Gower Bibliography

Ethics and Exemplary Narrative in Chaucer and Gower.

Mitchell, J. Allan. "Ethics and Exemplary Narrative in Chaucer and Gower." Chaucer Studies Series (33). Cambridge: Boydell & Brewer, Limited, 2004 ISBN 1843840197

Review

Mitchell has an ambitious triple agenda in this engaging study: redeeming medieval morality generally from the charge that it is merely prescriptive and authoritarian (an accusation most often voiced by those who also find it inherently suspect); to offer a poetic of exemplary literature that transcends the assumption that narrative is inevitably hostile to moral principle; and to demonstrate the centrality, and also the consciousness of the potential complexity, both of exemplary rhetoric and of moral practice in Gower and Chaucer. Mitchell's central propositions are first that narrative is necessary to give meaning to moral principle, and that in an exemplum there is therefore a "reciprocal movement between narrativity and normativity" (17); and second, that reception is integral to the exemplary process: that exempla by their very nature are addressed to the reader's future action. For that reason, they must be applied to particular circumstances, and they are thus open to a diversity of responses. "The end of exemplary rhetoric is not to find a determinate moralization or thematic closure," Mitchell declares, "but to discover how to live a moral life" (13-14). He lays out the background to his analysis in his first two chapters. In chapter 1, "Reading for the Moral: Controversies and Trajectories," he responds to what he sees as the modern misreading of medieval exemplary rhetoric, and he cites both medieval and modern theorists in defense of his pragmatic emphasis on reader choice and on moral practice. In chapter 2, "Rhetorical Reason: Cases, Conscience, and Circumstances," he traces the ancestry of the case-based rhetoric of the exempla to its roots in Aristotelian thought, and he cites other medieval examples of a similar flexibility in the application of moral principle, for instance the emphasis laid in the confessional manuals on examining closely the circumstances both of the sinner and of the sin. The remainder of his book explores the adoption of the rhetoric of exemplarity in works of poetry, in two chapters on Gower and three on Chaucer. The first of the chapters on Gower, "Gower for Example: Confessio Amantis and the Measure of the Case," has already appeared, in somewhat revised form and with a slightly different title, as an article in Exemplaria (see JGN 23, no. 2). In it, Mitchell argues that the poem is "comprehensive" but not "coherent": that in its vastness, it offers a wide array of lessons on moral practices in love that are sometimes confusing and even contradictory, and the burden is thus placed upon every reader, as it is upon Amans, to discover the application of each lesson that is most relevant to his own behavior. Genius participates in that effort by the way in which he adapts his lessons to the practices of lovers; Amans participates, for instance, in the way in which he rejects the lessons that seem to have no application whatever to his case. "The exemplary array constitutes something like a horizon of possible outcomes, a taxonomy of cases, a repertoire useful for orienting the moral subject without predetermining final ethical positions in practice" (59). In the end, therefore, "Amans himself must reach his own judgement, find the measure, make meaning – by moving in and among contrastive exempla representing cases in extremis – if he is to figure out what it is good for him to do with his love" (58). Similarly (to borrow a formulation from the next chapter), whatever good the poem itself achieves "will occur outside the poem in the conscience of the reader" (65): "Gower's is an art that provokes the audience to proceed without the promise of coherence. To adapt what has become a favorite medieval motto: Gower provokes us to doubt, so that by doubting we come to questioning, whereby we might arrive at answers. The moral mean-ing rests as much on what readers do as on what the text means" (66). In that next chapter, "All that is Written for our Doctrine: Proof, Remembrance, Conscience," Mitchell first situates his argument with reference to recent discussions of Gower's poetical "authority," which he notes need to be "reconceptualized to include the potentialities of reader response" (63). He then goes on to discuss some of the problems inherent in the key terms of Gower's "ethical poetic" (66). Both "remembrance" and "evidence" occur repeatedly in the poem, and as the exempla themselves demonstrate, each can be either incomplete or misleading. The solution for Gower, Mitchell argues, resides in the notion of "conscience," which in the poet's "ethical empiricism" (78) still bears the burden of moral judgment. When he comes to Chaucer, in his last three chapters, Mitchell is obviously less concerned with dispelling the poet's reputation for moral sententiousness than he is in Gower's case. He argues instead the very importance of the ethical dimension of Chaucer's work and of the poet's engagement with, rather than dismissal of, the impact of his tales upon the ethical choices of his readers. After surveying the pervasiveness of the exemplary mode in CT, including but certainly not limited to such instances as 2NT and Mel, he focuses on what he calls the "problematic cases" (84) – the tales of the Wife of Bath, Friar, Summoner, Pardoner, and Clerk – in order to examine how Chaucer both explores and exemplifies exemplary practice. The Wife of Bath confronts the antifeminist exempla of her husband's book of "wicked wives" with an exemplary rhetoric of her own that is grounded in a literalist hermeneutic, drawn from her own experience. "By trading on the inherent flexibility of the rhetoric[,] the Wife of Bath effectively reminds us that exempla are amenable to diverse applications. An applied ethics, exemplary morality exists to be reinvented in practice" (93). The Friar, Summoner, and Pardoner are each shown abusing exemplary morality for personal and private ends, and each is also guilty of the sins that he preaches against (and in the first two cases, attributes to another). As studies in the abuse of exemplary rhetoric, each reaffirms rather than undermines the value of exemplary instruction since we perceive their faults ironically by means of their own exempla. "Chaucer creates figures who become . . . their own best worst examples" (111). "At last, these pilgrims are 'bad' only because their exempla are 'good'" (110). In that respect, Mitchell suggests, the Pardoner's performance – in which he himself serves as exemplum – may be more effective than the Parson's. ClT, finally, problematizes exemplary instruction by offering too many, often conflicting, moral lessons. The necessity of choosing a single moral for the tale, Mitchell argues, is itself a moral decision. The tale itself is thus a "parable of exemplarity" (129): in forcing us to choose one reading to the exclusion of others, "the tale draws its audience to a pointed recognition of what is at stake, in the face of the dilemma, every time moral application is sought in the futurity of decision" (ibid.). The tale's "undecidability" is thus "a call to responsibility" (130). Mitchell is both subtle and refreshingly iconoclastic, and even if one does not accept every detail of his readings, he offers a persuasive demonstration of a rich range of possibilities in what might all too easily be seen as a limited and transparent form. Much of what he says has implications reaching far beyond Chaucer and Gower, and his examination of CA opens up some interesting new ways of seeing the work. [PN Copyright The John Gower Society: JGN 24.1]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Backgrounds and General Studies
Confessio Amantis

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