A while ago I wrote a brief post including 3 19th century depictions of women as stimuli for A Doll’s House. In this post I revisit them and add material from Medieval England for my students reading The Merchant’s Tale.
Since both texts present a highly Patriarchal society in which women are still tainted by the ideas of the Fall of Man and Eve’s innate untrustworthiness, I thought that a little more specific material would be helpful.
In Holman Hunt’s The Awakening conscience, a young girl seems to be terror-struck as she stares at the onlooker both seeming to beg for help and to challenge our preconceptions. The male is relaxed and arrogant in the picture – his wife is his plaything and he is oblivious to her anguish. A better visual metaphor for Act 3 Nora would be hard to find. It would be wrong to assume that society in the mid to late 19th century was utterly accepting of the position of women, It is far too easy to generalise. In addition to Woolstonecraft and Ibsen’s own writings on the subject, students can consider whether ADH is a proto-feminist text or an exploration of the individual. What this picture gives us is a clear image of social awareness of the position of women at the time.
Likewise, in this picture:
Here we see the fate which awaits Nora or which was suffered by Christine. Neither are widows, true, but both have lived the life of the single female in a harsh and unforgiving society. I will let the passage next to the portrait do the talking for me. What is certain is that Nora, with no belongings and tainted with disgrace is going to fall prey to all sorts of charlatans and predators with very little way of raising cash to aid her subsistence. I see this as another interesting piece of context to be placed alongside contemporary writings. Remember, if the art is being created, then there must be sympathy for the plight of the women in the pictures.
In The Merchants Tale we can place May in similar context.
It is too easy to talk of women as second class or property… once again, art can help us here. Whilst there is no doubt that the issues of Eve are valid in a text which is so clearly a parody of the Fall of Man, I am always interested by the apparent compromise or truce offered by the end of the tale. If Januarie’s hand on May’s ‘wombe’ suggests a pregnancy, there is a need to consider whether this might be Damyan’s child. Januarie’s action seems to signal a wish to continue as married despite any adultery – a sense that there is parity in some way between the two characters at this point of the tale.
Certainly May, pre-marriage, had a poor future to look out on. She would have little chance of a ‘job’ beyond service and be viewed as tainted with Eve’s untrustworthiness, yet images from Medieval works such as the Lutterell Salter show such women as she brandishing their distaffs (the mark of manual labour – the punishment meted out to Eve- and using it to beat their husbands:
Whilst this may well be a satirical picture, satire must be rooted in fact to be effective. Women of all degrees ran the household. This puts them in control of their husbands to an extent and also, when wealthy, of servants. Wealthier wives were ladies of leisure for whom hunting and games were diversions widely practised. They gave orders to the servants of the household and developed lives of their own.
Not only that, but certain women, without being Royalty, had enormous power. IN the religious world Abbesses and Mothers Superior would rule over their religious houses and much of the surrounding countryside, dispensing Church Law and establishing women as anything but the subservient gender. There was not always harmony – Nunneries such as the Abbey at Amesbury in Wiltshire became notorious for licentious behaviour, but it would be wrong to imagine that women were not able to rise to great power (and wealth) in this way.
In Chaucer’s England there may well have been memory of the most powerful LAdy to have ruled the Kingdom, Queen Isabella, who together with her lover Roger Mortimore, had deposed her husband, King Edward II, some hundred years earlier. The route tot he throne was not barred to women, even though the adulterous couple would give scope for Eve-based criticism. The point is that there was not a guaranteed opposition to the concept of the storng woman, especially if their husband was ill-perceived.
May is elevated from her poor background and given a wedding with much pomp and glamour, albeit rather hurried and would have been seen as a powerful woman. She is sufficiently powerful and of high status that she can become a focus of courtly desire and although this is a satire – a Fabliau – the relationship must be seen in this light – she calls the tune: She organises the clicket, arranges the assignation and controls Damyan’s ascent of the tree. The humour of the lack of romance in his ensuing action does not detract from her position – she is the Lady of the house and remains so after the Tale comes to an end.
