Tag Archives: Chaucer
This seminar allowed 2 students to present their recent essays for OCR AS literature. Neither are perfect representations of the AOs, but this was the first time I have tried this as a support exercise with this group.
Texts: A Doll’s House and The Merchant’s Tale.
Time : 50 minutes
In the light of this view, consider ways in which writers explore power and gender.
The two texts under consideration are written some 55o years apart, yet there are strong similarities in the socio-historical context of both. Whilst it is clear that the medieval feudal system had developed by the middle of the 19th century, the strata of society were still clearly defined. Where Chaucer places Januarie as a ‘Knight’ who will marry a girl found in the market place, chosen for her mixture of youth and sexual proficiency, Ibsen places the Doll’s House at the centre of a bourgeois middle class as rooted in societal convention and the need to establish position, albeit by wealth and rank, just as much as if the play had been written centuries earlier. At the centre of both texts is the issue of the Patriarchal response to marriage and the position of the female in a society which clearly regards wives as possessions and as symbols of their husbands’ good name and status.
In both texts, the wife seems to be regarded as a lower status to that of her husband: Nora is chosen by Helmer as a result of an attraction developed while he helped her father escape prosecution for unspecified financial irregularities and May is a town girl who becomes ‘feffed in his bond’ as Januarie embarks on what is clearly a business arrangement, well suited to the business mind of the Merchant-narrator.
Januarie is clear that he desires ownership and seeks his wife in the market place, as though purchasing an item of food or clothing. He seems naive and lists reasons for his confusion – not least that some are ‘riche but hadden badde name’- until ultimately he alights on May. Once married she is reduced to the level of his sexual servant. She says very little, is silent through the wedding feast and lies ‘as a stoon’ when he proceeds to labour atop her while making ‘love’. The merchant is allowed to quote her when she comments that Januarie’s love making was not ‘worth a bene’ and Chaucer skillfully undercuts the sense of male power at this point by foreshadowing the climax of the Tale – that a girl who is experienced in such matters will not remain subject to a single, elderly husband.
Where May is subjected to sexual humiliation at the hands of her husband, Nora is no less his plaything, but she has developed a repertoire of flirtatious games with which to keep him at a distance. It is clear that in Helmer’s Doll’s House, Nora is the prime doll. We learn that Helmer has chosen all the fixtures and fittings of the house and has enough control that Nora needs to even usher away Christine, because Helmer ‘can’t bear to see work’ in the drawing room. True to convention she remains at home, outwardly supportive of her husband and providing him with children. Ibsen himself noted that her eventual departure could be likened to an ‘insect’ which after delivering offspring to the hive goes away to die. This interpretation would enhance the idea of a controlled and futile existence within love, yet other writers have seen the play as part of the mid 19th century birth of a feminist movement (what male critics would sneeringly refer to as the ‘woman problem’) probably influenced by thinkers like Mary Wollstonecraft, whose writings were having an unsettling effect on the complacent patriarchal bourgeoisie of the time.
Nora is undoubtedly a possession, and her response to this is to flirt with Helmer and with Rank – flicking him with her tights in the half light of Act 2 – before dancing the Tarantella to titillate not only her husband, her doomed lover and presumably the guests a the act 3 party. This flirtation is not open to May – her escape from ownership needs to take place in secret – in the ‘privy’ or in Damyan’s bedroom. For May, the eventual brutal sexual encounter in the pear tree is a clear break away from her role as Januarie’s possession, yet the status quo achieved at the end of the poem suggests that although love may not be possessive, it can be achieved through a compromise. Helped by Proserpina, she deflects Januarie’s accusations and as they leave he places a hand upon her ‘wombe’. At this time, heritage and an heir was crucial to the continuation of a family name. Januarie has clearly stated that this is one of the purposes of the marriage. He may be aware that any child is likely to be Damyan’s, critics disagree on the level of sexual competence he can wield at his age – the garden seems to allow him to actually complete the sexual act in a manner not seen in the palace (‘and spedde’) – but it seems by this action that the compromise – he brings up a bastard as his own and May remains his possession – is complete and is possibly a requirement of the time. In the 14th Century, there was no divorce as we understand it and an adulteress would suffer strong penalty. It is in nobody’s interest to draw attention to the deceit and the loss of his power. Chaucer was himself the husband of a woman of higher status, whose position at the court of John of Gaunt has been discussed by terry Jones as likely adultery, would clearly understand the need for such compromise in the Medieval court.
