Gower Bibliography

Fathers and Daughters in Gower's Confessio Amantis: Authority, Family, State, and Writing.

Bullón-Fernández, María. "Fathers and Daughters in Gower's Confessio Amantis: Authority, Family, State, and Writing." Publications of the John Gower Society, 5 . Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2000


Father-daughter relationships occupy a prominent place in CA, Bullón-Fernández observes, and she discusses eleven particularly significant examples, including the two longest and most complex tales in the poem, "Constance" and "Apollonius of Tyre," and one of the most problematic, "Canace and Machaire." She sets out the broad lines of her argument in her first chapter. Gower uses the relationship between father and child, she asserts, as a device for exploring issues of power and authority not only in a family context but also in the political and textual realms. All three of these are informed by the same dynamics--the male authority figure appears to negotiate between the desire for an absolute control over the female subordinate figure and the constraints imposed by social forces (pp. 3-4). She thus treats incest not merely as a sin in a moral or religious sense but as an offense against society: the father, who has absolute authority over his daughter, is expected to use this authority to pass her on to somebody else, and his refusal to do so is a rejection of the patriarchal order from which his authority derives. The king's authority was also on occasion figured as that of a fa-ther towards his child, and the king's failure to recognize the limits on his authority, in his usurpation of their property rights, for instance, can thus be seen as an analogous disruption of patriarchal order. Bullón-Fernández draws heavily from the critics (notable among them Judith Butler) who have discussed the discursive nature of the incest taboo and the relation between the law of exogamy (which requires marriage outside the family) and the construction of patriarchal society, and who have explored the contradictions in the role attributed to the father in the system in which a female is the object of exchange and in the taboo that both creates and suppresses incestuous desire. Gower too explores the "gaps and fissures" (an expression that recurs several times in this book) inherent in patriarchal ideology. He is particularly concerned to mark the limits of the father’s authority, and thus also the ruler’s, pointedly directly his criticism to his own king, Richard II. Gower also uses the incest motive as a way of exploring his own role as author, imposing his authority on the narratives that he creates in his attempt to control their interpretation. He models the relation between artist and his creation as incestuous in the tale of Pygmaleon. Gower places Genius in the role of authority in the poem, and then he challenges that authority through Amans, through the multiplicity of Latin voices in the text of the poem, and through the contradictions in Genius’ own lessons; thus "Gower’s examination of the notion of incest, of absolute control over something or someone created by oneself, reveals his anxiety about his relationship with his own creation, the text, about his desire to have his text mirror his own will and his own meaning, unambiguously" (p. 37). The subsequent chapters offer very close readings of groups of related tales. There is space here to mention only some of the high points of Bullón-Fernández's argument. In chapter two she examines three tales in which incest hovers as a possibility but is averted, though the way in which the fathers and daughters carry out their roles also problematizes the patriarchal order within which incest is displaced. "Apollonius of Tyre" raises the largest number of issues. Bullón-Fernández reads the tale through Derrida’s account (in his discussion of Rousseau) of the simultaneous origin of incest, society, and language. Apollonius and Thaise avert incest through their use of language while Antiochus’ relation with his daughter takes place without language. Genius thus portrays incestuous desire as precultural, but Antiochus’ behavior, including his use of a riddle to hide his sin, suggests nonetheless that incest is fundamentally discursive in origin. The tale shows the mutually reinforcing character of the ideologies that shape the power structures in family and nation and takes an optimistic view of the consequences of properly fulfilling one’s role, but it also raises questions about Apollonius’ construction of his self that reveal the instability of the notion of authority upon which patriarchy is itself constructed. In "The Three Questions," Peronelle’s ostensible role as an example of humility on the model of Mary is at odds with the very active role that she plays, skillfully using language to assist her father and to achieve her own ambition of marrying a king. "The tale shows the potential both for female power and for the disruption of the system of exchange" (p. 68), but Peronelle’s "potentially subversive empowerment through words ultimately works to sustain and repeat the accepted structures of kinship" (p. 74). In "Constance," the heroine performs her public duty and complies with the demands of the system of exchange at the expense of her own individuality, but only to an extent: her refusal to identify herself upon her arrival in both England and Rome indicates Genius’ attempt