Puzzled by Grisilde? So are a lot of people. She is one of the most enigmatic—and maybe most troubling—characters in all of the Canterbury Tales. For one thing, she's an almost impossibly perfect daughter and wife. (Have you ever met anyone like Grisilde? We didn't think so.) On top of that, her perfection seems to consist in her ability to be completely subordinate to her male superiors, nearly erasing herself in the process.
Grisilde is almost entirely virtuous. The tale implies several times that this is due to the fact that she grew up in poverty. Because of this poverty, Grisilde knows nothing of "likerous lust," or illicit desires (214); she's led a life of hard work and no nonsense. Did you catch the detail that she sleeps on a hard bed and gets by on little more than herbs and water?
Our heroine has also spent all of her life caring for her father, Janicula, "with everich obedience and diligence" (230). Her circumstances, then, have given her great "humilitee"—a self-effacing nature that does not seek honors or self-assertion. Who better to be a wife for Walter, who's totally afraid that he'll lose his freedom and liberty after he gets married? Grisilde isn't the type to assert herself, so she certainly won't get in the way, right? Is that why Walter chooses her, or is he truly turned on by her virtue?
When Walter asks for Grisilde's complete obedience to him as a condition of their marriage, Grisilde's totally on board with it. She even ups the ante by agreeing to be obedient to him not only on the surface, in action and appearance, but also in her very thoughts. Seriously, she promises not even to think anything bad about him.
Is that a promise anyone can actually keep?
Grisilde seems to. When Walter proposes to kill her children, for example, she says: "Ther may no thyng, God so my soule save, / Liken to yow, that may displesen me / Ne I desire no thyng for to have / No dreede for to leese, save only ye. / This wil is in my heart, and ay shal be" (505-509). Saying this, Grisilde confirms her total submission. She doesn't want anything but Walter, and therefore, according to her, she doesn't want anything that Walter doesn't want. His will is hers.
She's all about giving up her own will, really. That's what she promised to do, and she's totally going to keep that promise: "As I lefte at hoom al my clothyng, / Whan I first cam to yow, right so […] / Lefte I my wyl and al my libertee, / And took youre clothyng" (654-657). Grisilde claims to have essentially "put on" Walter's will with his rich clothing... and to have left her own somewhere in inside Janicula's hut, her old home.
Grisilde's total self-renunciation is pretty extreme, and this has led some literary types to question it: some people think that Grisilde is so passive that she crosses the line into passive-aggressive territory. For example, when she claims to be totally complacent "though that my daughter and my sone be slayn-At youre comandement, this is to sayn" (647-648), is her frankness meant to draw Walter's attention to the atrocity of his commandment? When she asks Walter only for a smock to pay her back for the virginity he took, is the difference in worth between these two items meant to criticize Walter for the difference between what she has given and what she has received in return?
It's possible, too, that Chaucer makes Grisilde and her situation so extreme in order to show what was really expected of women—if you take those expectations to their logical conclusion. Is Grisilde as helpless as she seems, or does she use her virtue as a subtle weapon against Walter? What do you think would have happened to her if she had questioned Walter to his face?
We'll never know the answers to these questions for sure, because we never get to see the inner workings of Grisilde's mind; Chaucer would rather let us think for ourselves. It's possible to see Grisilde as a symbol of both feminine submission and feminist protest at the same time—it just depends on how you read her. What do you think? Is Chaucer offering up a story about the way women should be? Or is he showing us how dangerous too much power is in a relationship? Both? Something in between?