The end of A Doll’s House relies on the failure to find compromise. Helmer is too tied to his 19th century attitude (aren’t I your husband?’ he demands when Nora has the temerity to resist his drunken advances in Act 3) to accommodate any shift and loss of power. A man who cannot bear to be addressed by his Christian Name is not likely to willingly give up his control of his ‘little squanderbird’. Nora will also find herself unable to compromise her ideals which have become cemented by Helmer’s inability to provide the miracle of miracles. As she leaves, it is clear that the love that both of them had for the other is now destroyed. When the play was premiered, the fact that an alternative ending was required to enable major German theatres to stage the play, the societal constraints on women were such that such a desertion could not be countenanced.
In this world, the world so well illustrated by artists like Holman Hunt, a woman was a possession. That was not up for debate. In the 21st Century Nora’s leaving is a vehicle for expression of the individual and of the feminine. Critics divide – one camp suggests a play establishing the individual as paramount and other supporting the notion of the specifically feminist agenda – yet one thing is certain: Where Lady May achieves some freedom within the confines of marriage, Nora Helmer breaks out of the trap and shows women from the middle of the 19th century that love need not be ‘invariably’ possessive and that although it may seem foolhardy, freedom lies on the other side of the door.
Not a perfect examination response, but I know that I would not have written with such assurance in the lower 6th. Take a bow Karan.
L783 (“This gentil May”)- 825 (“under a laurer alwey greene”)
Examine the use of setting in this extract and consider the typicality of the extract in terms of the whole tale.
In this extract Chaucer introduces us to Januarie’s grand idea of making a garden for him and May to be alone. The garden is filled with references to the Bible and nature as well as promiscuity and fertility. The setting used is symbolic, and creates a garden that seems to be littered with sin. At this point one must decide whether this is the Merchant simply telling the tale, or perhaps Chaucer giving his opinion on marriage, and the façade associated with its apparent holiness.
Considering Januarie’s garden is designed for the purpose of isolation so he and May can have sex, the repetitive sexual innuendoes and references should come as no surprise. The most obvious case of this is the “welle” in the garden the lies underneath a “laurer alwey grene”. Here, Chaucer uses the idea of a “welle” as a vagina, and a “laurer” as a phallic symbol. The purpose of this garden, therefore, is very clear. Furthermore, the iambic stress falls on “alwey” and emphasises the fact that this garden is not intended for holiness or love, but for lust. The line then crescendos to the “grene” tree, which once more emphasises the idea that this phallic symbol is always erect. In these two lines alone, Chaucer provides a very clear and precise indication as to what this garden was built for- pleasure and lust. One might also link this “fair” garden to the Garden of Eden, which was intended to be “hooly” but instead became sinful. If Januarie’s “gardyn” is accepted as a direct Biblical reference to Eden, then perhaps this could be Chaucer foreshadowing May’s deceit and sin, much like Eve committed sin in the Garden. We see something that is intended to be holy and pure become the opposite earlier in the Tale with the marriage ceremony of January and May. Their so-called “hooly” ceremony has such a build up before the event, only to last just seven lines.
We later see similar symbolism when Chaucer introduces the idea of a “wyket” and “clyket”. This reference to a key and keyhole is a clear sexual innuendo designed to once again emphasise the garden’s sin and irony. Furthermore, the words “wyket” and “clyket” are a heroic couplet, and are also arguably used to demonstrate Januarie’s obsession with sex, which is why the garden is so important to him. We see this when Chaucer uses exemplar when mentioning “Priapus”, the Roman God of garden and claims that January has made a better garden than Priapus could ever make. Januarie’s obsession with sex may also be shown with the reference of the famous French literature on courtly love, the “Romance of the Rose”, which teaches the reader about the Art of Love and how to please the “Rose” (a common symbol for the vagina). If Chaucer is implying Januarie has read this book, much like he has read “De Coittu” (translating to ‘About Sex’), perhaps it shows his insecurities with regards to his own sexual abilities and belief that this garden will somehow better his sexual performance. However, this reference may just be for ironic purposes or maybe Chaucer demonstrating auctoritas, as it is mentioned in a fabliau text that is designed to mock courtly love.
