Interpreting Female Agency and Responsibility in the Miller's Tale and the Merchant's Tale

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Geoffrey Chaucer frequently displays keen interest in questions of female agency and responsibility by rendering his female characters at key moments in silences, deferred answers, absences, and unexpected submissiveness. (1) Chaucer's interest in these moments is not to portray these female figures as merely passive recipients either of the forces that construct women in texts, or of our own critical constructions. Rather, at these crucial junctures where the tale requires but does not fully enable us to construct an interpretation, the poet invites us critically to examine the ideological and discursive assumptions and limitations imposed on the act of interpreting these figures in the textual traditions the poet incorporates into his works. Indeed, Chaucer's incompletely interpretable women--who often play the central, generative role in configuring the action and the very character of his poetic narratives--allow Chaucer's readers to think through the interpretive possibilities and problems that inhere in the processes by which a culture conceptualizes agency, accountability, and justice. Thereby, Chaucer, as we might expect, also broaches some of the larger possibilities and problems with the act of interpretation itself. In his more serious tales the poet frequently sets his women in urgent, dramatic predicaments in order to pose for his readers his interpretive and meta-interpretive questions. For instance, in his careful use of the public silence of Emelye--in contrast to the desires expressed in her prayer--in The Knight's Tale or in the astonishing, disturbing patience of Griselda in The Clerk's Tale--a feature the poet, almost exaggerates--Chaucer shines a bright spotlight on the potent anxiety that emerges from the tale's inquiry into what a woman can or will do, an inquiry conducted in these figures' silences or, as illustrated in Troilus and Criseyde, in their absences. Yet he explores in such situations not only the power that women wield as objects of desire, but also the kind of agency that becomes available to them through, for example, their power to defer making the choice that would fix them in the structures of accountability and, therefore, of interpretation, that typically govern such literary females--as we see in the formel's deferred response in The Parliament of Fowles or, as I have examined elsewhere, in Dorigen's deferral of submission (to death or adultery) through narrative in The Franklin's Tale. (2)

Chaucer also demonstrates a profound interest in these questions of female agency, accountability, and interpretability in The Miller's Tale and The Merchant's Tale, two tales which are ostensibly interested in mocking the conventions and pretensions that narratives such as Troilus and Criseyde or The Franklin's Tale employ to examine how we read the ways in which his female characters act and react to ethical conflicts and dilemmas. With resonance for the role that the reader plays in the interpretation of these tales, the poet sets his male figures' efforts physically and interpretively to possess and control the desirable female "object" as the dominant narrative focus for both tales. However, in contrast to many of Chaucer's other treatments of this theme, his interest in reading female agency here, though it emerges from these female figures' central place in the playfully-portrayed drama of male desire, is made even more acute by the way that Alisoun and May are conspicuously not at the center of the retribution games each tale plays. Retribution games drive each of these tale's plots. In fact, each tale's plot culminates in a precisely administered system of requital among the tale's male figures, leading many readers to call the punishments the tale hands out "poetic justice." (3) Yet both tales imagine exempting the female figures from retribution for their active complicity in adultery and deception, and thus, inquire with playful seriousness into the ways in which women thereby are or are not fully part of the systems by which we may conceptualize retribution and accountability for actions; that is, are or are not fully integrated into the structures of interpretation by which we imagine and determine the ends of human actions and stories. …


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