This is a work in progress table to help OCR A level students prepare for the Unseen in Dystopian Literature. The texts cited have either been used in part as unseen practice or have been read by the students.
The Road, (anarchic, post-apocalyptic), I am legend, Station 11, Riddley Walker, The time machine, Delirium, F451
1984, Fahrenheit 451, Handmaid, Delirium (?)
Hunger games, the dispossessed
Ready Player 1,
Location town (protection)
1984, Handmaid, We, Hunger Games
Location country (to be feared or a sanctuary)
1984, Station 11, The Road, I am legend, Logan’s Run (sanctuary)
Time of day
Ofred (offered and belonging, (Regal), Winston Smith, anonymous so universal – The Road, F451 Guy Montag – new beginnings, August (Station 11) -power
1984/F451 – destruction of (written) language, mundane employment: 1984, We, Handmaid, F451(?), War of Worlds, Wyndham novels, Children of men: Lippiatt has a high status role, Station 11 – ‘the prophet’
In YA skills can be more evident- Castniss
Past was better
1984 – Winston perceives past as better, official documents disagree. Handmaid. Delirium, Brave New World – reservations The Road, Riddley Walker, NLMG
Capitalist or Communist takeover
F451, There will come soft rains, Body Snatchers – USA 1950s/60s, Animal Farm, 1984
From the outset of the passage the reader is given information about the setting which establishes mood and location. The passage is set ‘twenty years after the end of air travel’. A reader immediately recognises a common trope of Dystopian Literature in that the passage is clearly set in the future, but a future in which the conditions in which people live have been reduced with a subsequent loss of technological knowledge. This is reminiscent of a number of Dystopias such as Mac Carthy’s The Road, Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Wyndham’s The Chrysalids to name three. The description of ‘caravans’ and the ‘symphony’ are perhaps reminiscent of the world of Riddley Walker, with itinerant players reproducing the Punch and Judy plays as a means of connection with the lost world.
The conditions in which the travelers are living are harsh and hostile: The heat is described both as metaphorically ‘white-hot’ and then again in a more prosaic yet equally alarming clarity as ‘106 Fahrenheit, 41 Celsius. We note that the thermometer is ‘twenty-five-year old’ suggesting a date for the event which plunged the society back into this un-technological state. Within this world, the travelers are surrounded by trees which ‘pressed in close’ suggesting further stifling actions and which also are seen to have ‘erupted’ through the pavement. Nature is reclaiming the manmade world and doing so in a violent fashion – the verb suggesting speed and violence in equal measure. Just as in The Road, where we see the manmade infrastructure of modern USA returning to the wilderness, so here, the same action is evidently taking place. However there is contrast – trees provide shade and the leaves are described as’ soft’ as they are ‘brushing’ the legs of horses and Symphony alike’. This gentle description of the emerging foliage possibly suggests that there is hope for the future and that some succour will be found in time as nature reclaims the land. At this point, though, the landscape is seen as dangerous – or in the typically understated tone of this narrative as ‘questionnable territory’.
Perhaps for this reason the group contains scouts who carry ‘weapons’ and there is a recognition that this group serve to protect the ‘Symphony’ – a group of travelling players, it seems- named after the prime artistic endeavour of the 19th century – the musical whole- who seem to be made up both of musicians and actors. Names are shared and the passage focuses on and elderly ‘director’: Gil, aged 72, and two other players: Kirsten and August. The latter name conferring a level of respect on the character with its meaning of reverence and carrying its root back to the Roman emperor Augustus. This man is seen as both a musician and an actor and also as a ‘secret poet’, an interesting designation. This is a time in which to be a poet was thing to be kept hidden, possibly because of the overt exploration of private emotion to be found in that art form. The narrator is not named – a third person narrator, seemingly omniscient tells of this unusual group of artists trekking slowly across America in the past tense. Presumably their fate is known to the narrator and the reader is engaged in finding out what will happen to the group. In many Dystopian novels the narrators or the protagonists are deliberately ordinary citizens, working in ordinary jobs – Winston Smith, for example. Here the characters are far from ordinary, and seem also to have lost an element of their identity – not only are there no surnames, but another character is referenced solely as the ‘seventh guitar’ – no name, no identification, only a job.
