The Franklin’s Tale

“The Franklin’s Tale” and Emotion, Feeling, Intensity, Pleasure

Emily Houlik-Ritchey


1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Whenever I re-read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood’s displays of grief at her suitor Willoughby’s departure put me in mind of her literary predecessor in indulgent emotionality: the character Dorigen in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale. That is a complicated opening claim. I’m suggesting that both of these literary characters don’t just feel sorrow in the absence of their beloveds, but encourage or stimulate that emotion. That is, both characters actively indulge in grief. Now why would they do that? That they are unhappy in such a situation is not surprising, but there seems, counter-intuitively, to be something pleasurable for each character in seeking out ways to grieve (or, put a slightly different way, each character derives emotional compensations from grieving). Marianne and Dorigen share a paradoxical pleasure in their grief that Austen gently ridicules and that Chaucer treats ambivalently. This makes Dorigen and her emotional displays particularly tricky to interpret in The Franklin’s Tale. And this is what we will explore here: the odd pleasure of intense misery that The Franklin’s Tale tracks, and its implications for Dorigen’s place in her community.


2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The way societies configure emotions changes over time, so it may seem odd to use a nineteenth century text to introduce the discussion of a medieval one. Yet Marianne’s emotional state in Willoughby’s absence highlights in a particularly vivid way the messy interplay of both the personal and social valences of emotion. This is something that is also present, though initially a little harder to see, in Chaucer’s Middle English tale. To start, though, we need to clarify a few points about the study of emotions.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 First, contrary to the binary implication of Austen’s title—Sense and Sensibility, where Elinor is the “sensible” sister and Marianne is the emotional one—contemporary scholars of emotions actually insist that “sense” and “sensibility” work together. As Michael Hardt puts it, the study of affect (one of the terms used by those studying and theorizing emotions) involves a “synthesis” of “reason and the passions” (ix).[1] The exercise of reason is part of the process of emotional perception and appraisal. This cognitive appraisal process involves not only the feelings that we identify psychologically, but also physiological reactions in our bodies. To study emotion/affect, then, is to pay attention “equally to the body and the mind” (Hardt ix). Already we see that there are two binaries that we are asked to bridge in the study of emotion/affect: 1) reason and emotion, and 2) the body and the mind. There is a third dichotomy that theorists of emotion insist upon weaving together, and this one is perhaps the most important for our purposes here today: personal experience and social scripting of emotions.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 When individuals undertake an emotional appraisal, we involve social norms in the process. Emotions are both personal and social; that is, they are at once subjectively experienced (felt at a personal level) and socially scripted (shaped and judged by communities). “Societies,” as Barbara H. Rosenwein explains, “bend, shape, encourage, and discourage the expressions of various emotions” (837). So when we study emotional expression, we must consider two complementary facets: 1) “what people consider (both consciously and unconsciously) conducive to their weal or woe” (that is, whether they judge something to be “good or harmful, pleasurable or painful”), and 2) “what possibilities cultures provide for the expression and representation of their feelings” (Rosenwein 837). To some extent, we are taught what to feel, and how to express those feelings, by our cultures. Yet this interplay of the personal and the social is messy. In fact, all three syntheses we must keep in mind when studying emotion—that emotions register in both the body and the mind, that they involve both reason and passion, and that they are both personal and social—resist neat partnerships. How someone is feeling (in life or in a literary text) can arise from complex configurations that are challenging to track. Society is a potent, but not all-powerful scripting force: societies are complex, with “contradictory values and models [for emotion], not to mention deviant individuals” (Rosenwein 842-43). Dorigen, we suggest, is one of these deviant literary individuals.


5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 So, drawing upon all of this, let’s turn to the indulgent grief that Austen and Chaucer construct for Marianne and Dorigen. What are the subjective experiences and the social scripts according to which each character grieves? And how does that affect our interpretation of each character/text? Both heroines live in societies in which the performance of one’s grief is a marker of the depth of one’s love. A “successful” performance of grief (one that lives up to both individual and social expectations) indicates an authentic feeling of love for the absent beloved. An “unsuccessful” performance of grief in such a situation threatens one’s identity and/or role within one’s community. To speak of emotional performance is not to say that the feelings are necessarily faked—for both Marianne and Dorigen I personally think the emotions are “true”—but we can still speak of performances, in recognition of the ways that social meanings and individual identities hinge on those displays of emotion.[2] Therefore, our interpretation of Dorigen’s identity—of her place as wife, friend, love object, and, finally, pawn—depends upon our reading of her (and other characters’) emotional performances. To read for emotions in The Franklin’s Tale is to read for relationality—for the shape of community, as well as deviances therefrom.

