The Psychic Struggle of the Narrative Ego in the Conclusion of 'Troylus and Criseyde.' (Geoffrey Chaucer)

By Schricker, Gale C. | Philological Quarterly, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

The Psychic Struggle of the Narrative Ego in the Conclusion of 'Troylus and Criseyde.' (Geoffrey Chaucer)


Schricker, Gale C., Philological Quarterly


"The Chaucerian persona puzzle is a joy forever," Thomas Garbaty promised us almost twenty years ago.(1) Indeed, like Rorschach figures, Chaucer's enigmatic narrators continue to provoke critical responses that reveal more about our own epistemological leanings than about the nature of the narrators themselves. The narrator of Troylus and Criseyde is a particularly confused and thus provocative persona; his awareness in the poem's epilogue of his own struggle for integrity amidst several competing desires mirrors the increasing fragmentation in critical readings of this tale. But the modern critical debate over the narrator's role in Geoffrey Chaucer's Troylus and Criseyde virtually began with an insight to which we have not since returned. E. Talbot Donaldson's characterization of the narrator at the poem's end as suffering "a kind of nervous breakdown in poetry" may have been made in jest, but there is insight in its humor.(2) Perhaps it is time to turn from our necessarily piecemeal explanations of Chaucer's purpose in creating these enigmatic narrators to an examination of the process of their behavior -- to pursue a more openly psychoanalytic reading of these confused and confusing personae.(3)

D. W. Robertson, Jr. forewarned us thirty years ago not to read Geoffrey Chaucer's poetry from a modern perspective, whether romantic or psychological. In Troylus and Criseyde Robertson sees the narrator's turn away from the romance of courtly love in the tale and toward the philosophical embrace of God's love in the epilogue as absolute and thus ratifying a historical and patristic reading of the poem--demonstrating that a good medieval Christian man would never seriously condone, much less vicariously enjoy, the pagan lovers' world- and body-centered values, as many modern, post-Freudian readers might feel free to do.(4) Most more recent commentators agree that the narrator does not wholly reject his tale nor its lovers in the epilogue but is certainly confused about his own responses to them, pulled among conflicting desires and intentions. John Steadman has observed, "The poet as commentator (it would appear) is engaged in a running debate with himself as narrator. Each is endeavoring to outargue the other, each is striving to speak the last word. Chaucer seems to be chasing his own tale."(5) But Steadman, in true modern fashion, accepts that the poem is large enough for both moralistic commentator and romantic narrator and concludes that Chaucer succeeds in "striking a balance" between the utile and the dulce in this poem.(6) James Dean has also accepted the conflicted behavior of the narrator as an important part of the poem's structure but sees, through post-modern eyes, such conflict as an embodiment of the world of mutability that is rejected at poem's end: "The narrator changes just as everything else in the poem changes.... [He] then rejects his poetry to dramatize the nature of things, the lacrimae rerum, and the instability of even those things--or people--we most take for granted, such as narrative poets."(7)

The tension between tale and epilogue that nearly all readers acknowledge confirms that the epilogue cannot be easily separated from the poem's plot, nor the moralistic commentator from the romantic narrator. In fact, there is plenty of evidence in the opening proem and then in the narrator's personal interjections into the tale to demonstrate that the narrator grows increasingly aware of a conflict between his conscious, scholarly intention to retell the old story accurately and his subconscious, emotional involvement with his characters, especially with Criseyde, the heroine. The narrator's conflict is most clear at points where his sources fail to reveal information the narrator would like to have or where they don't satisfy the narrator's subjective responses to the old story he is retelling. At times the narrator overrides his source and supplies additional information or interpretation; at times he defers to his source to avoid responsibility for events in the plot. …

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