The Canterbury Tales: The Second Nun's Tale
by Geoffrey Chaucer
Analysis: Plot Analysis
Most good stories start with a fundamental list of ingredients: the initial situation, conflict, complication, climax, suspense, denouement, and conclusion. Great writers sometimes shake up the recipe and add some spice.
A holy young noblewoman named Cecilia is determined to live a Christian life in pagan Rome. She converts her husband and his brother to Christianity.
We have all the potential for a good plot here. A young noblewoman bucks expectations in failing to get busy and reproduce. Not only that, but she's a Christian in a pagan city. We smell trouble.
Almachius decrees that everyone must worship at the shrine of Jupiter, or die. Cecilia's husband and brother-in-law choose to die, converting their executioner, Maximus, in the process.
This definitely represents a conflict for the Christians in the tale, who must either betray their faith or lose their heads. Cecilia's husband Valerian and brother-in-law Tiburtius choose death. For them, it is an easy decision, for as Cecilia has taught them, there's another life on the other side. In fact, the Christians' relative lack of interest in their earthly life when it's compared with eternal life with God means that for them, this choice is actually not much of a conflict at all. But it'll do for our purposes.
Furious by the conversion of Maximus, Almachius orders Cecilia brought before him.
Rather than simply declaring "Off with her head!" when Cecilia refuses to worship at the shrine of Jupiter, Almachius anticipates her refusal, and he wants to know the reason why. So he orders Cecilia to be brought before him before she's taken to the shrine, a definite break with tradition, and a definite complication for our heroine.
Almachius tries to convince Cecilia to worship at Jupiter's shrine, and to fear him. Cecilia responds that his gods are deaf and dumb, Almachius is foolish and powerless, and hers is the true faith.
Here we have the climactic confrontation between pagan oppressor and virgin martyr. This is what both the story and Cecilia's life have been leading up to all along. Cecilia has the opportunity to defend her faith in a public venue, perhaps winning converts in the process, but certainly demolishing the arguments of the biggest symbol of paganism.
Almachius offers Cecilia an ultimatum: worship at Jupiter's shrine, or die.
Although based on everything that's come before this moment we're pretty sure we know what Cecilia will choose, this could be a suspenseful moment. After all, this is Cecilia's ultimate test: will she stick to her principles, or will she bow before that most persuasive of arguments, death?
Cecilia refuses to worship at Jupiter's shrine. Almachius has her boiled alive in a cauldron, then attempts to have her decapitated. The attempts to kill her fail, however, and Cecilia remains alive for three days, preaching and teaching as her head dangles from her neck.
Well, here's the result of Almachius's ultimatum: a half-dead Cecilia who preaches and teaches continually. We sense that this is the denouement because we suspect that Cecilia won't remain alive for much longer. Maybe it's the head dangling from her body, or maybe it's because Cecilia's doing estate planning, but we get the feeling her life is drawing toward its conclusion.
Cecilia dies. Pope Urban consecrates her house as a church.
This being a virgin martyr legend, this ending is exactly the one we were expecting. The sanctifying of Cecilia's home as a church ensures that her legacy will live on in her shrine and in the legend that will grow up around it.