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THE TALES: SUMMARIES AND NOTES
Chaucer acknowledges here in six stanzas that the character of Griselda has been stylized to the point of impossibility and asks wives to show more independent spirit and assume control.
The Clerk’s Tale is an indirect response to the Wife of Bath who stated that women desire complete sovereignty over their husbands and lovers. The Clerk puts forth a diametrically opposite view and draws the sketch of a totally submissive woman.
Chaucer’s source for the Clerk’s tale is Petrarch’s ‘Fable of Obedience and Wifely Faith’ written in Latin that was in turn derived from Boccaccio’s ‘Decameron’. Chaucer closely follows Petrarch’s text. Chaucer makes the Clerk candidly acknowledge that his tale is derived from "Frauncey's Petrak".
The Clerk’s Tale is suited to his character as a serious student. His tale too has a scholarly theme and deals with the issue of genuine obedience and loyalty in a wife. Griselda’s story upholds faith in goodness even in times of adversity. It is definitely a moral tale and the Clerk relates it with all seriousness and economy of words.
The Host’s warning to the Clerk to keep his language simple and to tell an entertaining and adventurous tale were not needed. The tale proves that the Clerk was not an ossified academic. However the Clerk does not relate an adventurous tale and does make use of rhetoric and figures of speech. When the Clerk concludes his tale the Host commends him for relating his story in a sweet and wholesome manner.
Chaucer has invested, the folk tale Petrarchan version of the patient Griselda’s story, with an amazing degree of realism. Griselda comes across as a real life human character. Her sincerity to her husband and affection for her children seem realistic. Her pathos is heart rending and earns the reader’s compassion.
Griselda’s story of long suffering may be unappealing to modern readers. But it is important to interpret the tale in the context of the fourteenth century. Griselda was simply acting in accordance with her roles as a loyal wife and a subject of the marquis. She was fulfilling her moral obligations.
One could perhaps interpret the tale as a homily on Christian humility and perseverance. The Clerk clarifies while concluding his tale that Griselda is not to be emulated as an example by women. Rather his tale simply advocates faith in the innate goodness of God and perseverance in times of adversity.
It is also possible to interpret the Clerk’s tale as a comment on the exploitation of the governed class by the rulers. Griselda is a lowly village girl and suffers the cruelty of the marquis silently and is resigned to her fate. Similarly the tale may also be seen as a comment on patriarchal domination.
The marquis Walter appears to be a sadistic man who derives intense pleasure from torturing his wife. His skepticism about his wife’s loyalty and obedience is irremediable as he subjects poor Griselda to one inhuman test after another. During the entire period of his married life he does not exhibit an iota of remorse. However his character is redeemed by the fondness of his subjects and his choice of a poor girl for his bride.