Personal Experience and Social Pressure

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 In Austen’s novel, Marianne “court[s] the misery” of Willoughby’s absence, seeking it out as eagerly as she has sought Willoughby as a suitor (Austen 40). For her, grief is “nourishment” and an “indulgence” (40). By obsessively seeking out the places she and Willoughby walked, flirted, read, and sang together, Marianne concentrates on her grief, maintaining it at the forefront of her attention. Her own expectations for what grief looks like demand such an indulgence—one that Austen’s narrator gently makes fun of in both personal and social terms:

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Marianne would have thought herself very inexcusable had she been able to sleep at all the first night after parting from Willoughby. She would have been ashamed to look her family in the face the next morning, had she not risen from her bed in more need of repose than when she lay down in it. (40) [3]

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Marianne’s emotional displays are done both for herself and for her family. Her emotional state in loving and grieving is bound up with her identity, which is a matter both personal and social (she “would have thought herself very inexcusable” and “she would have been ashamed to look her family in the face”). To satisfy her own conception of who she is (which has everything to do with her emotionality—her sensibility, as Austen puts it), as well as to prove in the eyes of her immediate community that she loves Willoughby deeply, she performs this particular brand of disconsolate misery. This is, we might say, Marianne’s defining characteristic in the novel.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 In comparison, let us now consider Chaucer’s description of Dorigen when her husband leaves: “[Dorigen] loveth hire housbonde as hire hertes lyf. / For his absence wepeth she and siketh, / As doon thise noble wyves whan hem liketh” (816-18). Dorigen’s grief arises from her love for the absent Arveragus, as these lines tell us directly. But Dorigen’s grief turns out to be complex. Not only does she feel badly when he’s not there (“wepeth she and siketh”), but this very misery somehow pleases Dorigen. She, and apparently all “noble wyves” do this “whan hem liketh.” I find this to be one of the most fascinating lines of The Franklin’s Tale for the way it merges two claims: it is at once the designation of Dorigen’s complex emotional state (pleasing grief), as well as a statement of social norms that sanctions it (“as doon thise noble wyves”).

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Chaucer’s assertion that this kind of grieving is what such women do, folds gender, marital status, and rank into an emotive expectation. This kind of indulgent grief, it would seem, is a widespread phenomena among the group of medieval women termed “noble wives.” “Noble” can be an indicator of official rank (such as the titled nobility), but it more frequently in Chaucer’s work signals a behavioral code of a wider swath than just the uppermost tiers of society. “Noble” just as likely includes those who, like Chaucer himself, lived and worked near enough to the elite to read similar literature and share their cultural values, and who had wealth and education enough to put these values into practice. These codes of “noble” behavior normalize the expression of the right emotions in the right mode and at the right time. This is what Rosenwein calls an “emotional community” (842). Marianne and Dorigen do not just experience grief because they love Willoughby and Arveragus, who are now absent, but they also perform that grief in and for community structures that render judgments thereupon.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The question then becomes, to what extent do we (and do their emotional communities) think their performances of grief are socially successful? Contemporary film versions of Sense and Sensibility, a bit in contrast to Austen’s narrative voice, have largely answered this question affirmatively; Ang Lee’s version, in particular, emphasizes through the musical score that accompanies scenes of Marianne’s grief that we are meant to sympathize—that is, to take her misery seriously. This has become the dominant contemporary reading of Marianne’s misery: its performance on film conveys her love as worthy of our notice and sympathy. In the novel, Austen’s narrator encourages us to laugh at Marianne, just a bit. Contemporary film versions want us to take her grief more seriously. The same story’s emotionality registers differently in these two contexts.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 So what of Dorigen? Her grieving requires, first, a lot of work in a very particular mode that corresponds to her “noble” status as the wife of a knight. Let’s consider the next line of Chaucer’s tale: “She moorneth, waketh, wayleth, fasteth, pleyneth” (819). What a string of verbs! Being miserable is very active in the Middle Ages, if one is a noble wife. Her grieving requires work. Consider the final verb, “pleyneth” in particular. This Middle English term does not signal whining or criticism, as we understand “complain” today, but refers to a particular mode of giving voice to misery. “Pleynen” references the eloquent expression of grief—often related to love-longing. The point of it is to speak out our hurt and so demonstrate, 1) the depth of our feelings, and 2) our nobility of spirit in being able to do so. Chaucer gives us not only an impressive catalogue of verbs for medieval grieving here, but he shows Dorigen drawing upon an established mode of expression for medieval love-longing as she does it. “Pleyn[yng]” usually falls to the enamored lover who has not yet won over his/her beloved. Its dynamics are most frequently heterosexual, with the male lover voicing the complaint. A common feature of these complaints includes the lover’s description of the physical as well as emotional ailments arising from love-longing. Dorigen’s symptoms of grief: weeping, sickening, mourning, sleeplessness, wailing, fasting, and complaining, are all extremely conventional ways to grieve in this mode. Anyone who wanted to convince a late fourteenth century audience that s/he was deeply in love would likely model their emotive performance according to these shared standards.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Given this alignment of Dorigen’s grief with existing social expectations, it may come as a bit of a surprise when Dorigen’s emotional community resists her performance. The tension between the conventionality of Dorigen’s emotional performance and the very different expectations that her friends seem to have, raises questions regarding Dorigen’s emotional, and therefore communal, identity. Chaucer’s phrasing suggests, as I’ve already mentioned, that the way Dorigen grieves is entirely expected of her role and rank in society, and therefore in keeping with the emotional expectations of her community. And yet, Chaucer also shows us that Dorigen’s friends do a lot of work trying to console her, to stop this emotional performance in its tracks:

