Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Clerk's Tale Analysis

  • Tone

    Outraged, Melodramatic

    When the narrator of the "Clerk's Tale" interrupts his narration to provide his point of view—which he does often—he lets us in on his deep outrage at what Walter is putting Grisilde through. When Walter first decides to test his wife, for example, the narrator asks, "What neded it / Hir for to tempte, and alwey moore and moore?" (457-458).

    In fact, although some people praise Walter's actions, calling them smart or canny, the narrator flat-out calls them "yvele"—you know, evil (460). He also heaps his outrage on the townspeople when they shift their loyalty from Grisilde to the new young maiden from Bologna: "O stormy peple, unsad and evere untrewe! / [...] / A ful greet fool is he that on yow leeveth!" (995, 1001).

    This last outraged outburst, with its flurry of nasty adjectives, verges on melodrama, or exaggerated emotion, just as the tone of the tale itself sometimes verges on it when it focuses on Grisilde's relationship with her children. As the sergeant takes Grisilde's daughter away, for example, the narrator remarks, "Wel myghte a mooder than han cryd allas!" (563). Similarly, when Grisilde reunites with her children, we get: "O, which a pitous thyng it was to se!" (1086).

    These asides are meant to arouse deep pity. They play upon the reader's emotions to create a melodramatic tone and feel for the tale.

  • Genre

    Family Drama / Romance

    The "Clerk's Tale" is a narrative with a love story at its heart, but this love story is pretty different from what you might expect. You know the boy-meets-girl rom-com shtick. Can you imagine one in which the dude pretends to kill his kids just to test his squeeze's loyalty? That would sure be a million laughs...

    The "Clerk's Tale" is focused on the "love" between Grisilde and Walter, but this love often seems more like duty and obligation than romantic love. After all, Walter uses the word "love" to describe the feeling he expects his vassal Janicula to have for him, and the absolute obedience he commands from Janicula looks very much like the obedience he gets from Grisilde out of her "love" for him.

    Rather than being concerned with our modern notion of love, then, it might be more accurate to say that the "Clerk's Tale" is concerned with the bonds and feelings between husband and wife, things like duty, jealousy, obedience, or pity. That's why we can also call the tale a family drama—even more so in that it eventually focuses not just on the fate of Walter and Grisilde but on that of their children, and on the way the entire family is eventually reunited.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    This is the tale that the Clerk tells the pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, but he wants to make it very clear that it doesn't originate with him. "I wolde yow telle a tale, which that I / Lerned at Padwe of a worthy clerk" (26-27).

    That "worthy clerk," we immediately learn, is Francesco Petrarch (or Petrarca), an important Italian poet of Chaucer's day. In saying that Petrarch "taught" him the tale, the Clerk probably just means that he read it in a book of Petrarch's works. It was common for medieval authors to refer to their encounters with another author's work as if they had actually heard it in person from the author; this reflected the medieval view of writing as a means of hearing the "voices" of those who were not present.

    But why does the Clerk go to such trouble to acknowledge the original source of his tale? This kind of borrowing was totally accepted; it was even an expected means of becoming an author, so it's not like the Clerk needs to fear an accusation of plagiarism.

    The most likely explanation is that the clerk wants to advertise his familiarity with Petrarch as a means of demonstrating his learning. By emphasizing how his own tale is also Petrarch's tale, the Clerk demonstrates his familiarity with learned culture and makes himself a part of it by riffing on it.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The ending of the "Clerk's Tale" is totally strange and unexpected. After telling a tale dedicated to exploring and rewarding the complete passivity and obedience of its heroine to her husband, the Clerk warns women not to follow her example, for "it were inportable [unbearable], though they wolde" (1144).

    The Clerk claims that Petrarch meant his story as a sort of allegory about the relationship between mankind and God: just as Grisilde patiently received whatever Walter sent her way, so humankind ought to receive gratefully whatever the Lord ordains for them.

    The Clerk's interpretation of his story is somewhat undermined, though, by his condemnations of Walter throughout. If Walter really represents God to the Clerk, would the Clerk "blame him thus" (79), as he does numerous times throughout the tale? Furthermore, why does the Clerk end with a consideration of how it's difficult nowadays to find women of Grisilde's quality? And finally, in anticipation of the Wife of Bath's likely reaction to his tale, the Clerk invites his audience to listen to a song in which he counsels wives to behave in just the opposite manner as Grisilde did.

    What's up with this dude?

