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  • Unfinished Business:The Termination Of Chaucer’s Cook’s Tale

The "unscheduled termination" of Chaucer's Cook's Tale has long baffled critics and readers alike.1 At the end of Fragment I of the Canterbury Tales, the story suddenly concludes after one of the most provocative lines in all the tales, describing a woman who "heeld for contenance / A shoppe, and swyved for hir sustenance" (I 4422).2 Douglas Gray notes that the abrupt end of the Cook's Tale may have resulted from a variety of circumstances:

There are a number of ways in which the incompleteness of The Cook's Tale may be accounted for: that more of it existed, but has been lost (but the Hengwrt scribe seems to have decided that there was no more);3 that Chaucer was by some circumstance or other prevented from completing it,4 or that for some reason he decided not to do so.5

We might add to this list the possibility that the Cook's Tale, rather than being an "incomplete" story, can be understood within a larger framework, concluding in a manner wholly appropriate within the thematic context of Fragment I.6 Many critics, puzzling over the sudden close, explore the ending by means of an imagined base-text, but without new manuscript evidence discussions of the textual provenance of the Cook's Tale remain conjectural, and we must admit the impossibility of reconstructing the tale based on a text that no longer exists, and perhaps never existed, even as a copy.

It seems more useful to look at the tale that does exist, examining the extant fragment of the Cook's Tale to find clues regarding its termination. Critics advocating thematic closure have done this, but their arguments, while theoretically appealing, seem somehow insufficient. As John Burrow notes, the presence of "thematic patterns" does not satisfactorily explain the tale's sudden end: "One business of criticism, certainly, is to see thematic patterns in carpets, but I doubt whether the completion of [End Page 185] such a pattern can properly be held to justify the breaking off of a story—almost before it has begun, in the case of The Cook's Tale."7 The problem with the Cook's Tale is that it does not feel complete.8 Not only does the tale fail to resolve narratively; it also lacks the markers of conclusion so common to Chaucer's other tales. Thus, as John Hines suggests, arguments of thematic completeness "do not solve the problem that more is needed by the Cook's Tale as a narrative product: it conspicuously lacks the marked conclusion that all the preceding tales have had, either in a conclusion within the tale or in the form of an endlink."9 It is possible, of course, that the abrupt completion of the tale should be read as humorous, mocking either the Cook's lack of skill as a storyteller or his taciturn nature. The former seems unlikely because the fragmentary tale is itself compelling. As for the latter possibility, if we are meant to laugh at the Cook's brusque, inadequate finish, then why does Chaucer make him so gregarious earlier, clawing the Reeve on the back after that man's tale? Why is there no closure or summation to emphasize a potentially comic component? And why is there no reaction from the other pilgrims?

Commenting on the Canterbury Tales, several critics quote Frank Kermode's statement that "We cannot, of course, be denied an end; it is one of the great charms of books that they have to end."10 Burrow questions the applicability of this statement to Chaucer, but Michaela Paasche Grudin suggests that such a desire for closure may not have been ahistorical:

By the time Chaucer, in Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1385), has Pandarus say to Criseyde, "th'ende is every tales strengthe" (2.260), the relation between structure and closure is surely a cliché. After all, do not readers, like lovers, hope for a satisfying consummation?11

Despite this prevalent cliché, however, Chaucer consistently resists the restrictive finality of closure, mimicking the reality of a world that, sadly, has far too little consummation...


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