Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Clerk's Tale Themes

  • Power

    Who wears the pants? That's a question that comes up lots of times in The Canterbury Tales. In "The Clerk's Tale," it's totally the husband, which brings up a whole boatload of other questions: What kind of power does a husband have over his wife? What kind of power should he have over his wife? Should he have any power over her at all?

    On the surface, the praise lavished in this tale on the patient Grisilde makes it seem as if we should endorse her obedience, but the sheer extremity of her passivity—and of Walter's tyranny—makes us feel uncomfortable with the model of wifely obedience we are given in the tale. We start to ask ourselves how much power is too much for one individual to have.

    Are we always bound to obey the orders of our superiors, with no regard for higher considerations? The Sergeant technically owes his lord absolute obedience, but does that make it right for him to become an accomplice in Walter's plans? Is Janicula, who also owes absolute obedience, right to consent to his daughter's marriage, even though he has grave reservations about it?

    Absolute power demands absolute obedience? Is either one of those things actually okay?

    Questions About Power

    1. Do any of the characters in the "Clerk's Tale"experience absolute freedom? If so, who? If not, who or what holds power over each of the characters?
    2. How do Janicula and the Sergeant show their submissiveness to Walter? What do their behavior and words suggest about how they define the power a lord holds over his subjects?
    3. How does Grisilde show her submissiveness to Walter? What do her behavior and words suggest about how she defines the power a husband holds over his wife?
    4. In what ways, if any, does Grisilde exercise or gain power in the tale? 

    Chew on This

    Walter's abuse of power in the "Clerk's Tale" undermines any message we might take away about the obedience a wife owes her husband.

    Walter's abuse of power in the "Clerk's Tale" undermines the idea that absolute power should reside in any one individual.

    The Sergeant's speech, which is meant to excuse him from the crime of infanticide, actually makes us question the ethics of blindly following orders.

  • Passivity

    "I'm not your toy," says La Roux, but unfortunately, this song came about 600 years too late for our heroine Grisilde.

    Grisilde is the ultimate figure of passive obedience in her absolute submission to Walter's will. At one point, she even claims to have left her own will in her father's hut with her old clothes. She portrays herself as little more than Walter's property, his "owene thyng" to be manipulated as he likes.

    That said, there's something kind of off about Grisilde's submission. With the words "I swere," Grisilde actively chooses her passivity. In a sense, then, all of the moments in which Grisilde is passive are also moments in which she is acting upon herself. From this perspective, she's as much of an actor in the tale as Walter.

    Try wrapping your brain around that. If the idea seems weird and complicated, that's probably because it comes from a complex tradition of stories about saints' lives. In this tradition, the saint's submission to torture becomes, paradoxically, her (or sometimes his) most active demonstration of her faith in God. The "Clerk's Tale's" imports this tradition of saintly passivity and turns it into a story about husbands and wives. 

    Questions About Passivity

    1. How does Grisilde demonstrate her passivity in the tale?
    2. Which characters besides Grisilde demonstrate passivity in the tale? How?
    3. Do Walter's conditions on Grisilde require that she be passive in their relationship? Why or why not?
    4. Does the "Clerk's Tale" make passivity seem like an admirable characteristic? Why or why not?
    5. How does the "Clerk's Tale" make a connection between the expectation that wives be passive in their marriage and the statusof women as property?

    Chew on This

    The "Clerk's Tale" shows the connection between the expectation of wifely passivity and the status of wives as property by showing how a requirement of absolute obedience reduces a human person to a "thing."

    Because of the fact that she has freely chosen her submission, the moments when Grisilde is most passive in the "Clerk's Tale" are also the moments when she is most active. 

  • Virtue

    There's a good way to figure out how virtue is defined in the "Clerk's Tale": just look at how Grisilde is described. Grisilde is the bee's knees. She's got a hard-working nature, she rejects luxury and ease, and she reveres and obeys her superiors. So, yeah, virtue.

    After Grisilde's marriage to Walter, it's her obedience that takes center stage, pretty much to the point that every other part of her personality is erased. Still sound virtuous? Well, Grisilde's obedience even allows her to consent to infanticide, which raises some interesting questions about whether the tale's version of virtue is really the same as "bountee," or "goodness," a synonym it often uses for virtue.

    Another question the tale raises about virtue is whether or not the nobility have a monopoly on it. Our narrator praises Walter very highly for recognizing that virtue can often come "under low degre"—meaning, basically, that poor people can be virtuous, too. This is contrasted with the narrator's frequent condemnation of the common "peple" for their lack of recognition of virtue—and for their fickleness, a totally non-virtuous characteristic in the tale.

