as containing problematic sentiments. Unless society wants younger generations to think that possessive partners and abusive relationships are desirable as long as they are dressed up romantically, we should teach people where the romanticization of such ideas began and how it is perpetuated today.

Nicole Matthias
University of Notre Dame

Works Cited

Borgia, Danielle N. “Twilight: The Glamorization of Abuse, Codependency, and White

Privilege.” The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 47, no. 1, 2011, Wiley Periodicals, Inc, pp.153-172. Wiley Online Library, www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/j.1540-5931.2011.00872.x.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Knight’s Tale.” The Canterbury Tales, 2nded., edited by Robert Boeing and Andrew Taylor, Broadview Press, 2012, pp. 63-95.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games.Scholastic Press, 2008.

Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight. Little, Brown and Company, 2005.