The characters are suffering a degree of deprivation – their shoes made from ‘automotive tyre’ which helps to explain the condition of the vehicles in which they travel. These wagons, the caravans of the Symphony, are made from functional 21st Century vehicles, such as ‘pick-up trucks’, chosen for their capacity rather than for their comfort. They have been stripped back to the basic level of function and now resemble the covered-wagons in which the American pioneers crossed the continent in the 19th Century. We learn that gasoline has come to an end, recalling again The Road and also that the trucks are pulled by horses, much as John Wyndham writes in his novel ‘The Chrysalids’. Practicality is evident in that despite the stripping-out of weight, the toughened glass remains as protection against an unnamed potential foe. As in so many tales of a ‘fallen world’, danger lies everywhere.
Kirsten and August pass time by running lines from their production: King Lear. Again a layer is added to the intertextual subtext here as we recall a banished King wandering on the heath and slowly losing his wits as a medium for recognising the fragility and vanity of the world he has lost – the ‘pomp’ of the royal court. We assume that the message here is not dissimilar and that the Symphony are recognising the overblown and empty grandeur of the mechanised 21st century world, now ‘rendered useless’.
Their journey is laborious and dangerous. The heat is ‘relentless’ and they need to rest the horses ‘more frequently than anyone would have liked’ suggesting a compulsion both of time and also of potential danger on their journey. We know they are at Lake Michigan, but we know no end-point for the journey in this section of text, and we recall that for many, the end point is not known. For The Man and The Boy in The Road, the West Coast is a potential destination which takes on great spiritual significance. In this passage, the Symphony just walk, ‘weapons in hand’. They talk little. The only direct speech is in the form of the lines from Lear and a statement from Gil relating the action of their walking to performing on stage. There is a sense of a world with the comfort removed – the ‘tarps’ have been painted ‘gunmetal grey’ a far-cry from the painted caravans of a travelling circus or the groups in Riddley Walker, and the vehicles have lost their comfort: the glass is a necessity and the seats removed, replaced by a bench on the roof. The name of the group – printed in capitals for emphasis – acts almost in the same way as a red cross sign – a request to leave them unmolested since they come in peace.
The passage is written in an understated manner though in no way similar to the terseness which categorises MacCarthy’s writing. There is little figurative language, and moments are often undercut by the choice of language, possibly as euphemism, to avoid unnecessary fear developing. To this end, the danger of the ‘questionable territory’ is described also as ‘fraught’ and the glass is left because it is ‘nice to have somewhere relatively safe to put the children’. In this phrase the weak adverb ‘nice’ is further reduced in impact by the adjective ‘relatively’ before the sentence reaches its true purpose by the arrival of the noun ‘children’ -the only mention of the children in the passage which has focused solely on adults of indeterminate age to this point. It is as though the passage is narrated in a tone designed to reduce the potential anxiety of the actual situation. The sentence length increases with added subordination in the fifth paragraph as the narrator seeks to give explanations for some of the changes being made -the reader becomes increasing complicit, therefore as he understands and accepts the rationales behind the vehicles being described.
The passage considers the difficulty found in surviving in post-apocalyptic world. The passage gains more interest in that the survivors focused upon carry the cultural capital of society with them. In this they resemble Riddley Walker himself – often ignorant of the heritage of the culture he carries yet driven to defend it. There is no overt Christian message or sense of a coming redemption here, just a struggle for survival of a culture, the current enemy of which is Nature itself.