Hire freendes, whiche that knewe hir hevy thoght,

Conforten hire in al that ever they may.

They prechen hire, they telle hire nyght and day

That causelees she sleeth hirself, allas!

And every confort possible in this cas

They doon to hire with al hire bisynesse,

Al for to make hire leve hire hevynesse. (822-28)

21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0 Dorigen’s emotional community tries to mitigate her performance of grief in a full-blown, massive consolation effort. Chaucer phrases the comfort her friends offer in language of extremes: they try everything possible, they preach night and day, they frame consolation itself as a matter of life and death. ‘This is no reason to kill yourself!’ runs their argument. What is it, exactly, that they object to? We might take a cue from this intense language and propose that Dorigen’s friends believe Dorigen takes her grief to excess. Chaucer’s narrator gives us some reason to agree with them: “Desir of his [Arveragus’] presence hire so destreyneth / That al this wyde world she sette at noght” (820-21). Is this too much grief? By what criteria are we, as readers, to judge Dorigen’s emotional displays: by her own assessment, or by her friends’? When the two don’t align (as they seem not to do here), which one should we, as readers, privilege? To the extent that emotion is a social as well as personal phenomenon, what does this social resistance mean for Dorigen’s place in her emotional community?

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 Chaucer encapsulates this social pressure to be tranquil in a metaphor that is perhaps my favorite image of the poem: an engraved stone. He writes:

By proces, as ye knowen everichoon,

Men may so longe graven in a stoon

Til som figure therinne emprented be.

So longe han they conforted hire til she

Receyved hath, by hope and by resoun,

The emprentyng of hire consolacioun, (829-34)

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Dorigen seems to feel acute pressure to conform, as well as exhibiting strong resistance to such communal emotional scripting. Chaucer represents the social pressure to feel consoled as a force strong enough to carve rock. And, on the flip side of this metaphor, Dorigen’s grief is as hard and unyielding to the social pressure of consolation as rock. The emotional point of contact between Dorigen and her community is (literally!) the proverbial rock and hard place. If Dorigen’s grief is a marker of her love for Arveragus, and her mode of grieving (weeping, sickening, complaining) is an established mode of expressing love and grief for someone of her social status, then why does her community resist her emotional performance so strongly—to the point that Chaucer arrives at the language of stone and chisel to describe these competing emotional forces? The emotional result of these forces is anything but a clearly chiseled message. On the one hand, we have the definitive-sounding claim that such engraved consolation “hir grete sorwe gan aswage; / She may nat alwey duren in swich rage” (835-36). But if that is the case—if the consolation has indeed been “receyved” (828)—then where does her infamous outcry against the sea rocks come from (lines 857-93)? How consoled does Dorigen seem to be, exactly? And what of her emotions in the pleasure garden (lines 901-24)? How might we understand Dorigen’s trajectory through these places, both when she is alone and when she is in company, by reading for emotion?

