Geoffrey Chaucer and Jane Austen belong to two different remarkable periods in English Literature. Chaucer was born in 1334 and Austen in 1775. The birth of the English language and literature in the fourteenth century provided a proper atmosphere in England for the growth of new trends and tendencies in writing. Chaucer’s contribution in this is so great that he rightly earned the title of the Father of English literature. By the time Jane Austen came into the scene, much development had already taken place in literature, particularly in the use of English prose. The fact that Chaucer stands before Shakespeare and Jane Austen comes after he explain the difference between these writers in a better way. Jane is the first real-woman writer, the first woman novelist. This paper compares these two writers with a focus on their views of social life in their respective periods, particularly about the institution of marriage.
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Chaucer’s age was an age of transition. Both the Middle English and the new Renaissance spirit find expression in the writings of this period. Poetry found itself getting liberated from the influence of religion, and more and more social and individual life became the subject matter. By the time Jane Austen stepped in, literature was divided into different areas like poetry, drama, and prose. The novel, the new branch of literature discovered a new reading public, making it the most accepted medium in literature. During Chaucer’s time verse was the only accepted medium, though the prose was slowly finding its way into the literature. However, Chaucer produced a few beautiful works in which all these branches could comfortably coexist. Apart from this, Chaucer also provided a style that remained the general tone of literature. Humor and irony were the easy tools with which Chaucer depicted the life of his characters. He takes materials from all possible sources, but, as Hudson puts it, “whatever he borrows he makes entirely his own, and he remains one of the most delightful storytellers in verse” (Hudson, 23-24).
It should be in this light Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales should be read. This long narrative poem has drama in it and contains characters good enough for several novels. It is a collection of stories brought together with the pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. Thomas Becket as the central theme. Here Chaucer gets a realistic subject in which a vast cross-section of people in his society come together and interacts. It is also a great occasion that can reveal the individual aspirations of the characters. About thirty pilgrims gather in an inn, including Chaucer, and the understanding is that each would tell two stories while going, and another two while returning. However, there are only twenty-four tales. Chaucer’s skill in character delineation found in Troilus and Criseyde and The Legende of Good Women now comes to its full power. These pilgrims coming from different walks of life find a purpose to converse and reveal themselves with greater freedom.
The readers in turn get a realistic picture of the life and manners of these people, the way these men and women lived in the fourteenth century. They can laugh with them and at times weep while listening to their miseries. People belonging to different professions and ideologies, with their contrasting lifestyles, add color to the poem. As beautiful stories are poured out from their mouths, English language and literature discover a new door to escape from the cloistered medieval English into the vast field, where later on Marlow and Shakespeare could discover their literary talents. Chaucer’s interest in human character enabled writers like Dickens to write wonderful novels. Human impulses and the complexities of behavior enrich the subject of writing.
Much has been written about Chaucer’s characters in his Canterbury Tales. Here, in this paper, a few of them are taken to discuss their views about marriage. It is the Wife of Bath who opens up this topic which provoked many others to join the debate. It is a serious subject, normally handled only by great scholars and philosophers. Her attitude to married life appears in the Prologue to Wife of Bath. She is instrumental in creating a group itself among the pilgrims, the “marriage group”. In an age when chastity was glorified by Church, the rejection of virginity by an ordinary woman cannot go unnoticed. She argues that a woman need not remain as a virgin for the simple reason God has given the body to be used. With her experience of living with five husbands, she has the knowledge to talk about marriage authoritatively: “She was a worthy woman al hir lyve: Housbondes at church dor she hadde fyve,” (461). She knows the delight of the flesh. Sprinkling humor and irony she says that, if possible, let the saints remain as chaste people, as the Church demands it. She is not against it if one can do it. However, she reminds us that even to maintain virginity sex and reproduction are essential. She also advocates marriage for the widows. In other words, she believes in the flesh, in animalism. Her words are very provocative. There are a great number of pilgrims who are ecclesiastical. Her attack is directly on the moral virtues practiced by Church. In those days women’s roles were identified and marked. Now here is a woman who says that the wives should rule their husbands. She also admits that her words come from her actions and all her husbands were under her control.