to attribute to her a significant degree of both individuality and agency. With regard to her relation with her father, "her silences . . . suggest that she has a desire (an unspeakable desire) which, nevertheless, she controls" (p. 79). They thus also "contribute to the delimit and construct a domain of the unspeakable. The unspeakable is the refusal to 'communicate' in Lévi-Strauss’s sense, that is, both the refusal to speak and the refusal to comply with the laws of exchange" (p. 82). Upon the death of her husband Alle, Constance is finally able to reaffirm her bond with her father. Genius does not conceal the incestuous implications of their reunion as she provides her father, for instance, with an heir and "he thus implies that daughters have a natural desire for their fathers that social laws, and particularly the incest taboo, have the function of repressing" (p. 86). In the portion of her analysis that has already appeared in print (see JGN 17, no. 1, pp 14-15), Bullón-Fernández argues that Constance’s relation with her father is also meant to figure the relationship between the church and political authority. The church (represented in Constance) is made subordinate to and dependent upon lay masculine power, but in such a way as to undermine the royal pretensions of absolutism. Chapter three examines two tales, "The False Bachelor" and "Albinus and Rosemund," in which the roles of men and women are more sharply differentiated--the women, indeed, are merely passive objects of exchange--but in which the roles of the father and the husband are too easily interchanged as the woman is passed from one to the other, suggesting a fundamental flaw in the system of exchange. In "The False Bachelor," the way in which the emperor’s son wins the hand of the sultan’s daughter is made akin to the supplantation by which he loses her. Both tales also link male identity to chivalry and demonstrate some fundamental weaknesses of chivalric ideology. In "The False Bachelor" the constructedness of chivalric identity allows it so easily to be stolen by another knight, while in "Albinus and Rosemund," Albinus’ boast, so integral a part of the chivalric accomplishment by which he wins Rosemund, proves to be inconsistent with his responsibilities as king and results in his undoing. In chapter four, Bullón-Fernández takes up "Leucothoe," "Virginia," and "Canace and Machaire," three tales in which the father slays his daughter. In the first two of these, the father’s control of his daughter is tyrannically usurped by another male, but the father responds with his own tyrannical abuse of his daughter. Her virginity is thus merely a site for the exploration of the limits of authority in the private and public realms. Sexual desire is linked to the violation of private property, and Genius suggests that power, like sexual desire, is natural and inevitable but that it can and should be controlled. The political implications are clearest in "Virginia," in which the superior authority is a king rather than a god and in which justice is finally enacted by the "commune." "Virginia" also makes clear the analogy between the father’s violation and the king’s as he impinges upon his daughter’s private rights out of a misplaced sense of possession. Such a relation is also explicit in "Canace and Machaire," in which the king and the father are the same. (This discussion has also previously appeared in print; see JGN 14, no. 2, pp. 6-7). Bullón-Fernández note that Eolus’ anger has an incestuous character, being motivated less by his daughter’s sin than by his loss of control over her body. His denial of the independence of his daughter serves as a metaphor for the abuse of authority in the public sphere, and it is equally self-destructive. Genius sympathizes with Canace because she is both procreator and also literary creator, as the author of her verse epistle to her brother. He is thus moved to condemn Eolus though he is silent about the fathers’ abuse of their daughters in the two other similar tales. Genius’ attempt to control the meaning of his stories puts him too in the position of fatherly authority, and the inconsistencies in his sympathies under-mine his attempts to establish the proper limits of that authority. In her fifth and final chapter, Bullón-Fernández examines the implications of Genius’ fatherly role more closely. In "Rosiphelee," she argues, the heroine’s vision reveals the discursive nature of courtly love ideology, and Genius replaces the father in compelling the daughter to sub-mit to the law of exogamy and to supply an heir. In "Jephthah’s Daughter" he more clearly abuses his power as he overlooks the violence of the father and unfairly places blame on the daughter herself for dying still a virgin. Genius identifies with Pygmalion, finally, in the tale of the same name, as both he and the sculptor exercise the creative power primarily through their use of words. His identification leaves him "blind to the structures of authority and the incestuous implications involved in artistic creation" (p. 212), as evidenced by his omission of the allusions to the incestuous relationship between Pygmalion’s grandson and his daughter found in both Ovid and Jean de Meun. "As a kind of father to his tales," moreover, "he himself is implicated in the relations of power that he tries to delimit in other tales, and, therefore, he himself is bound to transgress those limits" (ibid.). By