    All of this evidence leads us to believe that, despite the Clerk's claim to have just told us an allegory, he is more convinced of its power as an example, something meant to be imitated in real life. His denial that he really intends Grisilde as an example to women may reflect some ambivalence about the story's message. Seriously, would you give your sister that kind of advice? Your daughter? When it comes to erasing the weight of his story's 1141 lines rewarding women's passive obedience, the Clerk's cry of "allegory" may be too little, too late.

  • Setting

    The "Clerk's Tale" is set in a medieval Italian village called Salucia (Saluzzo) in a province that encompasses the plain at the foot of a mountain. Our first view of Salucia is one of abundance and prosperity: it is "a lusty playne / habundant of vitaille," where one can behold many towers, towns, and other delightful sights (59-62).

    However, not everyone in Salucia partakes of its abundance; while its ruler, Walter, enjoys an easy life filled with hunting and hawking, the poorest of the poor are hard at work at the margins of society, struggling to make a living from the earth. The setting of the tale in this medieval village allows its richest inhabitant, Walter, to come in contact with its poorest on his pleasure rides.

    This setting also gives us a readymade audience for Grisilde's rise and fall from grace in the "peple" of the town who accompany her in a procession to and from the palace. The narrator and Walter both draw heavily upon this "audience" of townspeople: we feel their presence in Walter's allusions to their discontent with his common-born wife, as well as in the narrator's frequent descriptions of how they view Grisilde and his eventual castigation of them for their lack of loyalty to her.

    The townspeople represent the ears and eyes of the people any nobleman rules, providing a constant reminder of the ruler's obligations to a bigger group than just himself and his immediate followers. The setting of the story in a medieval town—rather than in a more isolated rural setting, for example—is what allows for the presence of this audience; the story would hardly work without it.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (8) Snow Line

    We'll be real with you: Middle English is difficult. But thousands of people have mastered the art of reading it, and so can you. You'll sound sort of like the sleepwalking Scottish zombie lovechild of Lancelot and Grendel's mother when you do it... and it will be awesome.

    For resources to help you get started, see our "Best of the Web" section. We've got you covered. You can also find modern English translations of The Canterbury Tales to give you a hand, but it's so much badder to read it in the original.

  • Writing Style

    Iambic Pentameter, Rime Royal in Six Sections

    (For more on Iambic Pentameter, see the "Writing Style" section of our guide to the Canterbury Tales Prologue and Frame Story.)

    The "Clerk's Tale" is composed of seven-line stanzas, each stanza rhyming ababbcc. This is the "rime royal" form. Chaucer also uses this stanza form for "The Man of Law's Tale," "The Prioress's Tale," and "The Second Nun's Tale," all of which are religious tales about a pious woman, so it's likely that Chaucer viewed the rhyme royal form as appropriate for tales with a more serious moral purpose.

    Another interesting stylistic feature of the "Clerk's Tale" is the way it often echoes the "Wife of Bath's Tale." The most striking example of this may be Walter's reflection that "God it woot, that children ofte been / Unlyk hir worthy eldres hem bifore. / Bountee comth al of God, nat of the streen / Of which they been engenderd and ybore" (155-158), which exactly matches the sentiments expressed by the Loathly Lady in the "Wife of Bath's Tale," right down to the level of the word choices employed.

    These echoes have led some people to speculate that the "Clerk's Tale" is a response to the "Wife of Bath's Tale." To counter that tale's glorification of women's "maistrye," we have a tale here glorifying their obedience. Chaucer's more about putting lots of different arguments on the table than he is about beating us over the head and telling us which one is right.

  • Clothing

    When Walter marries Grisilde, "for that nothyng of hir olde geere / She sholde brynge into his hous," he orders his maids to strip her naked where she stands and dress her in the clothes that he has brought for her (372-378). Later in the "Clerk's Tale," Grisilde makes the symbolism of this moment clear: "As I lefte at hoom al my clothyng, / Whan I first cam to yow," she tells Walter, "lefte I my wyl and al my libertee, / And took youre clothyng" (654-656).

    So Grisilde's clothing symbolizes her will and liberty. That's a fancy-shmancy way of saying that we can see Grisilde's station in life (like whether she's poor or rich, and whether she's married or unmarried) just by looking at her clothes. Her new duds show that she's a lady, <em>and</em> that she's a married woman.