A booklet with 10 Dystopian extracts for unseen practice. I think these are suited to OCR A level students and have included a short passage from Riddley Walker, not because I think it would appear in an examination, but because it is brilliant.
Once again, an essay for discussion. There is no such thing as a perfect unseen, especially in 45 minutes! A sound file and discussion is below.
The Chrysalids (1955)
The passage, written by a first person narrator, and therefore fundamentally unreliable in terms of the implications of such a narrative voice, is set in a world which seems to be lacking in advanced technology and in which there is a underlying threat of a society in which even thought can be intercepted and studied.
The opening description of the dream world is one of beauty and freedom. Although set in a city ‘clustered’ around the ‘big blue bay’, the freedom of the alliterative description of the bay counteracts the tight structure of the city. Indeed the verb ‘clustered’ could suggest a city which is deliberately gathered together precisely because of the opportunity offered by the bay itself. The sea is often used to symbolise the possibility of freedom and escape, being a liminal marker that is both obstructive and crossable. A similar idea is explored in Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go when the clones visit Cromer or Dover and recognise that there is a life beyond the one set out for them, if they might cross it. In this extract, the dream scenario is countered by the recognition that the real world is landlocked – the narrator has never ‘seen the sea, or a boat…’ The ellipsis suggests a thought process cut off in mid-stream as though too upsetting to pursue.
In the dream world the innocent mind from the future sees vehicles redolent of the time of writing – ‘carts running with no horses and fish-shaped things in the sky’. Again his wonder at ordinary 20th century sights suggests a world which has regressed in time, somewhat as England has in Riddley Walker, by Russel Hoban. This similarity is enhanced by the mention of the ‘Tribulation’ wrought by God – not necessarily a Christian God – which possibly relates to some form of Nuclear disaster, a very common fear in the 1950s when this book was written. A world devastated by an unexpressed apocalyptic event is a common Dystopian trope of the later 20th century.
The narrator dreams this view both by day and night – the night is not threatening – the light lying like ‘strings of glow-worms’ suggests a peace and beauty to the scene. One in which man and nature seem to happily coincide.
The narrator is young, though has developed beyond his innocent days – ‘when I was quite small’. He is able to refer to a time ‘when I was still young enough to know no better’ and to the need to ask an older sibling for advice. There are no parents in this narrative. He is aware enough to see the dream as ‘beautiful and fascinating’ but also readily aware that as he gets older and his state of innocence drops away, his visions also fall away at the same time. This path from innocence to experience with a similar reduction of freedom and thought is reminiscent of the children in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights Trilogy, who gradually lose their freedom to adapt as their Daemons become fixed. His sister Mary seems to be knowledgeable and understanding although worried – she warns him ‘seriously’, the adverb intensifying the nature of the warning, and refers to a ‘time before’ when the Old People – the capitalisation suggesting a proper noun – a term used of the ancestors as though as part of a folk memory – a very common trope seen in Zamyatin’s We or Orwell’s 1984. She also establishes how unusual he is in having these ‘pictures’ in his head and establishing him as an outsider – a typical narrator in such novels. His cousin Rosalind, however seems to share the gift of sight. He and she have a ‘curious understanding’, possibly hinting at a psychic link of some sort which is no doubt explored in the novel. The name Rosalind is chosen to echo Shakespeare’s Rosalind in As You Like It – a girl of great resource and an outcast who will find love and understanding when banished to the forest. Possibly this storyline will be followed.
There is also an unsettling comment in that the narrator is already marked out for observation due to his left handedness. This ‘sinister’ aspect to his character will no doubt be explored in the novel.
The narrator realises the need for silence and his prepared to bide his time. We are told that he and Rosalind keep quiet about their gift ‘at that time’. Clearly the passage is from the beginning of the novel and much is being set up for future reference. He ‘did not feel unusual’ he says, possibly suggesting that his older self certainly does.
