A Woman in the Mind's Eye (and Not): Narrators and Gazes in Chaucer's Clerk's Tale and in Two Analogues

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As soon as one realizes that the act of seeing leads to self-conscious apprehension of spaces, distances, subjects, others, subjects as others, and others as subjects, this type of act raises questions concerning the connections between one's gaze and one's desire and between one's gaze and one's sex.(1) Versions of the Griselda story by Petrarch, Chaucer, and Christine de Pizan present an opportunity to investigate these kinds of connections, for (obviously), one account has a female author and narrator, while the other two have male authors and narrators. The various retellings of this legend have often been compared, often in great detail;(2) however such studies tend to investigate the non-Chaucerian versions as possible sources for the Clerk's Tale, a process that leaves out Christine, and very few critics have examined the particulars that distinguish acts of gazing one from another in these three versions of essentially the same story.(3) These differences provide the basis for my discussion of the Clerk's Tale and are in one respect remarkably predictable: through descriptions of gazing (and through other means) Christine offers a more feminist account of the events than her male counterparts. Nevertheless, Chaucer's complex portrayal of gazing as a strategy within both narrative and language in the Clerk's Tale allows him to both promote and undercut the typical male gaze, and to present his version of Grisilde as an unexpectedly aggressive gazer who works from a superior vantage-point and who is surprisingly able to defeat the gazes of characters, narrators, and readers.

All of the authors/translators that I discuss here feel free to alter their sources, often broadly, and Christine de Pizan, taking Petrarch's Epistolae seniles 17.3 as her chief source,(4) radically changes entire gazing situations--even gazing possibilities. For instance, her account of Gliselidis in Le Livre de la cite des dames, as one might expect in a composition that polemically defends women against anti-feminist literature,(5) makes fewer references to the heroine's beauty than the versions with male narrators, though it is still there. Correspondingly, Christine omits most of the moral qualities that Valterius has in Petrarch's Epistola, yet she retains the observation that the marquis is bel de corps, "good looking" (2.50.1, 900). Christine's narrator introduces Gliselidis by her singularity, her age, and her service to her father through work (901), whereas Petrarch's account introduces her by her desirability: unica illi ... Griseldis nomine, forma corporis satis egregia (260), "an only daughter ... called Griseldis, remarkable enough in physical beauty." The Petrarchan narrator's discriminating eye for feminine beauty asserts his masculinity and assumes the cooperation of a male audience (who presumably would know how much beauty is enough). Valterius then joins this community of masculine gazers when his assessment of Griseldis matches the narrator's in its superior attitude: he In hanc virgunculam ... quandoque oculos non iuvenili lascivia sed senili gravitate defixerat (260) "upon the girl ... had sometimes glanced with his eyes, not with the lust of youth, but with the more serious considerations of a mature man."(6) Christine reduces but does not eliminate the idea of seeing in the marquis's action when Gualtier comes into her version of the story "perceiving," avise firstly Gliselidis's "virtue and honesty," les bonnes meurs et l'onnestete (2.50.1, 901) and secondly her beauty. As opposed to Petrarch, Christine mentions no gaze as the story begins; in fact, instances of gazing are so vastly reduced as to be almost nonexistent after the marquis's initial assessment of his future bride. In contrast, Petrarch's (and Chaucer's) versions use the separation between the narrator's, the public's, and Valterius's gaze as a major theme of the tale: the discriminating ability of the marquis overshadows the surface assessments of the populace (260), the testing of his wife takes place under his nearly constant scrutiny (276, 286), and the story's distinct gazing communities are at last reunited in the communal appreciation of the beauty of his children (284-86), who represent (among other things) a mingling of the public and private "virtUes" of both parents. …