Morton W. Bloomfield
Leeds Studies in English: n.s. 14, (1983), 44-55.
Robert Jordan in his interesting book has made the point that “the Canterbury Tales . . . invites piecemeal criticism; it also invites the total view. In the equality of these two claims on our atten- tion lies much of the critical problem.” Jordan tends to see the historical explanation of this paradox in the Gothic nature of Chaucer’s art, the dominant aesthetic mood of the period, wherein “the total form is determined by the accumulation of individually complete elements.” The whole can be regarded as a collection of complete parts which involve varying perspectives and unusual juxtapositions, the very opposite of modern “organic” art wherein the parts are at least theoretically subordinate to the whole.
Although I think that the notion of modern art as organic must be qualified and questioned, there is a certain force and validity to Jordan’s distinction between medieval and modern art. Modern art expects the parts to be somewhat subordinate to the whole. The dominant stress of New Criticism was on the organic nature of art. This principle applies mainly to certain poets and novelists of the Renaissance and later periods but certainly not to all. The Victorian novelists did not’write organically. Many of the 18th century poets did not. On the other hand, some medieval literature is organic – Gawain and the Green Knight, for instance, and some of Chaucer. We do not, therefore, have to relate the individual Canterbury tales to the frame in any psychological, symbolic, or dramatic manner, but we can treat them as separate units. We can look at the frame separately as at another part of the poem, as well as a unifying device. We need not be concerned with the dramatic unity of the Canterbury Tales. I do not, however, deny that some relation even if not an organic one, exists between the frame and the tales. The former is at least causative and authenticating. As we shall see, it provides the narrative cause for the other narratives, and it attempts to authenticate the stories, that is, to help make the reader or audience suspend their disbelief. This is the usual procedure in most collections of tales. We shall here examine the rather complex background of the frame and its numerous aesthetic functions to see what light this knowledge may throw on Chaucer’s general intention. It may help us to learn how Chaucer himself regarded his great masterpiece.