The ingredients for a healthy marriage have been at issue as long as the idea of marriage has existed. In “The Clerk’s Tale,” Geoffrey Chaucer challenges readers’ perceptions of the marriage ideal, especially in the context of courtly love. While Griselda is of lower social station than Walter, how far does her obligation to obedience go? Further, are love and obedience enough to foster a healthy marriage? Griselda’s failure to recognize her own value, and the lack of an attempt to rescue any hint of her own dignity, coupled with her unquestioning obedience to the cruel tests presented her, marks her as a less-than-ideal spouse and mate.
Despite her low social station, Griselda is a good and virtuous woman. Even Walter can see that before they ever meet face to face. Chaucer describes the Marquis’ thoughts of her thusly:
Commendynge in his herte hir wommanhede
And eek hir vertu passynge any wight
Of so yong age as wel in chiere as dede (239-241).
Walter is a ruler of a great many people. He does not know Griselda personally, yet when he looks at her, he can see both her beauty and virtue. She is, in his eyes, more beautiful and virtuous than any other woman in the world. Every word from her mouth and everything that she does is from a pure heart and with pure motives. There is nothing that she does which is out of place, wrong, or motivated by selfishness or greed. However, Griselda cannot see in herself what Walter sees in her, and despite her considerable virtue and good nature, it is this flaw which ultimately leads to her failure to be a good spouse.
Griselda’s lack of self-worth and dignity is plainly evident as she, her father, and Walter “negotiate” the conditions under which they will marry. Her agreement to this most absurd set of expectations is a direct result of that lack of dignity. In reasoning her ascent, Griselda says of her role in the relationship:
She seyde, “Lord, undigne
Am I to thilke honour that ye me beede.
But as ye wole youreself, right so wol I,
And heere I swere that nevere willyngly
In werk ne thoght I nyl yow disobeye (359-363).
Griselda views herself not only unworthy of Walter’s love, but also unsuitable. Her self-recognition is based solely on her perception of the norms which surround her social status as compared to his. She views herself as being less-than Walter. Because of this warped sense of self, Griselda does not promise to support, encourage, or even love Walter. Instead, she promises to obey him without question—without so much as even a thought or desire that differs from his. In essence, Griselda is contracting herself to be Walter’s concubine instead of his wife. It is in her acquiescence to his every wish and whim that she fails to be a good spouse. According to M. Keith Booker, this willingness to give over complete control of her thoughts and deeds was not even a necessary one given that, “the widespread transformation in English society in that century brought about a number of changes in expectations from marriage and family life. In particular, women came to be seen as potential partners for men. . .” (520). We do see evidence of that sort of partnership between Griselda and Walter. Describing her actions after they were married, Chaucer writes that Griselda was considered wise enough, despite her young age, that when Walter was away, people would bring their arguments before her to be settled and her words were so well respected that the people considered her sent from heaven (435-440). To be trusted with such responsibility is not indicative of a spouse who was not of some right an equal partner to her husband. On four separate occasions, however, Griselda failed to prove herself a good wife because she refused to speak for herself.
Even in the end, after having had both of her children taken from her, and after being cast aside, albeit deceitfully, for another woman, Griselda cannot muster the self-respect to refuse one final ridiculous and unnecessary test of her loyalty. When Walter asks her to return and make things ready for his new wife, she responds:
Nat oonly, lord, that I am glad, quod she,
To doon youre lust, but I desire also
Yow for to serve and plese in my degree (967-969).
Griselda cannot get beyond the idea that she is not as important, or that she is not as worthy as Walter because of her social station. Because of this, she repeatedly allows herself to be taken advantage of by her husband, who is supposed to love and take care of her, and be her partner in marriage. Griselda was not acting as Walter’s partner by allowing her own thoughts, opinions, wishes, and desires to be superseded by his. In not speaking up for herself, she not only relegates herself to an oppressed position, she fails to honor one of her most important duties as Walter’s spouse. Allowing him to test her time and again with no cause and without refusing, or even questioning, gives Walter tacit permission to continue his own failure as a spouse. This is not upholding a true partnership. Griselda fails as a spouse because she does not understand that love and obedience alone are not enough to maintain a healthy marriage. There must be an equality between husband and wife that transcends the ideas of class and wealth, and elevates both to a level of expectation, each for the other, which brings out the best in both. Griselda did not accomplish that task.
Booker, M. Keith. “’Nothing that is so is so’: Dialogic Discourse and the Voice of the Woman in the Clerk’s Tale and Twelfth Night.” Exemplaria 3.2 (1991): 519-537. PDF.
In this article, M. Keith Booker examines various interpretations of the dialogic discourse which occurs in Chaucer’s “The Clerk’s Tale” and Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” among their female characters. He first makes note of the fact that attitudes regarding the role of women, especially in marriages, had changed, lifting them to a more equal status, at least where their husbands were concerned. Booker looks at the feminist theory that, in remaining silent, both Griselda and Viola were subverting their husband’s misogynistic deeds. He then argues, however, that this interpretation is generous given the fact that, even in their ultimate “triumph” in the stories, each woman only achieved that triumph through marriage to a politically and socially superior husband. He contends that in order for dialogic discourse to be successful in subversion, it must actually accomplish some change in the relationships, which neither Griselda, nor Viola did.