Authorizing the Reader in Chaucer's House of Fame

By Amtower, Laurel | Philological Quarterly, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Authorizing the Reader in Chaucer's House of Fame


Amtower, Laurel, Philological Quarterly


1

It is curious that Chaucer tends to portray himself as a "reader" rather than as an "author" in his major works. The dream-visions of The Parliament of Fowls and The Book of the Duchess are fueled by the reading material the narrator claims to have had before him when he fell asleep. The preambles of Anelida and Arcite and The Legend of Good Women discuss the importance of reading and consulting the sources, while the entire treatment of the Dido and Aeneas materials in The House of Fame is occupied with the problem of assessing what one reads. Troilus and Criseyde is, in many ways, a text entirely about reading: the narrator/author presents himself as a "reader" and complains about ongoing problems in reading his sources; he projects an audience of readers who will in turn read him; and finally, he creates characters who are themselves engaged continually in various acts of reading. They read books; they read dreams and portents; they read each other. Even in the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer styles himself as a "reader of people" rather than a creator of them. When he remarks in the General Prologue that "Whoso shal telle a tale after a man, / He moot reherce as ny as evere he kan / Everich a word, if it be in his charge" (731-3), Chaucer both denies authorial responsibility for his characters and insists upon sustaining the integrity of each speech act he "witnesses." Every word--and every misstatement--indicates something important about the speaker, if his or her audience is clever enough to read between the lines.

Such a mode of self-presentation seems particularly profound considering an imaginative shift taking place in the late Middle Ages, which figures reading as a prominent moral and devotional act. Readers abound in late medieval manuscripts: from Annunciation scenes introducing images of Mary reading at the moment of revelation, to primers displaying the Virgin learning to read at the lap of St. Anne, images of reading began to proliferate in the imagination. Correspondingly, a huge number of private devotional and prayer books, each punctuated with scenes of private reading, began to circulate throughout Europe and England, giving testimony to the phenomenon of private reading. These recurring depictions suggest the establishment by the late fourteenth century of a cultural concept of a "reader," for whom these manuscripts were intended and whom they were meant to educate. This reader was real, in the sense that s/he bought and commissioned books, and had his or her image and/or arms prominently figured within the space of the manuscript itself. But this reader was also imagined as an idealized figure who would react to the text and be affected by it.

Chaucer's own interest in the act of reading is not, I think, coincidental. Indeed, Chaucer's works, foregrounding both the presence of an engaged audience and the act of reading to which that audience commits, show a particular concern for establishing a connection between reading and personal ethics. By demonstrating that even the "masterpieces" of literature have their origins in the acts and discourses of the living world, Chaucer establishes a linguistic and non-essentialist basis for his culture's most revered traditions and legends. Instead such traditions are depicted as retaining their authority only through the repetition of oral and written texts. In this decentralized literary vision, readers have an active stake in reading "aright," as assessing and interpreting received texts in an engaged manner becomes a matter of ethics. By destabilizing the force by which such cultural models retain their authority, Chaucer gives his readers a basis for reassessing the more problematic assumptions of their culture on their own.

This paper argues that the House of Fame, a work that has been called a model of "skeptical fideism," (1) advocates an "ethics of reading" that will prove a recurring force throughout Chaucer's works. …

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