- Mutual Masochism and the Hermaphroditic Courtly Lady in Chaucer's Franklin's Tale
“The best part of married life is the fights. The rest is merely so-so,” writes Thornton Wilder in The Matchmaker,1 and his words capture a simple truth of narrative pleasure: in many instances, readers prefer depictions of conflict over companionship, of aggression over amour, and such is certainly the case throughout Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Marriage recurs frequently as a subject during the Canterbury pilgrimage, but, as is readily apparent, often in problematic or unsettling ways. Cuckoldry and sexual aggression dominate the portrayals of marriage in The Miller's Tale, Reeve's Tale, Merchant's Tale, and Shipman's Tale (and even when cuckoldry is not surely depicted in Chaucer's fabliaux, its specter lingers, as in the flirtatious behavior between Thomas's wife and the friar of The Summoner's Tale). Domestic violence, both physical and emotional, disrupts marital harmony in The Wife of Bath's Prologue, Clerk's Tale, and Manciple's Tale, and marriage catalyzes religious conflict in The Man of Law's Tale (in which Custance's mothers-in-law embark on their murderous and duplicitous acts in response to their sons’ unions) and Second Nun's Tale (in which Cecilia threatens Valerian with his imminent demise should he seek satisfaction for the marital debt). Due to the antagonism, pain, and humiliation associated with marriage in so many of the Canterbury Tales, The Franklin's Tale, with the apparently egalitarian relationship between Dorigen and Arveragus, stands as the strongest antidote to Chaucer's matrimonial satire.2 [End Page 149]
But if Wilder is correct that the “best part of married life is the fights,” then where is the pleasure of The Franklin's Tale, a narrative that, at least on the surface, doggedly refuses to depict marital disharmony? Numerous critics have analyzed The Franklin's Tale concerning its depiction of marital tribulations, pointing to subtle gradations of power and authority enacted in Dorigen and Arveragus's union. Notable voices in these discussions include Cathy Hume, who argues, “Having established an egalitarian marriage ideal at the beginning of the Tale, Chaucer goes on to explore how such an ideal would be tested by real world circumstances”; Craig Davis similarly observes, “Chaucer's Franklin's Tale shows us that perfect marriages can be just as fraught emotionally as any other kind, even when they are contracted with deliberate consideration of advantage and liability in social status, wealth, or political alliance.”3 These nuanced assessments of the marital dynamics depicted in The Franklin's Tale, along with those of Elizabeth Robertson, Conor McCarthy, David Raybin, Angela Lucas, and many others, enhance readers’ understanding of a union that appears outwardly harmonious yet also hints at its inherent discontents.
The marital mutuality that stands at the core of The Franklin's Tale is not achieved easily, and Arveragus and Dorigen's mutual masochism enables their sharing of authority and submission in marriage. Numerous theoretical accounts of courtly love posit a sadistic/masochistic valence between the suffering suitor and his female beloved, but The Franklin's Tale subverts this binary relationship and invites readers to contemplate the possibility of a relationship founded upon oscillating positions of masochistic subservience, as well as the fruits of such a refiguring [End Page 150] of romance. Concomitant with the mutual masochism potential in courtly romance is the refiguring of gender roles within this archetypal dyad: the Courtly Lady need not be a lady when a relationship is defined through mutual masochism, and thus, when Arveragus assumes the mantle of this presumably feminine role, he models the latent hermaphroditism of ostensibly rigid gender hierarchies. The Franklin's mutually masochistic tale undermines standard structures of narrative as well, with the tale's focus on masochism paralleling that of the Franklin's performance of modesty for his fellow pilgrims, through which he likewise compels them to confront the fictions of gender.4
Mutual Masochism and the Hermaphroditic Courtly Lady, or Why Can’t the Courtly Lady Be More Like a Man?
The logic of courtly love: such a phrase should be paradoxical, for under which epistemology (except perhaps its own) would its...