    Questions About Virtue

    1. How does the "Clerk's Tale" define virtue? What character traits make a person virtuous?
    2. How does the tale link virtue to poverty?
    3. How is virtue related to obedience in the "Clerk's Tale"? How does the tale reveal the way obedience and virtue can be in conflict, or does it reveal this?

    Chew on This

    Despite the connection the "Clerk's Tale" makes between virtue and poverty, it also implies that the "peple," or commoners, are less likely than the nobility to recognize and properly honor virtue.

    The connection in the "Clerk's Tale" between virtue and poverty reveals its viewpoint that those who live a life of idleness and luxury are unlikely to be virtuous.

  • Loyalty

    "Anything you want, you got it": that's pretty much how things roll in the world of "The Clerk's Tale," at least if we're talking about loyalty to your lord. As Walter and other characters in the tale seem to define it, loyalty consists not just in obedience to your lord's commands but also in a total submission of your will to your lord.

    What your lord wants, you want.

    This kind of loyalty is what Walter demands not only from his vassals but also from his wife. Both vassals and wife must show their "love" to their lord (basically, we're talking about loyalty) in absolute obedience. The loyalty Walter's vassals show him extends not only to himself but all the way to his family and bloodline. It is out of this loyalty—not to a person, but to a bloodline—that Walter's vassals request the marriage that sets the plot in motion.

    Questions About Loyalty

    1. How do characters in the "Clerk's Tale" express their loyalty to Walter? What does Walter do for them in return?
    2. How do Walter and other characters in the tale define loyalty? Is this definition ever criticized in the course of the tale? If so, how and where?
    3. How do Walter's vassals demonstrate their loyalty not just to him but also to his bloodline?
    4. Who lacks loyalty in the "Clerk's Tale"? How can you tell? What does this lack of loyalty tell us about these characters' driving concerns and motivations?

    Chew on This

    The "Clerk's Tale" portrays the loyalty a vassal owes to his lord as essentially the same as the loyalty a wife owes her husband.

    The most disloyal character in the "Clerk's Tale" is Walter because of the way he fails to keep the best interests of his wife and vassals at heart.

  • Marriage

    So, what is marriage, anyway?

    That's a question you might start asking yourself after you give "The Clerk's Tale" a go, since this is a story that's all about figuring out the proper relationship between husbands and wives. It's the narrator himself who talks about the subject most often, but his opinions are also the hardest to pin down. At one point, he seems to be all for the total submission of wives to their husbands, while at other points, he's totally against this. He praises Grisilde throughout the tale, but then he ends by singing the praises of assertive, even domineering women like the Wife of Bath.

    Ultimately, the narrator's role may be something like that of a Greek chorus: to express all possible perspectives on the events in the story. Walter's nobles, however, have a more well-defined view of marriage: a nobleman must marry to produce an heir. Walter defies this expectation for a long time due to his view of marriage as a kind of prison. He then fulfills it halfheartedly, by marrying not the noblewoman from a powerful family whose alliances will cement his own power, but the poor virtuous girl he can control.

    Walter's expectation for his wife—that she obey him absolutely—and his obsession with enforcing it have terrible consequences for the woman he marries.

    Questions About Marriage

    1. What is Walter's noblemen's perspective on marriage? How does this compare with Walter's?
    2. What kind of wife do his noblemen recommend for Walter? How does this wife compare with the one Walter ultimately chooses? How does this comparison reflect these people's differing motivations?
    3. What are Walter's expectations for his wife? Where and how does the tale question these expectations, if at all?
    4. Does the "Clerk's Tale" examine the obligations of a husband toward his wife? If so, how and where? If not, why not?

    Chew on This

    Walter's choice of Grisilde as his wife reflects his fear that marriage is a prison.

    Walter's choice of Grisilde as his wife reveals a romantic streak in stark contrast to the more practical attitudes of his noblemen toward marriage.

  • Class

    So, we've got a marriage here between a nobleman and a peasant girl. While we're pretty sure that, ahem, relations happened between these two categories of people all the time way back when, we're also pretty sure marriage wasn't often part of the picture.

    Class is a big deal in "The Clerk's Tale." The big point seems to be that virtue can be found in any class and that, in fact, poor people are more likely to have strong characters because of the hard lives they endure. That doesn't stop Walter's nobles from encouraging him to marry a noblewoman: like should marry like, right? That's what they think, anyway. They're also aware of the power that might accrue to a nobleman because of a strategic marriage to a woman from a powerful family.

