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A Woman in the Mind’s Eye (and not): Narrators and Gazes in Chaucer’s Clerks’s Tale and in Two Analogues

A Woman in the Mind’s Eye (and not): Narrators and Gazes in Chaucer’s Clerks’s Tale and in Two Analogues

By Robin Waugh

Philological Quarterly, Vol. 79, Iss. 1 (2000)

Abstract: Versions of the Griselda story by Petrarch, Geoffrey Chaucer and Christine de Pizan present an opportunity to investigate the connections between one’s gaze and one’s desire and between one’s gaze and one’s sex. Chaucer’s complex portrayal of gazing as a strategy within both narrative and language in the “Clerk’s Tale” allows him to both promote and undercut the typical male gaze, and to present his version of Grisilde as an unexpectedly aggressive gazer who works from a superior vantage-point and who is surprisingly able to defeat the gazes of characters, narrators and readers.

Introduction: As soon as one realizes that the act of seeing leads to selfconscious apprehension of spaces, distances, subjects, others, subjects as others, and others as subjects, this type of act raises questions concerning the connections between one’s gaze and one’s desire and between one’s gaze and one’s sex. Versions of the Griselda story by Petrarch, Chaucer, and Christine de Pizan present an opportunity to investigate these kinds of connections, for (obviously), one account has a female author and narrator, while the other two have male authors and narrators. The various retellings of this legend have often been compared, often in great detail; however such studies tend to investigate the non– Chaucerian versions as possible sources for the Clerk’s Tale, a process that leaves out Christine, and very few critics have examined the particulars that distinguish acts of gazing one from another in these three versions of essentially the same story. These differences provide the basis for my discussion of the Clerk’s Tale and are in one respect remarkably predictable: through descriptions of gazing (and through other means) Christine offers a more feminist account of the events than her male counterparts. Nevertheless, Chaucer’s complex portrayal of gazing as a strategy within both narrative and language in the Clerk’s Tale allows him to both promote and undercut the typical male gaze, and to present his version of Grisilde as an unexpectedly aggressive gazer who works from a superior vantage-point and who is surprisingly able to defeat the gazes of characters, narrators, and readers.

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