The Pardoner interrupts the Wife of Bath. The Clerk feels wounded. No one expected a wife to open up such a delicate and serious subject. Here is an open challenge and Chaucer is the most amused person. What is stirred up here is the man-woman relationship, the delicate relationship between a husband and wife. It is the root cause of peace and harmony in a family, in the society itself. It is also raking up the question of whether body or spirit is superior. The Clerk had been thinking that as a scholar, wisdom was his personal property and now an ordinary woman has provoked him.
Clerk’s tale, therefore, becomes curiously interesting. Every eye is on him to see how he reacts. He makes a calculated move. He does not abruptly open the topic of marriage, but gradually through the story of Griselda, he reveals his views. The Clerk had traveled to Italy and heard it from the lips of Patriarch. His interest in philosophy, particularly in Aristotle is well known: “Twenty books, clad in black or reed, Of Aristotle and his philosophy, (296). As he tells his story, he gives great emphasis on the trials Griselda had to undergo in her relationship with her husband. One is forced to pity her and admire her power of endurance. Pointing at her submissiveness, the Clerk tells his listeners that he does not want any woman to imitate her. “The Wife of Bath had railed at her husbands and badgered them and cajoled them: Griselda never lost her patience or her serenity”, says Lyman. (Kittredge). The story is told only to inculcate a sense of fortitude among women, the need to practice fortitude in times of adversity. Griselda’s extreme endurance is intended to be used as a parable for universal application.
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The tales continue. The Merchant gives his views through his tale, and the story is that of an egoist. He too sustains irony throughout his narration. What is curious is that no one has anything to say about the role of love in married life. This sacred institution is seen only as a source for reproduction. Chaucer wanted to be realistic. Finally, he brings Franklin to speak about the ideal marriage. He tells a gentleman’s story. He wants to love and “gentilesse” to be part of marriage. Chaucer speaks through him to remind that love can be consistent with mirage.
Jane Austen is a great novelist. She stands among the greatest of all times. She lived a sequestered life. She had no experience of the outside world. However, this limitation did not affect her writing. Her understanding of human nature and the intricacies of human relationships is superb. She learned to paint only on “a little bit (two inches) of ivory”, but that did not in any way diminish the quality of her art. To some extent, the contemporary writers did not influence her, like the gothic and sentimental writing. She is closer to Chaucer than the writers of her period. Jane Austen is realistic in portraying her characters and events. She takes events from her own experience; thereby her novels can be called autobiographical. As a woman, she had her limitations, as any woman living in those days. A woman was still a domesticated animal. By picturing all these realities truly her novels are sometimes called domestic novels. Her truthfulness to her petticoat experience gave her a place among the greatest writers. Ordinary life is the subject matter of Austen’s novels. Her pages are filled with small tea parties, ball dances, and a few family visits. No war, or political turmoil, or earthquakes take place in her novels. Despite this, her novels are masterpieces. They are filled with accepted or rejected marriage proposals.
Pride and Prejudice
The opening sentence in Pride and Prejudice speaks volumes about her attitude to marriage: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife” (Prejudice, Ch. 1). This is the prevailing attitude in the period in which she lived. She could not find a Wife of Bath to refute this attitude in the eighteenth century. However, her characters slowly developed a small resistance to this approach to marriage as Austen moved to her final novels. Everyone is persuading someone in her novels either to marry or not to marry a particular person. As the sentence quoted above indicates, the whole attention of the readers turns to see the possibility of a young female character succeeding whenever a young man wealthy enough to marry comes on the stage. Mostly Austen gives the details of marriages arranged. Sometimes she tells of unhappy marriages too, like: “It was an unsuitable connection, and did not produce much happiness (Emma, ch. 2). For the sake of better analysis of the novelist’s approach to marriage, this paper takes up ride and Prejudice as an example. Her first three novels, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park reflect a girl’s willingness to marry as an accomplishment in life. The last novels, Pride and Prejudice and Emma carry in them a few female characters who want to assert their will, and not simply go for material considerations before choosing their life partners.
