Gower Bibliography

Romance, Exemplum, and the Subject of the Confessio Amantis.

Robins, William. "Romance, Exemplum, and the Subject of the Confessio Amantis." Studies in the Age of Chaucer 19 (1997), pp. 157-181.


Robins offers an ambitious argument grounded in contemporary theoretical models to account for the nature and purpose of the frequently remarked diversity of voices and of types of narrative in CA. He works from the inside out, starting with "Apollonius of Tyre." Gower's setting of the romance within a moralized frame invokes "dramatically opposed strategies of reading" (p. 158), one represented throughout the poem by Amans and the other by Genius. Romance, he claims (citing Bakhtin) is the mode of random narrative contingency, and of unseen external forces as opposed to individual agency; but Genius, in his focus on the conclusion of the tale, invokes an opposing "temporality of moral necessity" (here Robins cites Ricoeur) according to which "internal moral disposition will determine the outcome of external events" (p. 161). Amans believes he lives in the first mode, subject to the arbitrary whims of his lady, while Genius unsuccessfully attempts to resee his life in exemplary and moral terms. Genius' very attempt is paradoxical, for exemplary instruction is itself an "external force," the efficacy of which depends upon a pre-existing internal disposition. This "paradox of exemplarity" is illustrated in Amans' assertion that the lesson of "Apollonius" does not apply to him. Throughout the poem he repeatedly rejects the analogical reasoning of the exempla, and Genius is unable to overcome his objection. This "interrogation of the grounds of exemplarity" is the "theorem" of the poem (p. 165), and Gower pursues his exploration by opposing different kinds of tales and different ways of reading. A precedent for his procedure can be found in the Nicomachean Ethics, which invokes "competing patterns of how behavior might be understood," by "internal ordering of the soul" or by the "external gifts of Fortune" (p. 167). Gower deals with this philosophical issue in literary terms, by experimenting with different kinds of narrative, culminating in "Apollonius of Tyre." This tale also contains in its recognition scene a model for the conclusion of CA. As Thaise attempts to reason with her father, external promptings fail, but the internal predisposition that stems from their natural blood relationship works to bring about Apollonius' transformation. The scene keeps the dynamic between external and internal in clear focus, but Robins rejects Olsson's recent argument on the efficacy both of Thaise's words and of Genius' teaching. This last exemplum is ineffectual for Amans, who is brought to his senses only by the forced recognition of his old age. At this point Amans does move from one model of self-definition to another, from the external evaluation (his lack of success) to the internal (he is no longer capable of being "amans"). But it is not a simple matter of choosing one narrative mode over the other. Amans is caught between the two, neither of which is adequate to his case, and in casting off the "romance" view, he does not commit himself to the "exemplary," for it is "unresponsive to lived experience" (p. 175). He is thus "finally positioned as a subject who has to adjudicate between the competing narrative modes that constitute his ability to think about himself" (ibid.). The reader, Robins argues, is put in the same position as Amans, beginning with the Prologue of the poem, which in its invocation of exemplum, chronicle, and complaint, serves "to bring the readers to an admission that their own predicament of making sense of the world is bound up in competing narrative understandings of temporality" (p. 177). The subject-position that is created for the reader is "not equivalent to a romantic notion of a fully autonomous interior self, for reflection is seen as participation in discursive modes shared by society and preceding the individual. And yet this situation differs from the postmodern, decentered subject for which the self is an illusion created by language, for Gower dearly holds to the belief in an interiority from which to choose between, or at least to feel and endure, competing narrative options. The ground upon which to order one's thoughts, desires, and actions, is constituted rather by an activity of first-person enunciation" (p. 178). At the end of the poem, Amans/Gower resumes both his proper name and his personal history as a writer. "Able now to review and give shape to the experience of having read his own life through and against available narrative patterns, the character/narrator recognizes that he occupies an individual position of ethical responsiveness, and his readers are spurred to realize that they too can articulate their course of engagement with various models of self-conception" (ibid.). In conclusion, Robins asserts, "Gower is not primarily concerned to represent the subjectivity of a character, but rather to provoke the subjectivity of the reader, to create the conditions whereby a reader can come to understand the site he or she occupies at the intersection of incommensurable modes of narrative self-conception. The "Tale of Apollonius," bearing the pattern of ancient romance into the fourteenth-century culture of exemplarity, becomes one of the told Gower strategically manipulates for implementing that purpose, a purpose which, however, can only be a gambit for Gower, for he knows that he cannot guarantee the success of his strategy of provocation no matter how earnestly he wishes to secure it" (pp. 180-81). [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 17.1]

Item Type:Article
Subjects:Confessio Amantis

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