Ann Dobyns

title.none: Hughes, Signs and Circumstances (Ann Dobyns)

identifier.other: baj9928.0412.011 04.12.11

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ann Dobyns, University of Denver,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Hughes, Alan. Signs and Circumstances: A Study of Allegory in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Pontrefoelas: AlaNia, 2003. Pp. ix, 160. $33.00 0-9544491-0-x. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.12.11

Hughes, Alan. Signs and Circumstances: A Study of Allegory in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Pontrefoelas: AlaNia, 2003. Pp. ix, 160. $33.00 0-9544491-0-x. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Ann Dobyns
University of Denver

Alan Hughes' Signs and Circumstances: A Study in Allegory in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales reads The Canterbury Tales as an historical allegory in which Chaucer charts Richard's transformation into the tyrant he became in his later years. The book begins with a brief introduction that sets forth his central point, a chapter on the General Prologue, one on the Tales, a Conclusion, and Appendix. Chapters two and three are composed of brief sections on each pilgrim and tale.

Simply put, Hughes's argument is that Chaucer's early readers admire his high moral seriousness, that the times were turbulent and the king tyrannical, that Chaucer admonished the king in his short poem "Lak of Stedfastness," and therefore it follows that given Chaucer's ethical concerns and his dismay at Richard's tyranny displayed elsewhere, readers should expect a veiled critique of Richard's troubled reign.

This approach could have led to an interesting and nuanced reading of the Tales. Unfortunately, the author believes that for Chaucer the "shrouded dimension appears to have been paramount," and so in the brief chapters that follow the introduction, Hughes asserts that all of the pilgrims represent aspects of Chaucer's, Richard's, or Isabel's character, and that their tales signify events, problems, or troubled times in Richard's reign--a position that ignores the complexity and richness of Chaucer's work. In his chapter on the General Prologue, Hughes claims that Chaucer is represented by the narrator, Knight, Clerk, Parson, and Manciple; that the other male pilgrims represent aspects of Richard's character; and that the females signify those of his queen, Isabel. The argument relies on assertions such as "In the final years of his reign, 'the plundering bailly' would have been an unmistakeable (sic) indicator of Richard's hidden presence"; "Our awareness of the Squire's real-life identity, and the knowledge that Richard was born in 1367, implies this twenty-year-old presentation to be a King Richard of the latter part of the 1380s"; and the portrait of the Merchant "presents us with a superb portrayal of King Richard as an insolvent ruler who ostentatiously attempts to impress with a pretence of his wealth."

In addition to presenting such unqualified claims, the author neglects to provide support or relies on lines of argument that are tenuous at best. Typical of his way of arguing is his justification for reading the Prioress as an allegorical representation of the queen. He views Eglentyne's "Frenchness" as exemplified in her swearing by the French Saint Loy instead of Saint Eligius and her French accent hinted at in her nasal intonation. Her youthful nature is seen in her childlike response to animals and her coral beads, coral being "considered to be a special charm in the protection of children." Her royalty is "implied in the metal and ornamentation of her brooch"--gold as a symbol of royalty, the crown as "a conspicuous mark of sovereignty," and the "A," as the first letter of the alphabet, which also "hints both to Queen Isabel's standing within her society. He also suggests that the "A" alludes to the name "Alison or Alis, Chaucer's most frequent name for her in these allegories," suggested also in the way that "'Isabel' forms an anagram, (be Alis)."

Although the book includes some interesting and provocative observations, it represents the kind of over-arguing often found in undergraduate papers. Not only are his assertions overstated and without clear lines of support, but the author frequently asserts connections based on a premise that he rigidly takes as a given and does so with very little consideration of Chaucer scholarship. In his appendix, Hughes suggests that because no other scholars have discovered the allusions he identifies, he realizes that he will face a skeptical audience. The skepticism this review represents is due not merely to the idiosyncratic nature of the claims but more significantly to the lack of good reasons for believing them.