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen brings together pairs of men and women eager to live together as husbands and wives. The story, however, is not that simple. All of them are not of the same mold. A good example is Mr. Collins. He is a dull and fat character. Marriage for him is like any other event in life, an arrangement for passing through the routine life. Though Miss. Bennet rejects his offer bluntly, there is a taker for him in the form of Miss. Collins. Austen thus shows different attitudes and tastes even among women. Elizabeth says: “where nothing is in question but the desire of being well married, and if I were determined to get a rich husband, or any husband, I dare say I should adopt it” (ch. 6). Collins makes his persuasion with equal force to both the girls. Elizabeth is a new girl with modern ideas about marriage. She wants her views to be considered in marriage. She has gained the courage to reject a man, a man of considerable wealth. She also made sure before accepting Darcy that he comes down from his glasshouse of pride and accepts her only as true love. Elizabeth started asserting her womanhood, the beginning of a healthy sign for women in general. Her submission is only to love, not to a man in the old sense. Words are very important in Austen’s novels as the relationship purely depends on the words exchanged. Hansen says: “Austen is interested in identifying the kinds of relationships likely to make good marriages. In terms of this project is it simply not important to know what words the hero and heroine exchange when they agree to marry (Serena).
Darcy appears on the scene as the most sought-after man in the marriage market. The Bennet parents use all their skills in their storehouse to persuade Elizabeth to snatch the opportunity that arrived in the name of Darcy. Elizabeth prefers to wait, to study the man first. She does not want a tyrannical husband, a man who is full of pride. She wants someone who can provide a joyful life, a life filled with love. That she was prejudiced is a secondary matter here. In character portrayal, Jane Austen is next to Chaucer or Shakespeare. She is superb in handling satire too. She does no damage to any character. Even the most powerful weapon with which she cuts Collins or Bennets is irony. “If I can but see one of my daughters happily settled at Netherfield,” said Mrs. Bennet to her husband, “and all the others equally well married, I shall have nothing to wish for” (ch. 3). The villain, Wickham is forgiven. Mutual understanding and the creation of a benevolent atmosphere are what she craves. It is her sharp and witty exchange of dialogues in her novels that keep her novels highly readable. She keenly observes the different tendencies and temperaments in people and retains them only to reproduce them in her novels with remarkable skill. She is an expert in handling her small brush. The result is that the readers get a panoramic view of eighteenth-century family life from her novels. The road from Chaucer to Jane Austen is wider as one reaches Austen’s era, and life at the end of this road is made more spongy and sweet by her.
One thing seen common between these two writers is that their approach to the institution of marriage is based on mutual respect between man and woman with a sense of accommodation. Chaucer through his tales gives two extremes: very licentious as in the case of Wife of Bath and too rigid as is seen in Clerk. Jane Austen, on the other hand, gives several combinations, mostly all of them ending up in happy marriages. She gives a little picture of life after the marriage. The palm, therefore, goes to the Wife of Bath for speaking out about her personal life. She is at the forefront of the feminist movement, whereas not all feminist critics appreciate the way and the hurry with which Austen’s character accepts the proposals from men. No one can, but, forget that the age was the eighteenth century.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. Web.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Web.
Hansen, Serena. “Rhetorical Dynamics in Jane Austen’s Treatment of Marriage Proposals”. Persuasion On-line. V.21, NO.2 (Summer 2000).
Hudson, W.H. An Outline History of English Literature. Delhi: A.I.T.B.S Publishers, 2006.
Kittredge, George Lyman. “Chaucer’s Discussion of Marriage”. Modern Philology IX (1911-12).