The passage explores the ideas of a ruined world and establishes the idea of a young man who has visions – not unlike the Father in Mcarthy’s The Road, – of a better past. He is fascinated, just as Riddley Walker is by these manifestations of a time before and establishes a hook in the relationship between him and his equally different cousin.
Write a commentary on this passage from a novel published in 1955. Relate your response to the study of Dystopian literature. Time: 1 hour.
When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city – which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was. But this city, clustered on the curve of a big blue bay, would come into my mind. I could see the streets, and the buildings that lined them, the waterfront, even boats in the harbour; yet, waking, I had never seen the sea, or a boat . . .
And the buildings were quite unlike any I knew. The traffic in the streets was strange, carts running with no horses to pull them; and sometimes there were things in the sky, shiny fish-shaped things that certainly were not birds.
Most often I would see this wonderful place by daylight, but occasionally it was by night when the light lay like strings of glow-worms along the shore, and a few of them seemed to be sparks drifting on the water, or in the air.
It was a beautiful, fascinating place, and once, when I was still young enough to know no better, I asked my eldest sister, Mary, where this lovely city could be.
She shook her head, and told me there was no such place – not now. But, perhaps, she suggested, I could somehow be dreaming about times long ago. Dreams were funny things, and there was no accounting for them; so it might be that what I was seeing was a bit of the world as it had been once upon a time – the wonderful world that the Old People had lived in; as it had been before God sent Tribulation.
But after that she went on to warn me very seriously not to mention it to anyone else; other people as far as she knew, did not have such pictures in their heads, either sleeping or waking, so it would be unwise to mention them.
That was good advice, and luckily I had the sense to take it. People in our district had a very sharp eye for the odd, the unusual, so that even my left-handedness caused slight disapproval. So, at that time, and for some years afterwards, I did not mention it to anyone – indeed, I almost forgot about it, for as I grew older, the dream came less frequently, and then very rarely.
But the advice stuck. Without it I might have mentioned the curious understanding I had with my cousin Rosalind, and that would certainly have led us both into very grave trouble – if anyone had happened to believe me. Neither I nor she, I think, paid much attention to it at that time: we simply had the habit of caution. I certainly did not feel unusual. I was a normal little boy, growing up in a normal way, taking the ways of the world about me for granted.
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.
The passage under consideration is taken from Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go, which is a study of dystopian society in which human clones are produced for the purpose of providing organs for their human counterparts.
The passage is set in a recognisably contemporary wold, one in which a driver has to ‘consult the map a number of times’ when trying to locate the destination at the end of the journey. The lack of electronic navigation suggests a period prior to the present day, and even slightly in the past when considered against the 2005 date of writing. In this it is comparatively unusual in that many of the best known Dystopian texts tend to be set either in a distant future or a distant past to enable a direct comparison with the present day. A novel such as John Wyndham’s ‘The Midwich Cuckoos’ has a similar relationship to the contemporary society which is depicted and both gain from the apparent normality of all that is described.
The first person narrator tells the reader plenty about the setting of the passage – she often repeats herself and seems to be striving to add details in the long sentences, as though trying to compensate for the inherent unreliability of the first person voice. The setting of ‘The Kingsfield’, a name suggesting grandeur and freedom, is unsettling. It seems to be both secluded, being ‘out of the way’ and ‘awkward’ to find, yet it is not a place of peace: ‘You can always hear traffic on the main roads…’ says the narrator, as though speaking to a friend – the drop into the second person seeming to confer a relationship between the reader and the narrator. Not only is ‘recovery centre’ confusing as a general location, the description of the micro-settings are equally strange. A recovery centre suggests a convalescent environment, yet here the rooms are ‘too stuffy or too draughty’ they cannot allow wheelchair access and the bathrooms – ‘hard to keep clean’- suggest a lack of basic hygiene, let alone the hygiene expected of a medical institution. Indeed this down at hell feeling is more akin to the ‘old world’ elements of a narrative such as Zamyatin’s ‘We’, in which the old cottage stands as a contrast to the crisp new dwellings and apartments, much as this centre is compared with Ruth’s centre with ‘gleaming tiles and double glazed windows’. Even in that description there is no sense of care, however.
