Course Hero. "The Canterbury Tales Study Guide." Course Hero. 25 Aug. 2016. Web. 1 June 2020. <https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Canterbury-Tales/>.
Course Hero. (2016, August 25). The Canterbury Tales Study Guide. In Course Hero. Retrieved June 1, 2020, from https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Canterbury-Tales/
(Course Hero, 2016)
Course Hero. "The Canterbury Tales Study Guide." August 25, 2016. Accessed June 1, 2020. https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Canterbury-Tales/.
Course Hero, "The Canterbury Tales Study Guide," August 25, 2016, accessed June 1, 2020, https://www.coursehero.com/lit/The-Canterbury-Tales/.
Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of The Clerk's Prologue and Tale from Geoffrey Chaucer's collection of stories The Canterbury Tales.
Harry Bailey now calls on the Clerk to tell a story of adventure. The Clerk agrees.
In Saluzzo, a beautiful region of Italy, lives a marquis named Walter. He is noble and beloved by his people but is yet unmarried. His people urge him to take a wife lest he die with no heirs. He agrees to find a wife but makes them swear they will be devoted to whomever he chooses. A date is set for the wedding.
In a village near Walter's palace lives a poor man with a daughter named Griselda, who is virtuous, lovely, and hardworking. Walter had often seen her riding by and decides that she will be his wife but does not tell anyone—not even Griselda. On the day of the wedding, Griselda goes to see the marquis and his bride pass by but is surprised when he asks her to marry him. She consents to obey him in marriage, and they wed. All the people come to love her for her beauty and her goodness. After a time she gives birth to a daughter. The people are pleased but not as pleased as if she had had a son. They hope the next child will be a boy.
Walter decides to test Griselda's devotion to him. He reminds her of the promises of obedience she made to him, and she affirms that she will obey him in all things. Later he sends an agent to take the child from her. Griselda does not object, although she thinks her child will now be killed. Walter sends the child to live secretly with a noble family. Though he watches Griselda carefully for a sign of discontent, she never shows any.
Years pass and Griselda gives birth to a boy. Walter decides to test her again in the same way as before. She again allows her child to be taken away. The people, believing that the marquis has now murdered two of his own children, begin to despise him. He decides to test her even more. He has a document forged saying the pope gives him permission to leave Griselda and take a different wife. He sends word that his son and daughter are to be brought to his palace, though it is not to be said whose children they are. His daughter, in fact, is to be prepared as his new wife.
Walter sends Griselda home to her father, saying a new wife is on the way to take her place. She says she will never take another husband and wishes him joy in his new marriage before taking her leave.
The day of Walter's wedding approaches, and he summons Griselda to help him prepare the palace for the celebration. She sets to work with characteristic grace and wisdom. Then he asks Griselda what she thinks of his new bride, and Griselda agrees that she is lovely. She advises him not to test his new bride, however, because she has not been raised to endure suffering as Griselda was. At this Walter cannot continue his test. He tells her everything. She joyfully greets her daughter and son, whom she thought had been killed. A great celebration follows, as well as years of contented life together. When Walter dies his son succeeds him.
In an envoy, or author's epilogue, Chaucer advises husbands not to follow Walter's example and test their wives' loyalty because they will find their wives not at all like Griselda. He advises wives to be fierce, independent, and opinionated.
This story revolves around the perfectly obedient Griselda and her increasingly cruel husband. While he is of high estate and she is of low estate (which he constantly reminds her), he is immoral while she exhibits the saintlike qualities of a martyr. The difference in their social status provides Walter with more power over her than he would have over a wife of high estate, who would have a powerful family behind her. As it is, Griselda has zero power in the relationship, as both a woman and a peasant. Evidently this is exactly how Walter wants it. The imbalance of power in this marriage is absolute.
Choosing such a powerless wife seems to stem from Walter's unenthusiastic attitude about marriage in general. He would prefer not to take a wife at all—even though wives vowed to obey their husbands, husbands were beholden to their wives in some ways. He is unwilling to accept any restriction on his independence. He only agrees to take a wife at all because his subjects demand an heir before he dies. (They rely on his estate for their own livelihood and do not want it split up or sold off.) His solution is to marry a woman who will have no leverage in the relationship, and he makes her constantly demonstrate her complete obedience.
However, Walter's anxiety about losing his freedom comes to be a kind of captivity. He is obsessed with testing her; he "longed to expose her constancy to test" and "could not throw the thought away or rest." The Clerk describes the marquis as one who is "fettered to [his] stake."