Candace Barrington

title.none: Phillips, An Introduction to the Canterbury Tales (Barrington)

identifier.other: baj9928.0012.003 00.12.03

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Candace Barrington, Iona College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Phillips, Helen. An Introduction to the Canterbury Tales: Fiction, Writing, Context. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. Pp. vi, 254. $59.95 HB 0-312-22739-6. ISBN: $18.95 PB 0-312-22740-x.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.12.03

Phillips, Helen. An Introduction to the Canterbury Tales: Fiction, Writing, Context. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000. Pp. vi, 254. $59.95 HB 0-312-22739-6. ISBN: $18.95 PB 0-312-22740-x.

Reviewed by:

Candace Barrington
Iona College

Introductory studies of major authors and their works primarily serve three audiences: generalists and instructors teaching outside their area of expertise, graduate students in literary studies preparing for exams, and undergraduate classrooms needing supplementary material. Such studies need to provide a quick overview of the important scholarly currents while remaining fundamental enough to assist the introductory student and savvy enough to engage the scholar working outside her field. Although these studies rightly avoid overly complex arguments and present a steady perspective of the text at hand, their notes and bibliography should easily point to contrary readings and more in-depth studies of the topic. Furthermore, with a literary corpus such as Chaucer's, an introductory survey must also distill a large body of historical and cultural material, without which much of Chaucer's poetry is inaccessible to his twenty-first century reader.

The vision and argument informing Helen Phillips' An Introduction to the Canterbury Tales: Reading, Fiction, Context amply addresses the needs and concerns of all three of these audiences by providing a succinct reading for each tale. Anyone who has managed to keep up with the main threads of Chaucer scholarship will not surprised by any of Phillips' readings. At the same time, anyone with a sense of the vehement polemics that have raged in Chaucer Studies should be impressed by her deft management of diverse theoretical perspectives. To accomplish this synthesis, she allows each tale to become a laboratory for testing her overarching hypothesis: diversity, then, is central to the Tales both on the obvious level of the social mix of the pilgrims and the range of genres, subjects, styles and moral seriousness in their stories, and also at a deeper level in the way the text permits disparate world views and incompatible readings to co- exist, without subjugating them conclusively to one controlling vision, and the Tales' management of its dual impulses, towards unity and towards diversity, raises issues about how the multiplicity of human experience, desires and goals relates ultimately to the concept of a divine order. (3) This central commitment to diversity--both in Chaucer and Phillips' text-- guides her readings of the Tales. Rather than provide a new historicist, feminist, gendered, Marxist, psychoanalytical, formalist, New Critical--or any of the other theoretical perspectives currently operative in Chaucer Studies--Phillips judiciously selects a different cluster of theoretical lenses for viewing each of the Tales. As a result, Phillips does not promote one set of readings at the expense of others; nor does she reject other scholars' monologic visions of the Tales. Instead she deftly weaves their readings into a multi-hued tapestry.

At the same time, she eschews clumsy expositions of "background material" that preface her discussion of the tale. Keenly aware of her non-specialist audience, Phillips instead inserts lucid summaries of pertinent information as needed. Thus, she does not overwhelm her reader with a detailed history of the fabliau; rather she uses her discussion of the French comic form to provide an contrast to Chaucer's adaptation of the tales. Nor does she relate a brief history of Richard II's reign but scatters relevant information across her discussions of several tales. This gradual infusion of contextual information, when informed by a variety of theoretical perspectives, make rich readings of each of the tales.

Rather than provide you a tale-by-tale synopsis of Phillips' Introduction, I want to illustrate her methodology by summarizing her discussion of the Clerk's Tale, chosen because it so often frustrates students. Phillips opens by acknowledging the tale illustrates the conflict between reading allegorically and reading literally. Relying on her earlier discussion of secular hagiography (in the Man of Law's Tale chapter) and a brief reference to folkloric scholarship, she briefly outlines how Griselda's story fits the formula for secular saint's life. Understood in this way, Griselda steadfastly exemplifies patience. Although Phillips is aware that Walter's bullying is less amenable to allegorical interpretations, she reminds us that this is not a piece of psychological realism but a drama of themes. Whatever worldly power Walter might exhibit, Griselda is verbally inscribed as the moral and spiritual victor of the tale, an aspect that Phillips demonstrates in a deft, deconstructive close reading.

But rather than sweep away reader's discomfort with Walter, Phillips examines him as part of Chaucer's response to the classicism of the Italian Renaissance. In contrast to Petrarch's presentation of an uncomplicated morality, Chaucer constructs a narrative enigma (119) concerned with the nature of tyranny. Like feminist scholars, Phillips sees how the tale fails to conceptualize the feminine experience of male oppression. At the same time, she explores the social power relationships embedded in the tale. Because Griselda can also represent the powerless common people who meekly submit to the judgment of the powerful, the tale seems to sanctify the ideology that patience is the commons^Ò proper response to injustice. Such a monologic reading, however, is undermined by Chaucer's insertion of multiple responses to the tale among the pilgrims who dispute whether or not it should be a lesson for wives.

Phillips follows a similar pattern of lucid exposition and close readings for the General Prologue and each of the tales. I would enthusiastically refer any colleague or student to any of them.

Now here comes the hard part of this review. Despite the care with which Phillips' Introduction lays out and weaves its argument, the text I received is an embarrassing piece of book production. Some errors might be overlooked, such as the white space at the end of page 207 that momentarily confused me into thinking the chapter had ended mid-argument. Others, too, might be counted as minor transgressions: cited texts not included in the Bibliography (for example, p. 228, n. 9) and discrepancies between notes and bibliography (see Thrupp on p. 229, n. 12, and 241). And others simply frustrate the reader who might want to trace a line of argument in more detail. See, for example, the footnotes that fail to cite any articles discussing medieval theories of perception (p. 58) or the controversy surrounding the best order of the tales (p. 77).

Taken together, this sloppiness sends an unnerving message. To our students it confirms their suspicions that the niceties of scholarship really don't matter. To our colleagues out of Chaucer Studies, it betrays a fundamental lack of professionalism. And to other Chaucerians, by depriving us of an otherwise excellent resource, it says that other, less progressive introductory texts will have to be good enough. It is a real shame that Phillips' Introduction, which otherwise answers so many needs, was not properly packaged. Perhaps St. Martin's Press will correct the errors and re-issue this valuable text.