Download Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by Cynthia C. Werthamer, Instructor, Bloomfield College, PDF

By Cynthia C. Werthamer, Instructor, Bloomfield College, Bloomfield, New Jersey

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In order to be saved, Nicholas tells John that he must get three large tubs and hang them from the roof until the flood reaches that high; then they can cut the ropes and float away. But you must not sleep with your wife that night, Nicholas warns, because there must be no sin between you. Gullible John believes every word. On the appointed night he strings up the boats and falls asleep in one of them. Needless to say, Nicholas and Alison live it up. But Absalom, having heard that John is out of town, hightails it to the house and stands under the window again, begging for a kiss.

At the same time, the gods argue it out in the heavens, with Saturn, the god and planet of death, promising Venus that her man Palamon will win eventually. But she and Mars must keep peace between them for awhile, since their opposition creates “swich divisioun” (line 1618). Even though Saturn is a mean spirit, his main purpose here is to create harmony among the gods and the mortals below. Life can’t exist without harmony or without pain, Saturn is saying; the suggestion is that this is the reason behind fortune’s ups and down.

Is she meant to be purely ironic? It wouldn’t be strange to Chaucer’s audience to hear of five husbands, since no woman, especially one with property and one as willing as the Wife, would stay a widow for long. She uses all her “reson” for defending the delights of the lower regions of the body. But can you find anything in her portrait that cuts, for example, like the knife Chaucer uses against the Doctor? The Wife is teased, but is she judged? More than any other character, Chaucer lets her speak for herself.

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