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STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER to try to turn a series of lectures into a monograph, but to have published them as a collection of independent essays. For the chapters of Politique are, in the fullest sense, ‘‘essays.’’ Individually, they bring into brilliant focus some of the most neglected and little-known texts of the period. Collectively, they illustrate the difficulties future scholars will face when they try to find a compelling framework within which to view this challenging material as a whole. Wendy Scase University of Birmingham Carolynn Van Dyke. Chaucer’s Agents: Cause and Representation in Chaucerian Narrative. Madison and Teaneck, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2005. Pp. 371. $63.50. Carolynn Van Dyke justly observes that, although examinations of agency and subjectivity have been productive for Chaucer critics, such studies often slide into generalizations or vaguely psychoanalytic interpretations of either character or author. She sets out to redress this problem by synthesizing a concept of agency from a stimulating variety of critical contexts, including literary theory, philosophy, computer science, legal studies, social sciences, and business (no doubt relying partly on her own varied experience as a scholar of computer science as well as literary studies). Agency, as Van Dyke conceives it, ‘‘need not be human, social, or even animate’’ (p. 17), nor does it need to be intentional or autonomous. Ultimately, however, this definition of agency is so capacious that it becomes less rather than more useful. While it does allow consideration of an array of unusual agents, this inclusive notion of agency is difficult to pin down in any meaningfully specific way and, as a result, exercises of agency often escape detailed examination. Van Dyke’s individual readings tend to focus instead on Chaucer’s multivalent characterizations of various agents. The first chapter establishes this definition of agency and examines its theoretical and historical contexts. Van Dyke identifies several crises of agency in late medieval culture, including divisions of power within spiritual and secular hierarchies, the philosophical debate between Scholastic Realism and Nominalism, and conflicting ideas about authorship PAGE 554 554 ................. 16596$ CH13 11-01-10 14:08:51 PS REVIEWS and textual authority. She concludes somewhat reductively that Chaucer ’s representations of agency, which are multiple and shifting, reflect these contemporary circumstances. Each of the subsequent chapters takes up a different type of agent in relation to the particular genres within which Chaucer deployed it; the three immediately following the introduction exploit the space opened up by a broader definition of agency to consider allegorical figures, animals , and pagan gods. Chapter 2 focuses on allegory, tracing Boethius’s influence on Chaucer’s polysemous allegorical narratives and insisting that they are among his most artistically mature and aesthetically accomplished works. Van Dyke uses three dream visions—the House of Fame, the Parliament of Fowls, and the Legend of Good Women—to demonstrate that Chaucer employs allegory to represent universal agency even as he particularizes such agency and problematizes it through parody, ambiguity, and irony. The third chapter engages provocatively with the literary and philosophical debate during the Middle Ages over animal agency as either completely absent or anthropomorphically complex, suggesting that Chaucer’s representations of animals draw not on human characteristics but on ‘‘zoological reality’’ and that, ‘‘paradoxically, he thereby blurs the boundaries between their agency and ours’’ (p. 106). Van Dyke shows that The Squire’s Tale translates the falcon and her agency so completely into the human world that any meaningful avian equivalent is lost, whereas The Nun’s Priest’s Tale reveals Pertelote and Chauntecleer to have an agency that seems both familiarly subjective and fundamentally appropriate to their animal natures. The chapter concludes with The Manciple’s Tale, reading it as an example of how human and animal agents can fall or fail but may thereby gain a kind of liberty. Chapter 4 takes up the acknowledged problems that medieval Christian authors faced when working with pagan elements of classical literature , but views those problems through the filter of agency. Van Dyke argues that pagan gods were treated with a kind of ‘‘theological ambivalence ’’ even in classical texts and that Chaucer recognizes and re-creates this (p. 114). She examines...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 554-557
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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