14.06.16, McTaggart, Shame and Guilt in Chaucer

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Kathleen Forni

The Medieval Review 14.06.16

McTaggart, Anne. Shame and Guilt in Chaucer. The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. Pp. 206. ISBN: 978-0-230-33738-1.

Reviewed by:
Kathleen Forni
University of Loyola, Maryland

Exploring points of contact between late medieval penitential theology and modern theories of affective responses, McTaggart's important and fascinating study examines the "ethics of affect"--penitence, shame, guilt, and confession--in Chaucer's poetics. Individual studies focus on mirrored characters: Dido and Criseyde, Arcite and Virginia, the Wife of Bath's rapist knight and Melibee, Pardoner and Parson. The conclusion is that Chaucer, a "psychologist of morality" (5), remained deeply skeptical about the relationship between shame and moral culpability. Chaucer consistently represents "the gap between subjective and objective guilt and shame--which is also, often, the gap between being culpable and being humiliated--to be a space in which social values and identities are negotiated and constructed" (18). McTaggart is, however, less interested in joining the critical conversation about Chaucer's theological (and political) orthodoxy than in exploring how concerns of late medieval penitential theology profoundly inform Chaucer's development of a "self-reflexive poetics" and serve as an organizing thematic principle in most of his texts.

After the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) mandated annual auricular confession, the question of what constituted true or sincere penitence became an increasingly pressing theological and pastoral concern. The cultural emphasis on penitence not only produced a flowering of penitential manuals but also influenced the development of secular literature as found in various genres (dream vision, romance, quest narratives) concerned with self-examination and self-transformation. But the concern with inwardness and subjectivity also led to larger psychological and ontological questions about the gap between public shame and the private guilt, between the external performance and the sense of inner contrition. Shame has more to do with social status and honor, representing a fear of exposure, rejection, and humiliation. Guilt, on the other hand, represents a sense of debt owed another, a fear of punishment, and a sense of moral responsibility and empathy. While the theological concern was with whether absolution and satisfaction were achieved through the outward expression of penitence or the experience of sorrow, McTaggart suggests that Chaucer was more concerned with the "social dynamics of power and humiliation" (21). In particular, Chaucer explores the gap between public shame or infamy and the private experience of culpability and guilt, suggesting the latter remains "invisible to the eyes of history" (30).

Chaucer is keenly interested in the shame of the guiltless victim (usually the good woman wronged). In "Shamed Guiltless in Chaucer's Pagan Antiquity" McTaggart focuses on the ethical problem of "guiltless shame" suffered by female victims--namely Dido and Criseyde--in a patriarchal, honor culture. Just as fame is indiscriminately bestowed, so too are honor and shame, and for Chaucer, "to be dishonored is not necessarily to be morally deserving of shame or humiliation" (26). Dido's self-destruction is a product of her shame, and her loss of self and public identity are manifested in a needless suicide. Similarly, Criseyde's actions are consistently dictated by a sense of shame (i.e., honor), and Chaucer's purpose is to expose or question the legitimacy of her ill repute since her guilt remains hidden from the reader (and the narrator). "Honor, Purity, and Sacrifice in The Knight's Tale and The Physician's Tale" explores the links between honor and shame in an economy of sacrificial exchange. Examining Chaucer's departures from his sources and analogues, McTaggart argues that although Arcite and Virginia ostensibly represent noble, heroic sacrifices to chivalric honor and female purity respectively, both are effectively scapegoats, whose deaths are meaningless and arbitrary, a "purging of violent competition through violence" (60). But shame can also be morally redemptive. "Structures of Reciprocity in Chaucerian Romance" rereads the happy reconciliations in The Franklin's Tale, The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, and Melibee as being effected by the willingness of men to accept humiliation (i.e., relinquishing their claim on the female body as a sign of male honor) in order to relieve the onus of female shame. As for the central cultural problem of the efficacious confession, "The Ills of Illocution: Shame, Guilt, and Confession in The Pardoner's Tale and The Parson's Tale" explores the dialectic between language and intent and the problematic discrepancy between the outward expression of repentance and a sincere sense of contrition.

The conclusion, "Chaucer and Medieval Shame Culture", reasserts McTaggart's contention that while Chaucer's poetics are fundamentally concerned with ethics, his interest in the relationship between physical and moral or spiritual purity is primarily "anthropological." For Chaucer, ethics are primarily performative; there are few confessional moments in his poetry, but shame pervades his oeuvre: "In almost all of his major works, Chaucer is most interested in exploring what motivates people to act the way they do, the variety of forms of self-defense, self-deception, and self-aggrandizement, the power of affect to shape empathetic responses to others, and the power of self-interested desire to impede or override the will to obey the moral law" (4). Brief schematic summaries obviously cannot address the complexity of McTaggart's nuanced readings. But her use of contemporary theories of penitential affect surely elucidate some of the more puzzling and problematic aspects of Chaucer's poetics, particularly his fascination with innocence slandered and his concern with authorial responsibility in construction historical reputation. In short, Shame and Guilt in Chaucer quite elegantly and convincingly demonstrates not only that the dialectic between performative shame and the inner experience of guilt provide a conceptual framework for the disparate Canterbury tales but also that Chaucer's conception of subjectivity and agency reflects insights similar to contemporary theories addressing the psychology of shame in the construction of human identity and social relations.

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Author Biography

Kathleen Forni

University of Loyola, Maryland