Gower Bibliography

Absent and Present Images: Mirrors and Mirroring in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis.

Schutz, Andrea. "Absent and Present Images: Mirrors and Mirroring in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis." Chaucer Review 34 (1999), pp. 107-134. ISSN 0009-2002

Review

Gower is "fascinated by the individual's reaction to things seen—-particularly the self seen in a mirror—-as much as he is concerned by the results of those reactions." The tales of CA, moreover, are "a series of mirrors by means of which Amans must examine himself" (both quotations on p. 107). Schutz is concerned with the analogy between these two processes, and she discovers that Gower represents the process of Amans' approach to self-understanding not only through his reactions to Genius' lessons but also through the transformations in the use of mirror imagery in four of Genius' tales, all in Book 1. The "sins of sight" constitute an important "preamble" to Book 1. The lover's sight of his beloved is linked to the painfulness of his experience of love. At the same time, Love is portrayed as blind, and thus both as arbitrary and as beyond the lover's control. The mirror imposes a different order on sight: it "throws the viewer back on himself: one must take responsibility for both the act of seeing and the state of being seen" (p. 109). The first two tales that Schutz examines, on Acteon and Medusa, are from the "preamble." Each is characterized by an "absent" mirror. Unlike his Ovidian counterpart, Acteon never has the moment of self-realization that occurs when he sees his transformed image in a pool of water: he is simply punished for his willful voyeurism (by means of Diana's sight). The absence of his self-reflection compels some sort of reflection from the reader, but none is yet forthcoming from Amans. In the tale of Perseus, Gower deletes the hero's use of the reflection in his shield as a way of avoiding looking directly upon the Gorgons: he simply does not gaze upon them at all. His "wisdom and prouesse mark him off from both Acteon and Amans: "Acteon takes too much heed of the world, Amans not enough; Perseus knows when to look and how to understand" (p. 113). The two tales are "mirrors" for one another, reinforcing the way in which each becomes a "mirror" for Amans. Amans, however, neither identifies with Perseus nor fully distinguishes himself from him: the honesty of his reaction marks a step forward in his "cure," and results in an alteration in the appearance of mirrors in the tales. Both "The Trump of Death" and the tale of Narcissus are concerned with recognition and reflections of self. The king in the first of these sees his own reflection in the faces of the old beggars. It is of course a reflection transformed: not apparent to others, it opens up a whole series of reflections of the spiritual in the worldly in the tale. Amans does not get the point, and Genius responds with the tale in which a youth falls in love with his own reflection. Narcissus turns out to be very much like Amans. Narcissus' "real sin is his folly of loving what does not love him. . . . This of course is Amans’ problem, too. He is making a fool of himself over a woman who apparently cannot stand him" (p. 118). Only in Gower's version, moreover, does Narcissus believe that he sees a nymph, suggesting both the impossibility of his own self-knowledge and the way in which Amans images a lady who is actually a reflection of himself. The tale thus also offers a lesson on the ambiguity of images and of the need for interpretation. Amans is prevented from understanding fully what he might learn about himself because of the obstinacy of his will. At the end, however, he is given a direct glimpse into the mirror of self-awareness and he learns the truth about himself that eludes Acteon, the King of Hungary’s brother, and Narcissus. One must have some obvious reservations about a study of CA that skips over Books II-VII. In its obsession with mirrors it is also a bit dizzying, very much a hall of mirrors itself in which it is difficult to hold any image clearly in view. This is a nonetheless both a fascinating and a challenging study. [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 19.1]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Confessio Amantis

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