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21.04.02 Meyer-Lee, Literary Value and Social Identity in The Canterbury Tales

The Medieval Review

21.04.02 Meyer-Lee, Literary Value and Social Identity in The Canterbury Tales


Is another book on The Canterbury Tales needed, and, if so, what is the value of this monograph on Chaucer? These are two of the main questions which Robert J. Meyer-Lee's new book, Literary Value and Social Identity in The Canterbury Talesraises and then answers, addressing the second question in the first few pages. The latter question is more complicated, but throughout the book, Meyer-Lee attends to this question, and, happily for readers of Chaucer and those still looking to write something about Chaucer, Meyer-Lee's monograph gives a comprehensive response that nonetheless offers new avenues to continue thinking about the Tales.

Beginning with a discussion of value, Meyer-Lee offers a project that is itself quite valuable: should the Fragment IV and V be separated, and, if not, what are the consequences of looking at four tales, from the Clerk's to the Franklin's, as one unit? This seemingly easy and uncomplicated question concerns so much more, as Meyer-Lee demonstrates throughout. Rather than just readings of these particular tales themselves, his work offers important correctives about how we might think though the relationship among them and the links between tales and tellers. Building upon considerations of the manuscripts, their editing, and subsequent scholarly inquiry, Meyer-Lee shows how an emphasis on Fragment IV and V can shed light on the value Chaucer might have placed upon his own writing and how we might continue to assign value to that writing. In short, by dwelling with these new questions and considerations on the value Chaucer might have placed upon writing through the connections among literary worth, the values of the pilgrims offering these narratives, and the values which reach beyond the page connecting to Chaucer, readers will see what value Meyer-Lee's book has, and how this study can continue to offer interpretative space for revaluing Chaucer's Tales.

In an introduction that is clear and concise, Meyer-Lee nevertheless gives ample shape to his project and the chapters that follow. In examining the focal point of his book--namely, the apparent unity of the narratives from the Clerk's Tale to Franklin's Tale in spite of their divisioninto two separatefragments, IV and V, with the division between the Merchant's and Squire's narratives--Literary Value and Social Identity asks if, in accepting an editorial mistake largely at the hands of Frederick Furnivall, modern editors and scholars have also accepted certain assumptions about the construction of the Tales and the links between tale and pilgrim. This simple editorial error, indeed, has profound consequences for how readers can approach these texts and what which has obscured a number of conclusions. In undoing this error, Meyer-Lee creates a convincing argument for viewing and thinking about the four tales as "a cento, the product of Chaucer's rereading of his own work--his looking over of some of the material that he had written for the Tales, or material that he had written for the Tales but without final plans for how he would situate it" (9).

By offering fragments IV and V as an "unified authorial composition" from Clerk to Franklin, many of these conclusions trouble enduring critical traditions from the work plan for the Tales to how we might understand the unfinished nature of the Tales to the relationship between pilgrim and tales. While the consequences of Meyer-Lee's approach are too numerous to list here, a few of these effects are worth mentioning: first, Meyer-Lee's support for this set of Tales functioning together, if differently especially in regard to value, also offers evidence for the "work room's view of Chaucer's composition of the Tales" and "emphasizes the status of the semi-linked collection as a work in progress, one guided by plans that evolved, probably opportunistically, in the course of composition" (6). Beyond the work plan itself, seeing Fragments IV and V as both a unit and a comment itself on the value of the Tales complicates and perhaps reorders how many Chaucerians view the relationship between pilgrim and tale, giving critics a chance to "suspend the categorization of the pilgrims as goodies or baddies so that we remain open to the axiological possibilities afforded by the distinctive constellation of each portrait" (17).

And the mention of "axiological possibility" introduces what is so valuable about this intervention: Meyer-Lee structures each of the four chapters which follow, each devoted to one of the four pilgrims from Clerk to Franklin and their respective tales, with the exploration of "axiological person, literary axiology, and axiological apologia" (14), all terms coined by Meyer-Lee. In organizing not only the relationship between tale and pilgrim but also between narrative and different kinds of value (literary, social, economic), Meyer-Lee defines each of the three terms in the introduction, which bear repeating here. Literary axiology is defined as the theory of the narrative's value, either explicitly stated in the narrative or implied, and which might be expressed in positive or negative terms--this quality depends only on the tale, not the links between tales or the portrait of the pilgrim associated with the tale. The axiological person depends on the portrait of the pilgrim, pointing to the types of values which might be associated with the pilgrim--"more concrete than a type but less concrete than a representation of a historically specific individual, each portrait embodies a constellation of values" (15), all of which constitute this axiological person. Finally,axiological apologia completes the tripartite discussion of value, as the term that expresses "the literary self-justification Chaucer articulates in each stage of the IV-V sequence precisely by placing the literary axiology of a tale under the sign of an axiological person with whom he shares some amount of social overlap" (20). And this articulation of axiological apologia offers some of the most useful work of the book.

Indeed, in the four chapters that follow Meyer-Lee fleshes out the literary axiology of each tale, along with the axiological person from Clerk to Franklin, in order to trace how each of these narratives suggests something about their value, separately and in relationship to the tales that precede and follow. From Meyer-Lee's tracing of "controller axiology" and the Clerk's adolescence to the Squire's unfocused and unfinished tale, the chapters are characterized by an argument that is sophisticated and clear, one that I imagine some readers will wish they themselves had made. And this argument proves valuable in other ways: by allowing readers of the Tales to approach Chaucer's text and its construction in with a new constellation of connections and possibilities, Meyer-Lee shows how continued study of the Tales is worthwhile, especially as Meyer-Lee's book offers an answer to the question of value as literary studies, in particular, and the humanities, in general, as pressures increase to prove their value. One important way that book answers that question is in the concluding discussion of the Franklin and Squire's link, which highlights that the value of Chaucer's "literary fiction, if not necessarily the value of fiction per se, is that it may possess, with the reader's cooperation, the restorative, civilizing function to which the genre of romance lays claim, but without being self-deceived about the materialist, self-interested instrumentality to which all discourse tends" (231).