Gower Bibliography

Chaucer Answers Gower: Constance and the Trouble with Reading.

Allen, Elizabeth. "Chaucer Answers Gower: Constance and the Trouble with Reading." ELH 63 (1997), pp. 627-655. ISSN 0013-8304

Review

Allen attempts to overthrow the prevalent view of Gower as a rigid and doctrinaire moralist, arguing that the poet is fully aware of the complexity and contingency of moral choice and that his purpose is not simply to correct but to engage the reader in the process of moral decision. She cites Chaucer's dedication of T&C in support of her argument: Gower is invoked, she claims, not as the corrector of the moral ambiguities in that "insistently ambiguous poem," but rather as "a fellow muddier of moral waters" (pp. 628-29). Chaucer's appreciation of his contemporary is also reflected in MLIntro, and the bulk of Allen's long essay consists of a subtle and challenging rereading of the ML's comments and of the three tales in CA that he refers to, in which incest either figures or (in the case of "Constance") is suppressed. Her argument depends, of course, on driving a wedge between Chaucer and ML, whose comments both on Gower and on Chaucer reveal the limitations of his own prudishness. For ML, the only moral choice involved in storytelling lies in the choice of subject; he remains blind to the way in which his treatment of Custance itself amounts to "something like incest" (p. 630, citing Wetherbee). Through ML, Chaucer invokes Gower as an alternative to the conventional morality that ML represents. The real threat that Gower offers to ML lies in his effort to provoke the reader's participation in moral choice. In both "Canace and Machaire" and "Apollonius of Tyre," Gower depicts incest as both natural and unnatural; he also exhibits a compassion for Canace that is neither exculpatory nor possessive. He shifts attention from the horror of the act to the moral responsibility of the human will, and to both the necessity and the complexity of moral choice. Amans' reaction to the tale, distancing himself from its overt lesson, also raises questions of moral responsibility and of the process of interpretation that are more relevant to us as readers than are the actions of the characters in the tale. To the extent that we accept or reject his reading, Gower forces us to examine the basis of our own interpretive choices in a way that is destabilizing of ML's assertion of a single socially acceptable morality. ML also misreads "Apollonius of Tyre," seeing it only as an "endorsement of violence" (p. 636). While Gower's tale obviously condemns Antiochus' incest, it also offers an exemplary lesson in growth and self-exploration in the adventures of Apollonius. The climactic moment, his reunion with Thaise, verges on a re-enactment of Antiochus' forcing of his daughter, but reverses it through "a series of subtle acts of reading, both within the tale and outside it at the level of the Confessio readers" (p. 639). While we may be invited to read like Thaise, we are also shown the possibility of reading like Amans, who again expresses his frustration at the lack of any precise applicability to his own situation, a frustration that perhaps mirrors our own. But the only way out for Amans that the poem offers is through reading. "Reading itself becomes a paradigmatic moral activity because it has the capacity to apply to different readers' individual development. . . . The kind of morality that Gower has to offer, finally, is the circuitous process of Amans's internal development, and the hope that reading about Amans's reading can generate a complementary moral process in us" (p. 640). All of this subtlety in Gower's purpose is lost, of course, on ML, "who refuses to see the ethical implications of Gower's incest stories because he has an inkling that Gower's ethics might challenge his moral stance. Specifically, Gower's ethical complexity might discourage the Man of Law's use of a sanctimonious tale to claim social status--and might reveal the ways in which the Man of Law's reception reduces human social activity to a system of violation and victimization" (p. 641). As her final example, Allen turns to Gower's "Constance." Where many have read Gower as if he were Trivet, she argues instead that "he lodges a critique of Trivet, destabilizes Constance's morality, and thus presents a subtle argument for the moral value of narrative instability" (p. 641). She sees the suppression of the incest motive of the original version of the story as an example of the silence that Genius advocates in face of detraction, but argues that such restraint and silence--as represented in Constance's own passivity and in her refusal to reveal her identity--ultimately victimize the heroine by making her an accomplice in the violence that besets her and by helping preserve the institutions that perpetuate it. Such a reading borders on the perverse, Allen acknowledges, and is sustained only by the closest examination of the imagery. But that is the poet's purpose, she argues. "Gower's narratives include readers in conventional or comfortable assumptions which he subtly destabilizes. This process implicates his readers in his plot choices: if at first the plot seems transparent and predictable, as so many readers have found Gower to be, then disjunctive or troubling moments turn the focus onto the readerly desire for predictability and transparency" (p. 646). Our own desire for the more comfortable reading can make us too complicit in the violence that Constance suffers. Gower's very style may encourage such a passivity, and Chaucer's response may thus constitute a critique: "Gower sets up his readers to read passively, and then proceeds to make us ask in retrospect why we read as we did. Chaucer's Man of Law embodies the risk of such a style: he fails to ask questions about his own reception" (p. 647). [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 17.1]

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

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