    The abuse the much less powerful Grisilde puts up with in her marriage makes us wonder if the nobles aren't on to something, and even Grisilde seems to think she'd be better suited to a job as Walter's maid. Everything turns out all right in the end, but the tale's emphasis on Grisilde's exceptional nature means that when it comes to the mixing of the classes, medieval readers probably weren't advised to try this at home.

    Questions About Class

    1. What, according to the "Clerk's Tale," are the advantages of poverty for a person's character? Why does this seem to be the case?
    2. Why do Walter's nobles encourage him to marry an equally noble woman? Which other characters in the tale express a similar sentiment, and why?
    3. What motivation might Walter have for marrying a peasant? How does he confirm or refute these motivations in the course of his marriage?
    4. How does Grisilde demonstrate her awareness of the class difference between herself and Walter? What does this response suggest about her ability to be Walter's partner in marriage?

    Chew on This

    In its exploration of how the marriage between a nobleman and a peasant girl goes horribly wrong, the "Clerk's Tale" supports the medieval maxim that "like should marry like."

    Because the marriage between a nobleman and a peasant girl ends happily ever after in this story, the "Clerk's Tale" refutes the medieval maxim that "like should marry like."

    The "Clerk's Tale" implies that higher-class people cannot develop strong characters because they do not have enough exposure to adversity.

  • Family

    Family: can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em. If you're Walter, this is.

    So, what can actually get handed down in families? Genes? Clothes? Grandma's recipe for potato chip casserole? How about gentility? The "Clerk's Tale" is totally into figuring out to what extent gentility is entrenched in your blood. Walter's nobles have sworn allegiance to a particular family, and it's this bloodline they want Walter to continue by marrying and producing an heir. While they seem to think that gentility is transmitted by blood, Walter defies their expectations by marrying a poor woman, claiming that gentility comes only from God.

    Another aspect of family that the "Clerk's Tale" explores is the bonds it produces among its members, with Grisilde's obvious attachment to her children standing in contrast to Walter's refusal to acknowledge them as his own... and, you know, his eventual separation of the entire family. The ending of the tale, in which the entire family is reunited, represents a triumph not only for Walter's family, but also for the vassals who are intimately concerned with this family's welfare.

    Questions About Family

    1. Why is the welfare of Walter's family so important to his vassals and townspeople? How do they express their concern throughout the tale?
    2. What changes do Grisilde's body and appearance undergo when she becomes Walter's wife? What does this transformation imply about the connection between blood and gentility?
    3. How does Grisilde demonstrate her attachment to her children? What purpose does this attachment serve for the larger concerns of the "Clerk's Tale," particularly its portrayal of Grisilde?

    Chew on This

    The "Clerk's Tale" represents family attachments as bonds that must be overcome in the name of duty.

    The transformation Grisilde undergoes as Walter's wife reflects the tale's point of view that gentility is not transmitted through blood but is a product of circumstances.

  • Duty

    If you think about it, "The Clerk's Tale" is one long story about a dude's continuous failure to fulfill his duty. At first, Walter seems to think that he's pretty much duty-free, but he's supposed to get married and produce an heir—for the good of everyone around him.

    As it goes on, the tale explores the question of what lords and vassals—and husbands and wives—owe one another in the name of duty. In most cases, this debt seems to be fulfilled through obedience. Walter, however, delays fulfilling his duty to his vassals because of his insecurities about his wife. He pretends that his heir has disappeared and leaves it at that until ten years after his son's birth. That's a long time to leave people hanging.

    The irony of Walter's actions is that he portrays himself to his wife as someone who is bound by duty to do things he hates when, in fact, he is the one character in the tale who appears least concerned with fulfilling the duties his position demands.

    Questions About Duty

    1. Which characters in the "Clerk's Tale" are most concerned with fulfilling their duties? The least? How do you know?
    2. What prevents Walter from fulfilling his duty to his people? How does he manage to overcome these obstacles, or does he?
    3. How does Grisilde go beyond the call of duty in the "Clerk'sTale"?

    Chew on This

    Grisilde's decision to obey Walter when it's no longer her duty to do so is what finally restores his faith in her, suggesting that what Walter truly desires from his wife is love, not obedience.

    Janicula fulfills his duty as a subject by allowing Walter to marry his daughter, but he fails his duty as a father by allowing Grisilde to go with Walter.