    Back in the medieval day, there was a legal custom called <em>femme couverte</em>, from the French phrase meaning "covered woman." A medieval woman who married was considered under the law to be represented or "covered" by her husband. So Walter's clothing of Grisilde represents his "coverage" of her in marriage. It means, more or less, that Grisilde's will comes second to her husband's, and that she is supposed to obey him in everything.

    There's one more way that clothes are symbolic in the "Clerk's Tale." When Grisilde leaves Walter's palace, Walter says he will allow her to take her dowry away with her. Grisilde reminds him, though, that she brought with her only faith, nakedness, and maidenhood. "Wherfore, in guerdon of my maydenhede / Which that I broghte, and noght agayn I bere," says Grisilde, "As voucheth sauf to yeve me to my meede / But swich a smok as I was wont to were" (883-886).

    This smock, then, symbolizes Grisilde's maidenhood. It might also symbolize everything Walter has taken from her, including her will and liberty, of which her maidenhood is only the physical symbol.

  • Allegory

    The Clerk claims that he tells his tale not to counsel women to behave like Grisilde (which would be unlikely), "but for that every wight in his degree / Sholde be constant in adversitee / As was Grisilde," and further, "Sith a womman was so pacient / Unto a mortal man, wel moore us oghte / Receyven al in gree that God us sent" (1145-1147, 1149-1151).

    Translation: "I'm not telling women to behave like this. I'm saying that the relationship between Walter and Grisilde stands in for the relationship between God and us."

    That means that the Clerk is claiming for his tale the status of fable or allegory. An allegory is a story with two layers of meaning: the literal meaning and a more symbolic meaning. If the "Clerk's Tale" is an allegory, then Grisilde represents the human soul, and Walter represents the God to whom this soul owes absolute faithfulness and obedience.

    (For more about this interpretation of the "Clerk's Tale," see our "What's Up with the Ending?" section.)

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Omniscient)

    The narrator of the "Clerk's Tale" has a fairly unlimited perspective on what's going on in the characters' heads... when he chooses to use it.

    And he doesn't always choose to use it: although we learn about the internal workings of Walter's mind—and even, at one point, of Janicula's—he remains completely silent when it comes to the secrets of Grisilde's heart. This silence is probably intentional, meant to set Grisilde apart by making her seem more enigmatic—or perhaps, like she's on a higher, unapproachable plane.

    Still, we know that the narrator is omniscient because he tells us, for example, that Walter "in his herte longeth so / to tempte his wyf," or that Grisilde's father Janicula "was evere in suspect of hir mariage" (451-452, 905). At one point, the narrator even predicts the future, remarking that "God be thanked, al fil for the beste" (718) in reference to the outcome of Grisilde's trials. So that means that if he wanted to tell us what Grisilde is thinking, he could. He just chooses not to.

    Now, although the narrator is primarily third-person omniscient, he occasionally lapses into a first-person perspective in order to comment upon the story as he's telling it. "I blame hym thus," he says of Walter, "that he considereth noght / In tyme comynge what hym myghte bityde" (78-79). Later he very emotionally condemns both Walter's tormenting of Grisilde and the townspeople's lack of loyalty to her. Thus, what we really have in the "Clerk's Tale" is an omniscient third-person narrator, but not an uninvolved one; the teller of this tale is very much emotionally invested in his story.

    • Booker's Seven Basic Plots Analysis

      Initial Wretchedness at Home and the "Call"

      A virtuous and beautiful maiden named Grisilde lives a life of hard work and deprivation with her father Janicula, the poorest of the poor inhabitants of the town. One day, however, she receives a marriage proposal from Walter, lord of that land.

      While it's true that Grisilde lives in abject poverty at the beginning of the tale, she's not unhappy or mistreated. It's hard for other people to see her virtue, though, through all that dirt. It's only when Walter places her into a different setting that the townspeople can finally see her for what she is.

      Out Into the World, Initial Success

      Walter's townspeople and nobles adore Grisilde. People from outlying towns travel great distances to see her when news of her brilliance spreads. She has success in negotiating disputes among the townspeople. Basically, she's the perfect wife to Walter, and their marriage is totally happy. Grisilde bears Walter a baby girl.

      Everything's going well for Grisilde at this point. She's moved from a hovel to a palace, and she's proven herself a natural as a noblewoman, easily fulfilling her wifely duties and making herself beloved among her subjects. She even performs her most important function: bearing Walter an heir.

      The Central Crisis

      Walter gets an unshakeable urge to test his wife's constancy and obedience, which he does by making her believe he plans to murder their children. Although Grisilde passes Walter's tests, agreeing without protest to the murder of her babies, Walter tests her yet again, this time by ordering her to leave the palace to make room for his new "wife."