The narrator also explores the contrast between the function of the buildings in the past and their current use. Once a ‘holiday camp’, the centre is now in a dilapidated and ‘unfinished’ centre, yet it is described as ‘precious’ conferring some emotional attachment, here unexplained. This is reminiscent of the scenes in Orwell’s 1984 in which the protagonists find comfort in the dilapidated old room above the shop and believe that they have escaped from Big Brother, only to be caught out in the end. In this passage it is interesting that the narrator comments that the camp was intended for ‘ordinary families’. The suggestion is that the narrator is not from that background. No further information is given but there is a sense that the narrator and those like him/her are not worth the effort of completing the building alterations and are a devalued segment of society. This is heightened in the description of the pool and the diving board in particular. This last image seems to stand, regardless of any danger it might pose, and act as a magnet for the kind of thoughts expressed near the end of the passage: ‘taking a dive… only to crash…’. I tis as though it is a temptation to those inmates wishing to gain a sensation of freedom only to end up in pain or suffering a swift early death.
The narrator is not travelling alone. ‘Ruth’ is mentioned but seems to be little help. The narrative does not suggest she speaks and does not suggest she engages with the narrator. Indeed, we can surmise that the pair do not travel widely. Although the sound of the ‘big roads’ is clearly audible, the map has to be used to locate the centre. It is the narrator who has to ‘consult the map a number of times’ suggesting not only that he/she is in control of the journey but also that he/she is not a strong navigator. It is also unclear what the relationship is between the narrator and Tommy – the boy they are travelling to meet. One assumes he is a ‘donor’ since he seems to be an inmate, yet Ishiguro uses this term without offering any explanation. In this case, rather as with terms such as ‘recovery centre’ ordinary’ the reader sense a meaning which is hidden from us, but of which the narrator expects us to be aware. Whilst it is not unusual for Dystopian texts to be narrated by an everyman figure, this figure often seems to be a character of marked intelligence or scientific ability, such as H.G. Wells’ narrator in ‘The Time Machine’ or the protagonist of Zamyatin’s ‘We’. Even Winston Smith, who in many ways is a deeply unheroic figure, has a job of some responsibility and importance in ‘1984’. The narrator here seems to be garrulous and pleasant, but in no way a character of special note.
The language used is plain and matter of fact. Sentences are often extended by significant subordination and the addition of simple clauses after a dash to impart extra information: ‘the Square- the place where you drive in when you first arrive…- an example of this unfinished atmosphere-‘. In this example there is also the use of the second person as though to address the reader which helps to make the reader complicit in the narrative. Elsewhere the vocabulary is simple, sometimes deceptively so as discussed earlier, but usually suggesting a lack of range in the narrative style of the narrator. There is an informality in the contractions : ‘it’s’ , ‘can’t’ which also suggests that the narrator sees the reader as an equal and helps to build up the conversational tone of the piece.
Overall the atmosphere created on the ominously ‘overcast and chilly’ day is one of threat. Although the passage begins quite easily, the effect of the ‘shadowy’ figures, suggesting both threatening gangs of anonymous youths and even a slightly ghostly aspect, as though the former holiday makers are somehow reimagined in the new setting, it to create unease. When Tommy emerges, his clothes are old and ‘faded’ and he has put on significant weight. The two images together suggest ill health rather than health. This added to the highlighted difficulty in finding the centre helps to present a society which has been deliberately cut off from the mainstream or ‘ordinary’ families alluded to in the passage. Whereas in Brave New World or A Handmaid’s Tale, the centres for reproduction and other scientific advances are places of awe and fear, the emotion here is lesser. It is sadder, somehow. It suggests more neglect than ‘recovery’.