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STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER while challenging received opinion, her method and interpretations will long provide models for students of this rich "period of equilibrium or balance in spirituality" (p. 263). RICHARD K. EMMERSON National Endowment for the Humanities HELEN COOPER. The Structure o/The Canterbury Tales. London: Duck­ worth, 1983. Pp. viii, 256. £24 in UK only. Helen Cooper's The Structure a/The Canterbury Tales has as its basis some important ideas. She views Chaucer's work as growing out of the literary and social conventions of his age and proposes to find in his handling of conventions, especially in the variations from convention, importantclues to hismeaning. She begins with the genre ofthe story collection, proceeds to two chapters on The Canterbury Tales as a whole, devotes a chapter to TheKnight's Tale, another to the relationships oftaleswithinthe different fragments, and a third to the more general thematic resonances, before concluding that The Canterbury Tales defies formulaic definition, that it refuses to find conclusive answers in The Parson's Tale and the Retraction, that it "demands to be looked at whole." The chapter on story collections concentrates on the "key problems of structure and morality." It ends up considering the three late-fourteenth­ century authors whose principal works are collections: Boccaccio, Gower, and Chaucer. Chaucer, who was influenced bythe other two, distinguishes his collection from the others by avoiding abstract patterning and by including two characteristics "that have no parallels anywhere," the variety ofgenres included and the story telling contest. The two features reinforce each other. The contest implies that we are experiencing superior, if not the best, examples of each genre, and the variety gives a multiplicity of perspectives and a sense ofthe partial truth necessarily present in each. In a later chapter titled "An Encyclopedia ofKinds," Cooper finds parallels for The Canterbury Tales in the Summa and in Menippean satire. She thus puts a consistent emphasis on the all-inclusiveness ofthe work; the charac­ ters of the Prologue reflect the estates ofmedieval society as the stories in the collection do the possibilities open to the medieval story teller. 178 REVIEWS Cooper tends to discount the relationship between the pilgrim and the tale and so gives littleattention to thethirdcharacteristic that distinguishes Chaucer's collection from the others. She emphasizes the ideal figures in the Prologue, the Knight, the Parson, and the Plowman, with the Clerk as a fourth to reflect Chaucer's interest in learning. These characters, and to a great extent the others as well, define themselves in relation to social roles in a world where the distinction between "those who fight, those who work, and those who pray" is paramount. "As in the General Prologue, so in the tales: the aims and methods are not those ofpsychological explora­ tion but ofpoetry: ofimagery, language, genre, manipulation ofconven­ tion, and so on" (p. 80). As a result, the longest chapter in the book, "Links Within the Fragments," is also the least satisfactory. This chapter, which is more than a third of the book, suffers in three ways, from the paucity of comment on the moments that are clearly dramatic, from the procrustean forcing ofsome ofthe relationships, and from the obvious nature of some of the others. While recognizing that The Wzfe a/Bath's Tale is, more than any other, "psychologically as well as rhetorically appropriate for its teller," Cooper gives little attention to the Wife's Prologue, where the play with conven­ tion is most exuberant. The Wife's discussion in her tale of what women most desire receives only passing notice, and the extent to which her interests have distorted the genre of Arthurian romance almost beyond recognition goes unmentioned. Instead Cooper comments onthe fairy-tale elements in the story and finds in the ending, influenced by the discussion of "gentilesse," a "higher level of idealism than the opening had seemed able to encompass" (p. 129). She thus ignores the return ofthe Wife as an intensedramatic presence in theconcludingprayerofhertale. Similarly,in the case of the Pardoner, the Prologue and the quarrel with the Host are largely ignored. Instead we get the effort to connect the Physician's digres­ sion on governesses, not with the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 178-180
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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