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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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STORY LINE

We get a taste of the characters' symbolic importance to the tale. The widow's way of life, which takes the place of any physical description, is humbly Christian: she doesn't want what she can't have and she practices temperance in all things. This sets up the moral tone of the poem. But among her few possessions she does have a sheep named Moll. It's interesting that she and her daughters don't have names, but her sheep does. This prepares us for the introduction of animals that seem more human than the people in the tale.

Chanticleer appears more highly bred and privileged than the poor woman who owns him. He sees himself as the center of his small universe.

NOTE:

Chaucer shifts the point of view here from the objective sight of the widow to the viewpoints of the barnyard. He gives a closeup description of Chanticleer and compares his comb to a "castle wall" (line 40), making him appear large, as if we're seeing him on a hen's-eye level.

His portrait and that of the hens-his "paramours" (line 47)- are from a courtly romance, especially the standard romance description of Pertelote, "courteous, discreet, debonair," who captured the heart of this noble rooster when she was only seven days old. But the whole romantic ideal is undercut by a reminder that these are animals: we are in the long-ago days when animals and birds could speak and sing (line 61). This shift back and forth from romance (and later, philosophy) to the barnyard occurs throughout the tale, usually with hilarious effect.

Chanticleer's dream is suggestive of a medieval riddle: what is like something and yet is not that thing? (You can probably think of similar riddles from childhood.) His nightmare is about an animal "like a dog," but he doesn't know what. We immediately recognize a fox, which obviously Chanticleer his never seen; this puts us in a position of knowing more than the rooster does and keeps us from taking him too seriously.

Pertelote then becomes anything but "courteous" and "debonair." It's ridiculous that he should be afraid of dreams, she says. Aren't you a man? she asks in all seriousness (though to us it's very funny). Dreams come from overeating, gas, and an imbalance of bodily humors, in her opinion, as does her husband's red "choler" (bile: one of the four temperaments believed to rule the body). In quoting Cato (lines 120-121), she is presenting one prominent medieval view of dreams, the "natural" theory that says they are worthless. Her courtly tone of voice mixes with the pragmatic until she concludes he should take a laxative.


He thanks her courteously, then refutes her opinion. He uses "exempla"- highly structured examples that make a moral point-to show the theory that dreams are sent from heaven to point to joys and trials in the present life.

NOTE:

Some readers think his courteous attitude here toward Pertelote is full of male superiority, barely masking his contempt for her intelligence. Keep this in mind; later we will see other attitudes toward women.

His first example, of two friends forced to sleep in different places, is long and serious. A man refuses to listen to the dream of his traveling companion saying he's being murdered, but it turns out to be true. The next is of another traveling pair, one of whom refuses to believe his friend's dream that they will be drowned, and he indeed gets drowned when the ship's bottom splits "accidentally."

In these examples, Chanticleer first brings up the idea of fortune, which "governs" us all equally (lines 179-180). Is that the only purpose for his long-winded answer? It may be to build up suspense for the action to follow, or to create a serious purpose in contrast to the amusing fact that we're listening to a rooster. But it also serves to show that the point of the tale is basically serious. The change from comedy to a serious tone may represent the fact that fortune can change lives from cheerful to dismal, as indeed happens to Chanticleer later.

He rattles off half a dozen more short examples, in case Pertelote isn't convinced, or to impress everyone with his education. But after he predicts darkly that these ideas mean he will meet a terrible doom, he ends hilariously by adding that besides, he hates laxatives. This leads us to wonder whether his whole recitation has been from strongly held belief or from fear of having to take laxatives.

Returning to his courtly attitude, he tells Pertelote the sight of her takes away all his fears. Just as sure as "In principio" (the first words of the Bible; in other words, the gospel truth), "woman is man's joy and all his bliss" (lines 343-346).

NOTE:

The pun is double and says something about Chanticleer's attitude toward his wife. The Latin quote really means, "Woman is man's confusion [or ruin]," and "In principio" ("In the beginning...") can also refer to the Fall in the beginning because of Eve. He could be mistranslating this to tease her or, as some believe, to hide his contempt for her. Or perhaps, being only a rooster, he doesn't understand it himself. Which do you think makes the most sense?

Chanticleer gives up his theories in favor of love, as the end of his speech indicates. But his decision to listen to Pertelote and ignore his own arguments about portentous dreams turns out to be a mistake.

Chanticleer's adventure takes place 32 days from the start of March (the beginning of the year, in those days), in other words, in May, the significance of which we saw in the Knight's Tale.

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