his use of the figure of Genius, Gower explores his own desire to control the text. Like Jean de Meun, he refuses to impose a single authorial voice upon the poem. "The incestuous connotations in their versions of the myth [of Pygmalion]," however, "hint at their ambivalence, even anxiety, towards their own authority. These connotations remind us that the notion that a work of art will mirror its author’s desire, the author’s fantasy of absolute control over its meaning, is, ultimately, a problematic, even if irresistible, Pymalionesque fantasy" (pp. 214-15). This is obviously a challenging study, both because of the breadth of its concerns and because of the subtlety of some aspects of its argument. It is sure to have greatest appeal to those who share the author’s theoretical interests. Those who read closely with one eye on the poem, however, are bound to find themselves raising some questions about some of Bullón-Fernández’s readings. To take only a couple of examples: It is one thing to suggest that there is an analogy to be drawn between the supplantation that Genius identifies (and condemns) in "The False Bachelor" and the replacement of the sultan by his designated son-in-law in the same tale, and quite another to imply that there is little or no difference between the two actions. The tale seems designed, in fact, to draw the distinction between the legitimate and illegitimate means of winning the Sultan’s daughter in marriage. In emphasizing the constructedness of chivalric identity in the tale, moreover, Bullón-Fernández passes over the fact that the plot is resolved by the decision of the emperor’s son to reveal his true name just before he dies. She similarly elides the moral and immoral as Genius defines it in her discussion of "Albinus and Rosemund," treating Albinus’ boasting as a constitutive part of his chivalric identity rather than as a violation of it. There may be little difference between a good knight and a bad knight from our point of view, but such differences are very carefully labeled in the poem. In her discussion of Apollonius’ loving his daughter "kindely" before he recognizes her (pp. 58-59), Bullón-Fernández sees an ambiguity that allows her to argue that the prohibition of incest is shown in the tale to be verbally constructed rather than pre-verbal. Genius’ (and Gower’s) point, however, is surely the opposite: the line "yit he wiste nevere why" (8.1707) draws a distinction between "kinde" knowledge and rational knowledge in this episode just as as it does in the similar scene in the tale of Constance in which Alle is drawn to his son (2.1381-82), a passage that Bullón-Fernández does not refer to. She also stretches a bit when she suggests that Gower uses the examples of fathers abusing their daughters as a way of commenting on the political abuses of Richard II. The analogy that she draws (on pages 31, 33, 132-33, 136, 163 and 165) is based upon criticisms of the king’s abuse of his subjects’ property rights which did not occur, she admits when she first raises the issue on page 21, until 1397, long after the passages in question were com-posed. These, and many other similar quibbles, are the types of disagreements that one ought to expect in a study as dense and as ambitious as this one is. There are two more general issues that arise, however. One concerns the basis that we use for determining when a cigar is not merely a cigar. Bullón-Fernández would have us see the political and textual implications of the representations of incest in the poem. How do we know, however, that these should be read as something other than what they are offered as, as exam-ples in a lengthy disquisition on sexual ethics? There is no easy answer, but unfortu-nately for Bullón-Fernández’s argument, there is less evidence in the poem itself for the implications that she draws than there is in other texts, some of which are very modern. Even the singling out of incest is problematic. She uses the association between tyranny and rape in "Athemas and Demophon" (she might also have cited Nero) as a justification for seeing political issues in questions of sexual laws, but then is the rape and mutilation of Philomela any less fraught with issues of abuse and power? Is there a real reason why victims of incest should be set apart from all the other examples of women who are abused in the Confessio? And if not, then the analogy starts to become very general indeed. The other major issue concerns Gower’s role in these issues. Bullón-Fernández would have us see CA not merely as a chapter in the history of the western discursive construction of patriarchy and sexuality but rather as a sustained critique of that construction. She insistently distinguishes between Genius’ position and Gower’s in order to create a space from which Gower himself may share the views and concerns of twentieth-century theorists. This is the most difficult part of her case because in order to accept it, we have to accept virtually everything in her argument that precedes. Not all will be per-suaded, but Bullón-Fernández has worked strenuously to build her case, and we can take it as a token of the maturity of Gower studies that these are the types of issues that we are now discussing. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 20.1]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Confessio Amantis

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