Chaucer also uses setting effectively when considering the time at which he introduces Januarie’s “fair… gardyn”. Before we are introduced to the idea of a garden, we see May write a “letter” to Damyan about her feelings towards him and then decides to “visite this Damyan”. The juxtaposition between May’s concern with Damyan, and Janurie’s concern with his “fresshe” May is quite ironic and makes it very clear that their marriage is slowly falling apart and is far from “paradys”. We then see Damyan rise “Up..the nexte” morning, with iambic stress falling on “Up” which make have sexual conations of an erection, thus showing his passion and “desyr” for May. Once again we see irony, as if we accept that the stress falls on “Up” to emphasise Damyan’s erection, it becomes even more apparent that Januaries has trouble with sex and must drink “ypocras, clarree and vernage” in order to enhance his sexual feeling and even with these enhancements, May still considers his performance “not worth a bene”. This setting and juxtaposition makes us empathise with Januarie to an extent, and feel sorry for his naivety.
In conclusion, the description of Januarie’s garden demonstrates complete irony between holiness and religion with regards to sin and promiscuity. Furthermore, the countless sexual references and innuendoes clearly show that the garden is a place of pleasure, lust and fertility and is, in truth, unholy. However, the garden also demonstrates something about Januarie’s character. Gardens come about naturally and are not “made” or built. This is arguably a metaphor for May and Januarie’s marriage- that it is not natural, but instead manufactured and fake. Personally, Januarie comes across as a man who doesn’t fully understand beauty, and believes that everything can be manufactured and built to fit his liking.
Students are usually aware of the narrative form of the poem, one which blends the realistic with the fantastic and the symbolic, yet there is often room for discussion of the symbolic importance of the Love Garden which Januarie builds to allow he and May to perform the acts not done ‘abedde’. Not only does this suggest a certain freedom from societal convention, but we also learn that it is in the garden that Januarie’s love making ‘spedde’. This word has obvious 21st century connotations in terms of speed, but should also be read in the sense of reaching a successful conclusion. In the marriage chamber he makes excuses for the slow ‘labour’ he will perform. We assume that his singing in bed suggests a successful end to the coitus, albeit with the use of ‘ypocras’ and other herbs and suggestive reading matter, and here we read of him completing the act – the speed connotation may be relevant, as well, but completion is the root meaning of the word.
So, what is it about the garden?
I want to look at both the symbolic Eden reference and also at the symbolism associated with the family and thus with Januarie’s heirs which follows from this.
The garden ‘walled with stoon’ is a clear Eden on earth. The idea of the locus amoenus (intro post) appears as a trope of Courtly love literature and was also an architectural feature of many dwellings of the wealthy and powerful through the 12 and 13 centuries. Essentially a private area in which the lovers could walk without being observed by servants or other hindrances to freedom of action, such gardens were as much a statement of wealth and degree as an attempt to create a little piece of Paradise.
Januarie’s paradise is a limited paradise. It is bounded by stone presenting a strong and rather cold boundary which cannot be easily crossed and is locked by a ‘wicket’ and ‘clicket’ (itself suggestive of sexual penetration) with Januarie holding the clicket for himself. In the centre is a pear tree, rather than an apple, which will become the focus of the action in the garden at the end of the poem. The garden is already inhabited not by representations of the Christian Divine but by Pluto and Prosepina, the Roman Gods of the underworld.
They provide a context for this paradise. Pluto raped his wife, having lain in wait for her on the slopes of Etna, an echo of Januarie’s rather bathetic mirror in the market place and subsequent brutal and unfeeling wedding night. Potential blasphemy would prevent Chaucer writing in indelicate terms about God and Scripture, but her ewe see a symbolic allusion to this garden not as Eden, but as a kind of anti-Eden – one built on male force, lust (since Januarie is ‘Venus’ knight’) and a total mistrust of women. Here alone is there an echo of the patriarchal misogyny of Genesis.
