Sunday, September 15, 2013

Physician's Tale, Favorite Comments

Detail Filippino Lippi, "Scenes from the History of Virginia," a cassone (c. 1470-80); Louvre


Obviously, read Mary Kate Hurley first. It's a great post.

Maybe you've also just graded your first set of Canterbury Tales papers. Mine were on the Physician's Tale, where I now routinely start because of David Wallace's facetious (?) recommendation at the New Chaucer Society in 2010. He was right, anyway.

The Physician's Tale is short, with a stirring narrative, moral and ironic, graced with an obvious source and as obvious alterations, and without a lot of weird vocabulary: in other words, it's a far better place to introduce students to the tales than the usual slog through the General Prologue.

Apart from my habitual comments about characters being tools and not real people, about literature making culture and not just "reflecting" it, and about upper-class women having a lot less freedom in marriage than women in general, I've landed on some new ideas, because grading is also thinking. Sometimes.

Here's my list of some favorite new comments, maybe of use to you when you next read or teach this tale:
  1. Who is responsible here? Apius sins because devils enter into him; Virginius calls his daughter the ender of his life. And the Host dodges the Physician's weird moral about 'sin finding you out.' The men shift responsibility onto anyone but themselves.
  2. Virginius's belief that virtue requires female virginity does kill him, in a sense, since it turns him into a killing machine, a zombie working for a patriarchal system that compels him to kill what he loves most
  3. human sacrifice simultaneously degrades humans and attests to the supreme value of humans as the greatest sacrifice
  4. martyrs are killed by the enemies of God, while sacrifices are offered by his friends: is Virginia a martyr or a sacrifice? And what does that make Virginius?
  5. since Virginius is well supplied with money and friends, he could have saved Virginia, especially because Chaucer has cut out the political content of his source material. So, Virginius fails Virginia as a knight and father as much as Apius fails her and the law in general as a judge. The tale's about a systematic failure of masculine authority and the resulting death of a girl who, alone, has done everything right.
  6. Why so much attention to Virginia's whole slate of virtues when the threatened failure of just the one means she must die? How shaky is virginity as the foundation of a whole system of virtue?
  7. Why is the tale so specific about Virginia's honors and so vague about her father's: full of honor and worthiness, and that's it.
  8. Note how Virginius spares Apius and kills his daughter and the various guilty churls: think about the prerogatives of inter-masculine respect.


Mary Kate Hurley said...

This is fascinating, Karl. I don't usually teach the Physician's Tale -- granted, I've also never had a full class just on Chaucer. But I think the instinct is correct: it has all the elements that make Chaucer Chaucer, while also retaining the brevity that makes something else -- like the Wife of Bath -- just Too Darn Long for the first readings in a class. There's too much there -- whereas it strikes me that a lot of the really great stuff about Chaucer is definitely already in the Physician's Tale.

One question, though: what's next? Do you then go back to the GP? I never quite know what to do with the General Prologue. I really like the sketches it makes, the way it makes the characters seem like real people even when they're just a set of story-telling tools. But maybe coming back to the portraits after knowing the Tales makes that clearer: you don't, perhaps, get as attached to a certain view of the Wife of Bath if you don't have that succinctly stated version of her put forward immediately.

Lots to think about. I should also say that the comment about Virgininus as zombie is briliant, and that the one about Virginia's specific virtues v. Virginius' vague ones is great -- hits home with some of what we've been discussing about Lanval in my Arthurian Romance class.

medievalkarl said...

Thanks MK! Then I got back to the GP, the beginning and the end and a few representative portraits (because I feel that getting too hung up on the 'impersonated artistry' aspect of Chaucer is a mistake). I tend to concentrate on the Knight, Squire, Yeoman, and Prioress, and then skip to the conclusion of the GP to have us talk about gender and social order.

I also play around a lot with the 'voice' of the first 18 line vs line 19 (befel in that seson' or whatever) and asking 'where's Chaucer's *actual* voice in here?' and then leaning HARD on their answers.

LANVAL: god I love teaching that.

Jonathan Hsy said...

Karl and MK:

Cool comments here. Karl, you've offered additional confirmation that starting with the Physician's Tale is a great idea (it's something I saw David Wallace do so well when I was his TA for Chaucer back in the day); you can jump into this tale on its own terms and *then* go to the GP to provide more context.

When I teaching the Canterbury Tales I actually like to start with the Pardoner's Tale (nice tale/teller connection to work through here), then go to the WBT (tale only) *before* jumping back to the GP. (What I like about the PardT and WBT is the "narrator portraits" we get embedded *within* these tales.)

I think (due to a certain anxiety of influence?) I've been avoiding DW 's strategy of starting with the Physician's Tale -- but your post, Karl, makes me think I can stop worrying about it, "be my own man," and do it! ;)

Unknown said...

Fantastic assessment and round-up of comments, Karl. I commend you for teaching this forthright and disturbing story. I find items 5 and 8 particularly resonant, esp. in light of the fact that if you add the narrator, you have still another level of masculine authority--the Physician, often a figure of both respect and ridicule, a suspect character of authority along with the Church figures in Chaucer, a healer who in plague times clearly seldom could heal.

(to say nothing of the clinical detachment--literally and figuratively--he brings to Virginia's be(maiden)heading), a gross, surgical, symbolic deflowering by her own father. Enough about the implications of that: there be monsters in those deeps.

I'd also elided this story, never really given it a close examination, until I discovered that Chaucer was the first author to unpack the death scene enough to give Virginia a voice and thus a kind of limited agency in the decision about her own death.

I did a piece for last year's punctum books anthology Dark Chaucer on The Physician's Tale, exploring Virginia's monosyllabbic power to only assent, relevant especially in a home-brewed juxtaposition I made to the female-authored Story of O.

FWIW, in that essay I paid some attention to some of the implications raised by Virginius's own submissive stance to the state because he is a knight. Therefore, his decision not to "deed his property" (Virginia) to the judge Appius--or rather, to obey in the letter by presenting her actual head, rather than in the spirit by providing her maidenhead--can be read as a bloodily graphic 'fuck you' to the structure to which he is bound. I could do a better job of explaining this is I bothered to re-read my own essay at this moment--forgive me for some Saturday morning laziness, and thank you for this very thoughtful post.

Unknown said...

...p.s. in my weekend haze, I neglected to pay due attention to the fact that both you and Elaine also addressed aspects of Virginia's agency in the same volume. hats off to Editors Myra Seaman, Eileen Joy, and Nicola Masciandro for including so many perspectives in this provocative volume: