A Theme of Love in The Canterbury Tales

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The Canterbury Tales

A Crazy Little Thing Called Love

In a language there are innumerable words: countless variations on letter arrangements contrived to express anything imaginable. But a word cannot capture an object’s life or passion until the person seeking to understand its meaning has fully experienced it. Human beings created the word love to encompass an abstract emotion; they also try to harden its fluid meaning with boundaries and relationships. Perhaps these actions reveal a desire to control love itself. In his work The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer suggests that humans can never fully understand love because we do not have a capacity to control it, and will only complicate it with relationships and other desires. Throughout his stories, intimate relationships demonstrate an attempt at attaining love; characters, a desire to understand the word.

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Skimming love down into a four letter word makes it look neater, but does not uncomplicate the emotion. Marriage is a very complicated custom as well. The two concepts relate in different ways depending on the time period and the people. Nowadays, people seek marriage from love: in Chaucer’s days, love was not considered to affect marriage. Of his stories involving more than 10 marriages and intimate relationships, only six mention love, and love only prevails in one instance. Just from this breakdown it is easy to see that relationships in his novel aspire to attain love but are driven by other forces, and often fail to acquire love. Chaucer’s choices to share details that focus around lechery and money (rather than love) reveal different ways that people try to contain love, but fail to control it.

In The Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath is a shocking but intriguing character who rambles on about her own love life in the prologue to her tale. Before she even starts talking, her appearance, habits, and even her name remind the reader of promiscuity and passion; she has gapped-teeth, red stockings, and wide hips, laughs loudly and often, and is referred to as a Wife instead of her actual name. When her prologue begins, she cries “Thanks be to God Eternal evermore / Five husbands have I had at the church door” (Chaucer 258). The fact that Chaucer has her immediately mention her wide range of experience (as well as speak to the worth of her experience) emphasizes the reader’s initial reaction to her physical description. Furthermore, the Wife of Bath explains that “three of them were good and two were bad. / The three that I call ‘good’ were rich and old” (Chaucer 263). She thanks God for the husbands, but then reveals that she liked the husbands only for their money; this shows the reader that it is hard even for experienced and passionate people like the Wife of Bath to obtain love, especially through man-made relationships like marriage.

Another strong female character, Alison, is a part of the Miller’s Tale. This tale satirizes courtly love, a version of love that people in medieval times used to create an illusion of true love through romanticized sex and male dominance. For example, Alison had an older husband John who “loved her more than life”; however, the Miller goes on to explain that “he was old and she was wild and young” (Chaucer 89). John is the authority, or the ‘dominant male’ in this relationship: but this tale is subversive in that Alison makes plans to cheat on John so that she may “sleep with Nicholas [their tennant, whom she loves] all night” long (Chaucer 94). This undercuts courtly love and its values, showing that true love cannot be achieved by humans on their own, no matter what they do. Another man named Absalon also loves Alison. Like John, Absalon’s courtly love for Alison is undercut when she plays a trick on him, allowing him to kiss her arse: he believed he would receive a real kiss from his “pretty little bird”, but he was humiliated instead (Chaucer 102). Absalon resents her crude treatment of his love and says that “true love is always mocked and girded at” (Chaucer 102). This statement reveals that Absalon believes he truly loves Alison, even though he only has courtly love for her. He does not understand love, as shown by his statement and beliefs. Alison’s actions in the Miller’s tale also show that she does not understand love; additionally, her failed attempts to rule over it through sly tricks and sex reveal to the reader that even though humans try to control love, they cannot.

Like Alison, the Wife of Bath is a promiscuous character who believes she controls and understands love through marriage and sex, but in reality does not. She argues that “as for being married, [God] lets me do it / Out of indulgence” (Chaucer 260). This means that she believes God lets her marry for her own personal gain. Since the Wife of Bath has already stated how little love was involved in her marriages, one can surmise that a person’s chance at love is unrelated to their relationship or marriage. Additionally, her statement leads the reader to wonder if humans choose who they love, or if something else decides for them. For example, the Wife of Bath would have liked to love her first four husbands, but she does not, so she fills in the gaps with money and sex. Furthermore, while still married to her fourth husband, the Wife of Bath falls in love with a man named Johnny and suggests to him that “were I ever free / And made a widow, he should marry me” (Chaucer 273). Though the Wife of Bath says that Johnny was abusive, poor, and disrespectful, she also says “I loved him best, I’ll tell no lie” (Chaucer 272). If love was controlled by humans, the Wife of Bath would have stopped loving Johnny to avoid abuse; however, she happens to love him the most out of all her husbands, and out of love stays with him. The Wife of Bath is trying to find and control love, like she can control sex, men, and their money: but, she runs into problems because she falls in love with someone who is poor and abusive. These are two qualities which she does not desire in a husband, but supernatural love pushes her to make an exception.

Emily is another character who is much different from Allison and the Wife of Bath, but who also shows how love confuses humans and how humans do not control love. Both Arcite and Palamon are in love with Emily for about nine years, even though she has no idea. Just the fact that both men have never met Emily shows that their love is controlled by something inhuman. Arcite speaks to this when he says, “Love is law unto itself. My hat! / What earthly man can have more law than that?… A man must love, for all his wit; / There’s no escape” (Chaucer 34). Arcite states this when he is trying to explain to Palamon their situation. They had sworn to protect each other as brothers, but were suddenly against each other because they fell in love with the same girl; Arcite also picks up on the theme that love confuses and entrances humans (because they do not control it) when he states, “All man-made law, all positive injunction / Is broken every day without compunction / For love” (Chaucer 34). In fact, Arcite and Palamon are often at odds due to their love for Emily, even though she “knows no more of this affair/ By God, than does a cuckoo or a hare!” (Chaucer 51). Love is a mystery to all three characters, which results in fights, sadness, and death. The details that Chaucer chooses to explore in the Knight’s Tale reveal that love rules humans because they do not control or understand it.

Throughout The Knight’s Tale, the gods are also mentioned often, usually in regards to the love situation. For example, it is stated that “Cupid can make of every heart and soul / Just what he pleases, such is his control / Look at Arcita and Palamon!” (Chaucer 51). Characters in the Knight’s tale believe that the gods control love, and this conviction is clearly stated several times. This contrasts with the other two tales, which are more sarcastic and subtle in how they determine love’s origins. For example, although supernatural forces control love in both tales, it is left to the reader’s speculation to decide where the Wife of Bath’s love for Johnny came from or why Allison is surrounded by infatuated men. What becomes more obvious when the tales are contrasted is that the people commonly understand and accept sex or money, but do not know how to find, accept, or keep love.

In these three of Chaucer’s tales, love is scarce and misunderstood and lust and greed are more common. Readers are left to their own accord, but diction, details and language reveal Chaucer’s tone about how love was accepted and viewed during his time. He shows in his stories that a mysterious metaphysical being controls love, not humans. Marriage and other intimate relationships are included to simulate how real people try to culminate love, but his characters cannot capture love in their relationships and only end up complicating the story. Characters are also drawn to sex and money, thinking that it will fulfill their desires, but they are unsuccessful without supernatural aid to grant them love. In the end, these characters and their relationships are like real people and real marriages: perhaps if people realize that they are not able to control or fully understand love, it may come to them and remain there more easily than if they are absorbed in man-made connections like marriage and sex, trying to create their own version of the word love

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