Contradictions In Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales

3969 words - 16 pages

Contradictions in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales

There is no question that contradictory values make up a major component of The Canterbury Tales. Fate vs. Fortuna, knowledge vs. experience and love vs. hate all embody Chaucer's famous work. These contrasting themes are an integral part of the complexity and sophistication of the book, as they provide for an ironic dichotomy to the creative plot development and undermine the superficial assumptions that might be made. The combination of completely contradictory motifs leads to the unusual stories and outcomes that come to play out in the tales. And these outcomes draw focus on the larger universal issues that in many cases transcend the boundaries of vernacular periods to all of humanity. That is the essence and success of the tales; their themes are universal and their irony is still applicable today.

Madame Eglentine, Chaucer?s Prioress, demonstrates an excellent example of the clash between divergent values. In many ways, her description in the General Prologue personifies the model medieval woman: religious, elegant, innocent, loving and sentimental. Yet clearly there is a vast contrast between her description and the vicious, anti-Semitic account of the young boy mutilated in the Ghetto. It is this contrast which points out the ?binaries? or opposites which make up the Prioress?s character. Her tale involves a bigotry that is unmatched in all of The Canterbury Tales as shown in the following passage:

?And as the boy passed at his happy pace
This cursed Jew grabbed him and held him, slit
His little throat and cast him in a pit?I say, into a privy-drain (Chaucer 190).?

While most would agree that this tale represents a love vs. hate contrast, contemporary scholars and writers conflict over the exact nature of the Prioress?s relationship to the hate that her tale espouses. In the debate, a number of different options have emerged. Some, like medieval author Paul Ruggiers, argue that it is impossible to determine the Prioress?s attitude and that, ?we must be satisfied with ambiguity.? Others like writer Victoria Wickham argue the most popular belief, that the Prioress?s bigotry is without question and readers should be more concerned about the degree rather than the fact itself. But there is another possibility. Edwards and Spector, two prominent medieval scholars, put aside the issue of racism temporarily and instead offer an alternative interpretation on the very nature of Chaucer?s love-hate contradiction in the Prioress?s tale. They argue that the love vs. hate contradiction is not dependent on outside forces, but is actually an internal conflict within the Prioress herself. Consequently, the individuals and subsequent groups in her tale are not specific characters but culturally influenced manifestations representing separate issues. In this way her personality becomes the allegory of her tale, making specific references within her story irrelevant to her true...

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