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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THE TALE

Dame Alice's nasty reference to "limiters" (friars who beg within certain limits) to get back at the Friar's comment on her big mouth, shows in what disrepute friars are viewed: a woman is safe, she says, since the friar will take only her honor. This is a nice lead-in to the main tale, where a knight does indeed take a young woman's honor.

The knight sees women only as objects that he can take by force. But ironically his life then depends on the will of women.

NOTE:

As in the Knight's Tale, mercy is dependent on the goodness of women. Pity, whether between the sexes, ruler and subject, or God and man, is another form of love.

Dame Alice jokes at her own expense about women who want to be free instead of listening to their husbands, and about women who, like Midas' wife (and like herself), can't keep their mouths shut.

The knight learns that women want many things, but most of all they want dominion over their men, an assertion of identity just as men have. The old woman from whom he learns this is obviously enchanted, for the 24 dancing women in the forest disappear, and she knows, without being told, that he's been sent by the queen.

The knight has more to learn after he's forced to marry the old woman. His idea of the natural order makes it abhorrent to think of marrying someone so old and below his station, but he is to be morally reeducated, appropriately, in bed.


Her arguments-that "gentilesse" (nobility) comes from God, that poverty can be a blessing, and that ugliness keeps a woman faithful-are based on authorities like Christ and Dante. This shows a strong Christian basis for her position, a basis Jankin was missing when he quoted from his learned book. They make sense, but neither choice (faithful but ugly or beautiful and faithless) holds water against the strength of human nature. He has to choose between physical and spiritual love, and he chooses neither. Both choices involve dilemmas: possession without joy or independence with jealousy.

By resigning himself, the knight shows true repentance and spiritual growth, and he is rewarded by getting the impossible, youth and fidelity. But first he has to relinquish control, a fact that echoes Dame Alice's own marriage to Jankin. The balance reached in the end is based on a harmony between sexuality and spiritual values, and even if Dame Alice doesn't have quite the same balance in her marriage, she at least has put her point across in a lively and convincing way.

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