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13.04.17, Pitcher, Chaucer's Feminine Subjects

13.04.17, Pitcher, Chaucer's Feminine Subjects

Chaucer's Feminine Subjects: Figures of Desire in the Canterbury Tales begins with the intriguing and perhaps perpetual question of whether Geoffrey Chaucer is a woman's friend or foe. John A. Pitcher nicely particularizes the rather general query, considering the "radically discontinuous accounts of the poet's gender politics" and seeking to clarify "what it is about Chaucer's writing that gives rise to this conflict" (2). In short, Pitcher argues that Chaucer's "figurative language and rhetorical patterns" present us with highly ambivalent feminine figures, whose decentered subjectivities attest to "Chaucer's status as an early architect of modern subjectivity" rather than to the more usual attributions, Chaucer's "anxiety or ambivalence about women" (3). In Pitcher's reading, the Chaucerian text refuses the Freudian feminine difference that other Chaucerians have identified therein and with it the binary gender system among other essentialist notions of sexual difference. His ambitious introduction lays out a critical history of the question of gender at the confluence of post-structuralism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. After offering an overview of how these theories have made their impacts on Chaucer studies, Pitcher explains that he will use theory to probe Chaucer's text in ways that connect Chaucer's historical concerns with those of modern feminist theory. Focusing on "the psychoanalytic concepts of the subject, desire, and fantasy," he aims to open lines of communication between past and present while respecting the historical specificities of Chaucer's cultural moment (19). Pitcher is largely successful in his four main chapters, which examine The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, The Franklin's Tale, The Clerk's Tale, and The Physician's Tale, respectively. While dense, they are exceptionally rigorous and helpful in examining some of the Canterbury Tales's most stubborn questions, including how we can understand the choices made by the rapist Knight and Old Woman at the end of The Wife of Bath's Tale, and the value of Chaucer's Physician's Tale in relation to its sources and analogues. However, the crucial question of politics often sits in the margins and shadows of these chapters.

The first chapter, "Figures of Desire in The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale," opens with a series of comparisons: the Wife of Bath and the Samaritan woman, incubus and friar, Midas and the Wife, each of which decenters subjectivity insisting on individualities fissured by competing desires in place of gendered categories or identities. Within the tale, neither the Old Woman nor the Knight appears as a centered subject with clear intentions. Making sense of the tale's puzzling happy ending and the repeated performance of masculine resignation in the prologue and tale, Pitcher shows how the Old Woman at once commits herself to fidelity and infidelity while the Knight's "concession" to her "implies two subjects, one reformed, the other resigned" (38). Although the tale presents sovereignty overtly as an essential feminine desire and Pitcher suggests reciprocity as another such desire, he determines that desire itself works "as a form of identification across the cultural distinction between the sexes. A shift in the coordinates of identification entails a displacement of desire" (42). Pitcher ultimately argues that desire here is a transcendent structure that women can exploit as well as men, not a set of essentials that define men and women. The Wife's true agenda is to demystify gender difference and to give women access to the same tools men use to participate in the world of cultural politics. This somewhat diffuse chapter offers gems on the matters of subjectivity and desire, while its view of the prologue as "a system of fantasies" is somewhat less compelling, serving primarily and perhaps only to link the text with psychoanalytic theories of fantasy and desire (51).

The Wife of Bath's Tale leaves off with courtly love's suggestion that masculine submission makes marriage work; The Franklin's Tale reiterates this theory, queries it by demonstrating its impossibility in practice, and ends with a question of character: which character is the most free or noble? Pitcher's reading of the tale analyzes its main characters Aurelius, Dorigen, and Arveragus as both desiring subjects and representatives of discourse, spending less time on the Magician, but declaring him a master who uniquely understands the relationship between fantasy and desire. Pitcher moves beyond the final question's essentialist implications about who these characters are to a more detailed reading of what they do and say, putting Chaucer into conversation with Freud, Lacan and Zizek in the process. In this second chapter, "The Rhetoric of Desire in The Franklin's Tale," Pitcher insists that this tale is less about character than about "rhetorical indeterminacies" and other moves that reshape "the landscape of desire" (61). Like The Wife of Bath's Tale and more so, this tale admits difference between what the text says and what it shows. Pitcher makes interesting points about the relation of Arveragus to Aurelius, the rash promise, and the particular relationship between Arveragus's marriage vows and Dorigen's trouthe. The third section on Dorigen's conflicting desires is less persuasive, which is unfortunate since clarifying her desires is key to Pitcher's project of revealing disjunctions between the narrative and performative aspects of the tale.