Once Januarie is ‘soddeynly’ blinded, he has a problem. He does not trust May and seeks never to leave her side, indeed he goes further and ‘hadde an hand upon hire everemo’. She, on the other hand, after some months of sexual frustration finally manages to deceive him: to steal the clicket and obtain a duplicate through the offices of Damyan – ‘the lechour in the tree’. Just as in the Biblical paradise, the serpent is already in situ. All this is perfectly to clear to a student of the Pastoral genre – even in Paradise lurks death: et in arcadia ego. There is no need for Chaucer to digress about the state of the garden or to provide a quasi-Miltonian debate about gardening and gender roles, instead the action moves directly to the tree.
The tree stands at the centre of the garden, a garden ruled not by God, but by pagan Gods of the underworld and death whose fairies use the space as their playground. Nothing good will come of this. They ‘maken melodye’ in a garden more beautiful than even Priapus could build. Given that the conventional image of Priapus is that of a Satyr-like figure with an immense erection, the sexual connotations of the purpose of the garden seem obvious. Priapus (from a fresco in Pompeii)
Once ‘fresshe May’ has the clicket, the rest is easy. Damyan at first hides under a bush, presenting a stock Satan-as-serpent image and then climbs into the pear tree itself. The choice of tree is significant, having a clearer sense of lewdness than other fruits. Possibly due to their pendulous shape, somewhat scrotal in appearance, pears were seen as a somewhat lascivious fruit and the choice of this tree again increases the sense of the garden as a setting for lustful congress rather than for any manifestation of Courtly Love. It is Januarie who sets up the visit to the garden and is completely deceived in his blindness. May, just as Eve in the biblical model, is quick to deceive him, suggesting her innocence and her claim to be ‘no wenche’, as she says that she craves fruit. Indeed she ‘moot die’ if she does not get a pear – ‘die’ having the same orgasmic connotation that students are used to from the study of Shakespeare. She finally conquers Januarie who stoops to let her climb onto his back, thus establishing her as the dominant figure at this stage. The action is swift and utterly without emotion -‘in he throng’- and the satirical image of Eden is now complete.
However the Tree itself can be further discussed.
When May mounts Januarie to climb into the tree, he is quick to agree to her somewhat bizarre wish. May suggests that he ‘The pyrie inwith [his] armes for to take’ which suggests the image of Januarie embracing the trunk of the tree – the ‘stock’ – as she climbs up.
Given that the image of an apple tree was a common model for the depiction of family trees in Medieval and later painting s and documents, the image is again clear. Januarie is desperate to have an heir, a branch from his stock – to use the biblical term. Here we see him symbolically guarding his heritage from the interlopers who have already, cuckoo-like, destroyed his blood-line. Early in the tale he likens himself to a tree -a laurel – which ‘blosmeth er that fruit ywoxen be’. The link to the tree in the garden is clear. If we accept this idea, that the lovers are tainting the blood-line in this way, then we can further suggest that at the end of the tale, as he ‘hire wombe… stroketh full softe’, he is settling for a compromise. The children will not be his offspring, but he can acknowledge them, safeguard his heritage and keep May as his plaything. She has everything to lose from being uncovered as a wanton cuckolder at this time, so she will not complain.
The message of marriage is one of compromise and not forgiveness. Women will always cheat and, thanks to Proserpina, will always get away with it… That seems a suitable attitude for a man whose wife lived apart from him, possibly as the Mistress of John of Gaunt and from whom he was estranged for much of his later life. Chaucer could not divorce her and benefited from Gaunt’s stipend for much of his life.
This is an essay by my colleague Laura Dunn. In it she has written a response to an OCR AS-type question about The Merchant and then added the AO assessment in the manner of an examiner… use at will!
An essay lesson for OCR English Lit…
A year 13 essay presentation.
For the new OCR A level examination, these two texts can be run together in the drama and poetry paper. I am quite excited about this: a 19th century Well Made Play and a Mediaeval poem, albeit a dramatic poem with narrator, hardly seem clear bedfellows.
