Gower Bibliography

Medea’s Humanity and John Gower’s Romance.

Grinnell, Natalie. "Medea’s Humanity and John Gower’s Romance." Medieval Perspectives 14 (1999), pp. 70-83. ISSN 1057-5367


As background to her discussion of Gower's version of the story, Grinnell surveys the transformations of Medea's character in western literature, identifying three major strands. In the Metamorphoses and in the "De Mulieribus Claris," she is the cruel monster, the "bloodthirsty emblem of female anarchy" (p. 70) and "the embodiment of a terror of female power" (p. 72). In the Heroides and in LGW, on the other hand, she is the innocent victim of love, with a resulting flattening of her character. "These poems, on the surface sympathetic to Medea's plight as a jilted lover, produce such sympathy by presenting her as mentally weak and emotionally unstable, a victim who lashes out with rhetoric and violence, rather than carefully plotted revenge" (p. 72). Despite the title of his work, Chaucer is clearly more interested in Jason, and his Medea is hardly distinguishable from his other "heroines." The third alternative is to "transcend the monster/victim dichotomy" (p. 74) by presenting both aspects of Medea's character. The model is set by Euripides, whose chorus "consistently reflects her experiences, her anger and her pain, without compromising the horror of her acts" (p. 74). This is also the route followed by Gower: in contrast to all other medieval authors, he too "attempts to unify Medea's character without suppressing any part of her story" (p. 74) and "restores Medea to the complex character of Greek tradition" (p. 70). In the tale itself, her "contradictory nature [is] emphasized rather than suppressed" (p. 75). She is shy and blushes in Jason's presence, but she also takes action to achieve her desire; she mixes emotion and reason; and even her modesty, in refusing to take credit for Jason's feat, highlights her power, for the populace in the tale is unable to believe that Jason acted without supernatural aid. "This combination of courtliness and power in the figure of Medea is enhanced," Grinnell asserts, "by the tale's complex links to the rest of the Confessio" (p. 76). At this point the reviewer must admit that he doesn't follow the transition. Grinnell has some interesting connections to draw between the tale and other parts of the poem, and while they make the tale more interesting, it is not entirely clear in each case how they contribute to the characterization of Medea. Jason's broken oath, for instance, is not merely an example of perjury; it recalls the series of violated oaths and covenants in the poem's Prologue and its theme of "division": the "faithlessness and resulting violence [in the tale] is part of a pattern which encloses the fate of humanity" (p. 77). Jason and Medea’s mutual falling in love is linked to the theme of the "misdirected gaze" which is emphasized in particular in the opening tales in Book 1, and it confirms the pattern of "an inevitable metamorphosis from vision to desire to violence" (p. 79). Jason's choice of Hercules as his confidante is ironic because of all of the ways in which the tale echoes some of the cruelest episodes in his legend. And Medea's ascent to Minerva's court in heaven at the end of the tale recalls a passage in the description of the pagan gods in Book 5 which renders her triumph somewhat ambivalent. (Grinnell seems to have misread the passage in 5.1460-64 as the description of a statue; it is actually an account of the "patron deities" of the different parts of the body.) Medea's complex nature embodies "the internal division of the human soul, reflected on a macrocosmic scale by the corruption and death of the temporal world," Grinnell concludes (p. 81). But Medea does not achieve transcendence, a destiny reserved for the two male interlocutors of the dialogue frame, with whose salvation rather than with the that of the female characters in the tales the poem is centrally concerned. [PN. Copyight The John Gower Society. JGN 19.1]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Confessio Amantis

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