      Independence and the Final Ordeal

      Grisilde returns to her father's house, having been "divorced" by Walter. She gains a newfound freedom in this: as Walter's ex-wife, she is presumably no longer under an obligation to obey him. Despite this freedom, Grisilde follows Walter's orders, anyway, out of love.

      Walter calls Grisilde back to the castle as a servant to prepare his chambers for the arrival of his new bride. When the maiden arrives, Walter asks Grisilde how she likes her. Grisilde replies that she likes her very much but begs Walter not to torment the child the way he has tormented her.

      Grisilde's willingness to obey Walter's commands (even as an ex-wife), as well as her lack of ill will toward Walter's new "bride" prove her constancy to Walter. Grisilde also seems to reveal a more confident side by calling Walter's behavior toward her what it was: torment.

      Final Union, Completion, and Fulfillment

      Convinced of Grisilde's constancy, Walter reveals that the two children are actually their son and daughter, and that Grisilde is still his wife. Reunited, they live happily ever after. This is the classic "happily ever after ending," with the family, and especially the lovers, reunited in a state of perfect union and wholeness.

    • Plot Analysis

      Exposition (Initial Situation):

      A marquis named Walter marries a poor but virtuous maiden named Grisilde despite his fears that marriage will cramp his style. He makes Grisilde promise to obey him in all things. Will this be a happy marriage? Will Grisilde get sick of Walter always getting up in her grill? Will Walter miss his bachelor days too much?

      Rising Action (Conflict, Complication):

      For no reason whatsoever, Walter decides he isn't sure about Grisilde's steadfastness, so he decides it would be an awesome idea to test the living daylights out of her. He does this the logical way: by pretending to kill her two children but actually hiding them in bologna... er, Bologna. Grisilde puts up with it, as she promised to do.

      Climax (Crisis, Turning Point):

      Walter decides that pretending to kill the kids wasn't enough, so he announces his plans to remarry. He asks Grisilde to leave and go back to her father.

      Now, all along, Grisilde has said that all she desires is Walter, and his love. That's why this last test of her is the ultimate one: Walter is asking her to give him up out of obedience to him. Grisilde agrees, but that's not the end of the climactic moment; she still has to watch Walter marry another woman—and do so without complaint.

      Falling Action:

      Walter calls Grisilde to the palace to prepare for his new wife, then parades the new wife and her brother through the town and palace. He asks Grisilde how she likes his new wife. Surely this will be the straw that breaks the camel's back for Grisilde, right? When Walter rubs her face in it all by asking her how she likes his new bride, won't she lose it and rip Walter a new one in front of all the company?

      Not so much: Grisilde replies that she likes Walter's new wife very much, but asks him not to torment her the way he did her. Walter reveals that the children are actually Grisilde's son and daughter, and that she is still his beloved wife; he only pretended to kill them to test her.

      Grisilde doesn't break. She passes the test and remains the model of wifely obedience, and Walter reveals his machinations to everyone. We find out the answers to all of the questions set up by the initial situation, climax, and suspense. The conflict is over: Walter is satisfied enough with Grisilde's performance to reward her with her children and the knowledge of how he's tested her.

      Conclusion

      Walter and Grisilde live happily ever after, their children making good marriages, the wives free of the torments Grisilde endured. Grisilde's reward for passing Walter's tests is a happy end to her life, which concludes with the happiness and prosperity of her children.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      A marquis named Walter, pressed by his lord to take a bride, marries and ennobles a poor young woman named Grisilde on the condition that she obey him in everything.

      Act II

      Having decided to test Grisilde's obedience and constancy, Walter arranges a series of trials, telling Grisilde, first, that she must consent to the murder of her two children, and then that she must leave the palace to make way for his new bride. He forces Grisilde to prepare his chambers for his new "wife's" arrival and asks her how she likes his new "bride."

      Act III

      When Grisilde replies that she likes Walter's new wife very much but begs him not to torment the girl the way he did her, Walter is finally convinced of Grisilde's constancy. He reveals that the two children who have arrived from Bologna are actually hers, whom she thought murdered. He reinstates Grisilde as his wife, and the family lives happily ever after.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References

      • Job (932)
      • Letter of James (1154)
      • Wife of Bath (1170)
      • Chichevache—a cow from medieval folklore who feeds on patient wives—and is therefore very skinny (1188)
      • Echo—Greek myth (1189)