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Chaucer's Two Ways: The Pilgrimage Frame of The Canterbury Tales David Lawton University ofSydney T�,nici, concerns th, plu,m,nr of fr,gm,nr I in Th, Cante,­ bury Tales, rather than, primarily, its content. It has to do with the frame, and the "idea," of The Canterbury Tales. Writing on The Parson's Tale in 1978, Lee Patterson complained that "the reader too often finds himself knowing a great deal about the Canter­ bury Tales but not very much about the Parson's Tale." Patterson's essay was one excellent attempt to redress the balance. It deals in detail with "the logically prior questions of originality, date, coherence and genre,"1 but it too ends up with the same issue, the "thematic relation" of fragment IThe Parson's Prologue, The Parson's Tale, and Chaucer's Retraction-to the rest of The Canterbury Tales. The association is inevitable. Even for those who feel that "there isno need topause long over theParson's Tale,"2 what is atstakeinareadingof fragment I is the validity of ourmethods, and habits, in reading The Canterbury Tales altogether: cherished notions (such as character, the relation of teller to tale, irony, "unity") which transcend any possible literary interest of The Parson's Tale itself face the test of closure. We are forced to confrontnot merely a little treatise on sinand penance but the textuality of The Canterbury Tales andour experience of it. I shall argue that the various conflicting interpretations of the Parson and his Tale are remarkably conditioned by habitual and shared responses to The Canter­ bury Tales altogether and that a recognition of this leads to a rereading of the frame of The Canterbury Tales. The first part of this article therefore deals with the criticism, the second part with the question of a frame, and 1 All quotation from Chaucer in this article is from F. N. Robinson, ed., The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 2d ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1957). Lee W Patterson, "The Parson'sTale and the Quittingofthe Canterbury Tales," Traditio 34 (1978):331-80; quotation from p. 334. 2 J. B. Allen and T. A. Moritz, A Distinction ofStories (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1981), pp. 225. 3 SWDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER the third part with the first portion of the frame of The Canterbury Tales, The General Prologue, and its historical context. I. The Criticism I shall follow Patterson's example in distinguishing four approaches to The Parson's Tale (though mine are not the same as Patterson's). My interest is not in a critic's position on The Parson's Tale but rather in the complex of responses by which it is arrived at. The four approaches may be termed (1) absolute, (2) ironic, (3) dualistic, and (4) textual. The first approach ("absolute") combines two separate positions delin­ eated by Patterson (p. 333): (1) the moral absolutism ofthe Parsons Tale has been implicit throughout the tales, guiding our judgment as we read them and now receiving its full expression and authority; (2) the Parsons Tale provides a retrospective commentary on all that has gone before, and our understanding of the tales should now (but only now) be revised in the direction of its moral judgments. It seems to me that the difference between these two positions is only that between first and second reading. They are worth assessing as one approach because both accept that The Parson's Tale offers a set ofabsolute standards that should be accepted as absolutely serious. All critics who believe this treat The Parson's Tale as normative, however much they differ in reading the norm. For Ralph Baldwin, the Tale becomes a grand penitential sieve, catching the pilgrims one by one for the sins they have demonstrated in their persons, their tales, or both;3 for D. W Robertson, who would take account of the high moral absolutism from the start, the structure of The Canterbury Tales becomes an anatomy ofvice (and the occasional virtue).4 A statement ofan absolute view is an absolute statement, and the very force and cogency of Robertson's reading, or ofBaldwin's essay, have guaranteed their subsequent disfavor. Later critics have...


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