Undergrad Wednesdays – Manic Pixie Dream Grisilde: Was Geoffrey Chaucer a Medieval Cameron Crowe?

[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.]

A collection of poems written nearly 700 years ago may at first seem entirely outdated in subject matter, but there are certain aspects of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales that are alarmingly relevant in today’s world despite our wishes that they had stayed in the past. One such element is the way in which countless characters tell their tales about women. In many of the tales, women are denied a nuanced voice and a complex character in favor of being reduced to overly idealized deities or spiteful, manipulative villains. It is the former representation of women and its manifestation through one particular character that serves as the subject of this post. Grisilde of “The Clerk’s Tale,” a tale about a man who routinely challenges (and emotionally abuses) his wife to test her goodness and her love for him, is a prime example of a woman who is seen only in idealized descriptions and as a figment of her husband’s male fantasy. In modern film and literary criticism, there is a term that describes the type of character Grisilde is and the role she plays in her tale: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG).

Nathan Rabin, a film critic for The AV Club, coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” in a 2007 review of the film Elizabethtown. He writes, “The Manic Pixie Dream Girl exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures” (Rabin). This type of woman typically is chic in appearance, has cutting edge taste in the arts, and practices hobbies that set her apart from other women. Some recognizable examples of MPDGs from film are represented in the image below, and the popularity of the films in which these characters appear has catalyzed the term’s use outside exclusively critical circles.

In the decade since Rabin first coined the term, it has become a staple of discussions about female characters in popular culture, inspiring everything from internet quizzes to entire novels written with the intention of dismantling the archetype.

However, while Rabin describes the archetype in terms of its place within cinematic history, Grisilde’s role in “The Clerk’s Tale” works to suggest that this concept, which has become such a common trope in modern culture, has actually been in existence for well over half a century. In fact, Hugo Schwyzer hints at this in an article for The Atlantic, writing, “As contemporary a trope as it feels, it’s as old as Dante with his vision of being guided through paradise by his saintly Beatrice” (Schwyzer). Despite her name, which is much more unique than that of her husband, Walter, Grisilde lacks the quirky personality that commonly defines a MPDG by today’s standards—it would have been entirely unbelievable rather than merely eccentric to find a ukulele-strumming, pierced-eared woman in medieval England. Instead, Grisilde is remarkable in her perfection and her purity, both of which are emphasized to set her apart from other women, a staple of the MPDG genre. Walter does not ever want to take a wife, but Grisilde, because she possesses some otherworldly qualities, is the only woman who can get through to Walter and allow him to see the merits that accompany having a wife. Walter, emulating a medieval Gatsby, creates an image of Grisilde in his head that paints her as more than a person. Chaucer writes:

Commending in his heart her womanly qualities
And also her virtue, passing any person…
…and decided that he would
Wed her only, if ever he should wed. (Chaucer 239-245)

While Grisilde fits an altered version of the MPDG personality that more appropriately matches the time period from which she is a product, she fits the other half of the modern definition to a tee. Her sole function in the narrative of “The Clerk’s Tale” is as part of the journey of the male characters. For the Clerk, she serves as an example of the types of characteristics all women listening to his tale should aspire to possess. For Walter, her husband in the tale, she is a means through which he attempts to achieve his own happiness and self-assurance without regard to her feelings. Prior to getting married, Walter says the following to Grisilde:

I say this: are you ready to submit with good heart
To all my desires, and that I freely may,
As seems best to me, make you laugh or feel pain,
And you never to grouch about it, at any time? (Chaucer 351-354)

Walter goes on to make Grisilde swear that she will never say no when he wants her to say yes. He desires to better understand the world and feel secure of his place within it, and in order to do so, he consistently tests Grisilde’s affections for him and stretches the lengths to which she will go to keep him content. Grisilde watches as her children are taken away and is even willing to see her husband marry another woman if it will make him happy.

Chaucer attempts to remedy some of the damage done through the decimation of Grisilde’s character by urging women in his envoy to “let no humility nail down your tongue” (Chaucer 1184). In comparison to the rest of “The Clerk’s Tale,” Chaucer’s envoy dovetails well with aspects of modern feminism. It also fits, however, in accordance with the common portrayal of modern MPDGs as bold women who have something to say and who will not let humility nail down their tongues. Unfortunately, the things these women have to say are most often pieces of advice as to how their male protagonist can improve his life. For example, Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, commonly accepted as an exemplum of the MPDG, is permitted to scream at the top of her lungs, but only after the male lead figures out his current purpose in life and takes her hand.

This type of representation in which female characters are reduced to personality quirks and pithy advice aimed at male protagonists remains problematic today because it paints women as vessels through which men can accomplish their needs and strips them of any independent ambitions. In Grisilde’s marriage, as in the relationships of countless other MDPGs, she has no agency in making the choices that better her own life. Rather, she and women such as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Cameron Crowe’s Penny Lane continue to stand as a means through which a man can determine who he is, what he wants out of life, and how the woman to whom he is magnetically attracted can help him to obtain his deepest desires.

Kelsey Dool
University of Notre Dame

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.