The questions will take the from of general statements for discussion in the manner of the old A level paper. Alevel sample paper In this paper I am offering my initial thoughts as a stimulus. There are few examples of AO2 and my intention is to offer a springboard for my Year 13s to develop their own paths.
It strikes me that The Merchants’ Tale could indeed by a subtitle for Ibsen’s play. It moves the focus from Nora – usually perceived as the doll and the player with dolls suggested by the title- onto Torvald. A 19th Century merchant suffering from all that implies: ludicrous working hours, a need to maintain ‘face’ and a need to sustain a position in society based on a high moral purpose. Now, Januarie has little moral purpose – he is clearly marrying for sexual gratification and attempting to sidestep the sin of lust in so doing. But there are similarities.
Both are obsessed with their business – Januarie shows this in his constant use of business lexis when discussing marriage and love, and Torvald in the need to work on December 26th at a job which he has not even started yet. So both are driven and both enjoy their earning power. Torvald has made the home lovely and chosen most of the decor of the apartment in a manner which resembles Januarie’s luxurious Italian decoration for the wedding feast. Both have created a secret garden: Januarie in reality and Helmer in the apartment. It is clear that the return to the apartment in Act 3 is solely for sexual gratification (whether Nora agrees or not) much as Januarie builds his garden to allow him to perform the acts which can’t be performed in the home! Thus the societal requirement of a locus amoenus in which to woo and make love is still alive in the 19th century. One could even paint Dr. Rank in the colour of the courtly lover.
You should consider this. Rank loves an untouchable maiden, the wife of a friend. He is sworn to celibacy and suffers not only from his love-disease but also from the constant proximity of the unattainable. In Act 2, when he admits his feelings Nora is horrified. Whereas May seizes the chance for adultery with both hands, Nora ends the discussion with a firm finality. She will not break her moral code to that degree and is also reluctant to remove herself from the position of control which she currently inhabits. Whilst the two female protagonists share nothing in the discussion of morality, it is clear that they are consummate actresses who control their husbands even when their husbands do not realise it. That the outcome is so different is due to Nora’s determination to stop playing roles and to establish her individuality. Helmer is happy to compromise his moral position regarding Nora’s crime, just as Januarie places his hand on May’s womb, probably containing another man’s child. Nora is a new woman for the 19th Century.
Elsewhere we see Helmer as a man unable to take advice if it is not in line with his straightforward pronouncements and thus mirroring Januarie’s ignoring of Justinus’ advice. Where Januarie is flattered by Placebo, we could argue that Helmer enjoys the flattery of Nora who constantly plays the ‘squanderbird-game’, no more so that when she wants money. She knows her sexual allure and is not afraid to use it to get what she wants. This suits Helmer who wants to show her off at the masquerade dancing the tarantella in the costume of a fisher women. He revels in her beauty and is clearly turned on by this action. From here it is a small jump to Januarie showing off his lower-born wife at the wedding. Both men wish to take their rights as a husband when they are alone. Januarie is not successful and Helmer is interrupted by a string of events.
In both texts society is challenged. Ibsen writes a critique of bourgeois complacency and proposes the emergence of a new Existentialist citizen based on the writing of Kierkegaard. Chaucer holds a mirror to the world and finds it wanting. He has held positions of power in commerce and has seen greedy merchants at first hand, moreover he makes his merchant a Knight – old and lust driven – a dangerous thing to do when the ghost of John of Gaunt hovers over your family. IN short, neither offer a radical political manifesto for change, but both highlight the faults and fissures in contemporary society for those who wish to see them.
Convinced? Well, this idea will develop as the new academic year progresses. Hopefully there will be new writing and plenty of comment.
These 3 extracts are my work in progress for a new transition module being prepared by Bethan Davies and Jade Boyle, two of my colleagues at The John Lyon School. It’s a lovely idea: a Passport to British Literature which takes Year 7 around the country to explore a range of writers before decanting them into Canterbury for a few weeks reading of The Pardoner and the Miller.
I will post the completed work in due course, but here are my first draft materials for introducing Chaucer, Hardy (using the Roman Road) and Du Maurier (via Jamaica Inn).
I have included QR codes and expect students to BYOD and am happy for this to be used in the course of research in these lessons.