The second half of Chaucer's Feminine Subjects focuses more squarely on the social implications of Chaucer's rhetoric, making excellent contributions to the study of two of the most difficult Canterbury tales. "The Martyr's Purpose: the Rhetoric of Disavowal in The Clerk's Tale" argues that "while the Clerk's biblical figuration of Griselda reflects his sense of reverence and awe as he contemplates her piety and radiant virtue, he refuses to endorse her self-effacement as a model for contemporary emulation" (83). Griselda substitutes disavowal and negation for other expressions of suffering, while Walter substitutes his desire for freedom with the desire to test Griselda. They use rhetoric to engage each other, yet within limits that commit them to consistent self-mastery above all else. Ultimately their own senses of resolve engender a figure of desire beyond the control of the desiring subject; here we find desire as an agent, which "serves to displace the conscious subject and complicate any ready assumption that self-mastery is invariably within the reach of the subject of desire" (93). Finally and through irony, the Clerk admits "that the 'common profit' depends on women's voices being heard" (107). Things only turn out well here because of divine intervention. Griselda abdicates her vital social position, yet the Clerk "fully appreciates the pathos of Griselda's tragic idealism, her wisdom, and the craft of her incisive protest" (107). Thus Pitcher clarifies the role of Chaucer's most complex feminine figure within the context of what is perhaps the most beautiful and most challenging part of the Canterbury Tales.

The final chapter scrutinizes The Physician's Tale, which some critics have dismissed as a failure when compared with Chaucer's sources and analogues. Pitcher identifies the introductory material, the invocation of Nature, the digression on governesses, and its closing image of a wolf devouring a lamb as the distinctive and original markings of Chaucer's adaptation. The Physician seeks to Christianize this Roman tale with elements of "allegory, typology, eschatology, and pathos" (111). But Pitcher shows how these elements added to Livy's original story of a daughter murder by a father ostensibly seeking to preserve her chastity ultimately critiques "an absolute commitment to chastity, as well as the ideology of feminine obedience that supports it" (117). Here the Physician and Virginius, the father, are mirror images of each other: their vigilance accomplishes the thing they protest, and the patriarchal family emerges as the single greatest threat to innocent young girls like Virginia. Pitcher masterfully exposes the politics of Christian theology here and shows how this telling of Livy's tale makes a unique rhetorical impact. Yet I wonder why Pitcher neglects to consider class more directly. Chaucer reorders class politics here, and I would love to know how Pitcher calculates those changes among the others he notes.

Chaucer's Feminine Subjects takes on some of the toughest questions in Canterbury Tales criticism, and it demonstrates how theory and close reading still serve to crack open this great work with both surprising answers and more questions--new, different, better, more specific and complex questions. The readings here do sometimes lose sight of politics despite Pitcher's proclaimed interest. The afterword, subtitled "A Question of Politics," considers and acknowledges this possible problem, suggesting that the instability of the political within feminist discourse makes it difficult to pin Chaucer down on the matter of gender politics. As Pitcher explains, current feminist debates "indicate how Chaucer's writing can be seen to politicize subjectivity in ways that elude modern, liberal understandings of the political" (133). He asserts that the question of the subject's stability remains at the root of feminist politics insofar as it has the potential to unmoor forms of normative identity. Pitcher's work certainly contributes to that project. In the afterword, he lists a range of places where poststructuralist theory has made productive interventions into politics, but this does not substitute completely for his own political interventions and connections, which I find a little thin. Pitcher is right to suggest that espousing "a single, normative form of feminist theory or practice belies the diversity of forms of power and constraint that work against social transformation" and so to encourage "commitment to feminist thought as an open-ended interdisciplinary enterprise" (142). If politics could have been more explicitly and consistently woven through these chapters, this very good book would be even better. That written, Chaucer's Feminine Subjects is a significant addition to the field of Chaucer studies. It promises those yearning for rigorous analysis and theoretically trenchant readings of Chaucer's poetry (readings too rare these days) a satisfying sigh of relief, quite unlike that sigh of "renunciation" the rapist Knight emits at the end of The Wife of Bath's Tale (41).