Gower Bibliography

Incest Narratives and the Structure of Gower's Confessio Amantis

Donavin, Georgiana. "Incest Narratives and the Structure of Gower's Confessio Amantis." ELS Monograph Series, 56 . Victoria, BC: Englsig Literary Studies, 1993 ISBN 0920604641


According to Donavin's analysis, incest is not merely the worst example of sexual desire unrestrained by law and reason in CA; it provides the basis for the moral structure of the entire poem, in two aspects. As represented in Venus and Cupid, first of all, it defines the moral failings of all who imitate Venus by serving her in the "court of Love." But as in common medieval interpretations of the Song of Songs and of Mary's relationship with Christ, it is also a figure for the transcendance of passion and for the soul's desire for union with God. During the course of the poem, Amans is brought from his more literal imitation of Venus' incestuous passion to a repudiation of the court of love and to an appreciation of the figurative, redemptive union which Venus and Cupid parody. Genius leads the way for Amans by means of his own deepening understanding of the meaning of incest in the tales in which it appears. These tales appear throughout CA. In "Canace and Machaire," Genius' obfuscation of the real issues in his attempts to excuse Canace and to evoke pity for her reveal the incompleteness of his moral development at this stage of the poem. In citing her lyrical complaint to Machaire, he mistakenly believes that the echoes of the practices of love's court ennoble their incestuous passion; in fact, they reveal the moral degeneration which is the prelude to the social chaos of the tale's conclusion. The tale offers a warning to Amans that his own pursuit of his lady is immoral. Incest is manifested in more sublimated form in the tale of "Orestes," in which the hero's lawless sexual violence against his mother is provoked by the gods and leads to social breakdown in a different form; and in "Constance," in which the two mothers-in-law are led to destructive violence by their jealous incestuous affection for their sons. "Constance" also reflects the redemptive aspect of incest in the heroine's relation with her father, in which incestuous passion is transcended, and which is transformed at the end of the tale into a "figure for the soul's arrival in heaven." The tale of Peronelle and the "Three Questions" also uses the incestuous overtones of the father's relation with his daughter as an allegory for the soul's merging with the divine. Both positive and negative aspects of incest culminate in the final tale of the poem, "Apollonius of Tyre." In Antiochus, literal incest is revealed most clearly to be a form of tyranny, both in the father's rule over his daughter, and more personally, in passion's rule over reason. Apollonius illustrates the conquest of both forms, in his escape from Antiochus and in his control of his feelings for his daughter. The final redemptive moment in the tale, moreover, is his reunion with Thaise, in which the potentially incestuous relation becomes the vehicle for Apollonius' spiritual emancipation. The tale provides the model for Amans' rejection of Venus' tyranny and his turning towards contemplation of God in the poem's conclusion. This summary hardly does justice to Donavin's case, which is presented both earnestly and with considerable subtlety. Her argument in general classes her among those who find that the purpose of the confession is to lead Amans away from his love, and in her allusions, for instance, to Amans' "complicity in incest" and his "overwhelming, ruinous lust" (p. 6), and to his "mental degeneration" (p. 38), we have some of the strongest statements in all of published Gower criticism of the notion that Amans' love for his lady is by its very nature wrong. Others have drawn a connection between the tales of literal incest in the poem; Donavin's most original contribution is to see the non-literal possibilities of the tales in which incest is only implicit. This is precisely, however, where her argument seems most strained. She must labor to prove that some of her examples even belong in a discussion of incest at all. Concerning Constance's first mother-in-law, for example, she writes, trying to compensate for Gower's inexplicitness on the matter: "The mother's motivation for murder is fear that some of the privileges of her 'astat' shall be transferred to Constance. And what shall be the main privilege of Constance's new 'astat' but the advantage of being the Sultan's consort, his sexual partner?" (p. 44); and on the next page, only the analogy of the first mother-in-law provides any explanation of the motivation of the second. Her treatment of Orestes' vengeance on his mother as a subminated act of incest instead of righteous wrath requires even greater distortion. To use Peronelle as a positive example of incest transformed, on the other hand, Donavin must not only read her relationship with her father overly subtly, but she constructs an allegory in which Alphonse, Peronelle's husband, stands in both for Jesus and for sinful mankind. What is missing in her discussion of this tale and those of Constance and Apollonius, and in her restriction to so small a number of tales from so long a poem, is sufficient recognition of the importance Gower gives to virtuous marriage, both as a goal for the lover and as an antidote to sin. For those who feel that the purpose of the confession, until the final scene, is to lead Amans to a more virtuous practice of love rather than to a renunciation of love altogether, neither the pattern that she draws nor her treatment of individual tales will be altogether compelling. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 13.1].

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Confessio Amantis

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