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 I am always in awe at the vexed scene of emotional endurance and social pressure that Chaucer invokes in this early part of The Franklin’s Tale. Our overall point is that Chaucer allows us, simultaneously, to trace not only the dominant patterns governing how Dorigen experiences and performs emotion, but also the ways in which those performances break down, failing to register clearly to her friends and (maybe) to us as readers. Our question for you is, How are we asked to judge the emotionality of this and the other fraught contexts within the poem? Which interpretive directions do you find most compelling, and why?

Gender and Emotion

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 We briefly mentioned gender as a factor of emotional expectations earlier in this essay; we return to it now because the cultural production of emotion in the English Middle Ages had a particular take on gender. Holly Crocker lays out some of this thinking for us. Crocker uses the term “affect” rather than emotion, because she wants us to pay attention to the indebtedness of medieval thinkers to classical philosophic traditions that employed that term (it comes from the Latin affectus). Crocker explains that medieval intellectuals identified four main affects—fear, love, sadness, and joy—and saw them as “fundamental elements of the sensitive soul” (Crocker 226). Experiencing these affects was a positive thing, but only so long as they were sufficiently controlled by reason.[4] In this vein of medieval thinking, the ideal person used reason to control their emotions.[5] Reason itself was gendered in these same philosophic traditions, so that it was quite simple for medieval writers to “align[] masculinity with reason and femininity with affect” (Crocker 230). So, generally-speaking, a strong tradition of thought in the Middle Ages—one Chaucer would have known—saw men as more likely to be rational and women as more likely to be emotional. It is important to remember that this is a general trend only and we should beware of oversimplifying it (especially where Chaucer is concerned).

32 Leave a comment on paragraph 32 0 As Crocker helps us to see, the association of femininity with emotionality and masculinity with rationality led medieval thinkers to conclusions also about agency: they argued that “masculine power derives from reasoned control, while feminine influence emerges from affective submission” (Crocker 234). If you’ve read The Knight’s Tale you’ve seen an example of this affective technique in the submissive weeping that the women use to influence Theseus. (If you haven’t yet read that tale, be on the look out for this strategy when you do!) What this theory supposes, in effect, is that women as women were thought to have a particular capacity to advocate for what they wanted through submissive emotional appeals to, usually, men. It also means that any character, whatever their gender, who uses this technique of submissive emotive persuasion are more likely to be aligned with femininity than with masculinity. On the flip side, men as men were thought to have the power to achieve their goals when they reasonably controlled their affect—which is not to say they were dispassionate, but rather that their agency depended upon not being overwhelmed by affect. But again, the expression of these ideas in literature is often much messier (and therefore more interesting) than the theory alone would seem to allow. Given these gendered trajectories of thought in Chaucer’s day, what further ideas can you glean regarding the state of Dorigen’s, Aurelius’s, and Arveragus’s emotions?


Questions for Discussion

  1. 33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0
  2. Where and in what capacities does Chaucer show Dorigen submitting to men in this tale? How does she seem to feel about that? What sort of influence or agency does she gain and/or surrender in these moments?
  3. To what extent do either Arveragus or Aurelius seem to be in control of their emotions (and emotional performances) in this tale? To what extent are these emotional performances socially successful?
  4. What relationship might we weave between Dorigen’s two emotional speeches in this tale (lines 857-93 about the sea rocks; and lines 1355-1456 about dishonor and suicide)? What do you make of Arveragus’s absence during these two particularly emotional speeches? 


  1. 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 1
  2. Analyze the gendered dynamics of love complaints within or across Chaucer’s tales. For instance, compare Dorigen’s love-longing with that of Aurelius’s song in lines 943-52 of The Franklin’s Tale, or with Arcite’s love for Emelye in The Knight’s Tale (especially lines 1220-50 and 1355-79). How socially successful are these expressions of emotion? To expand your analysis further, you might consider how Nicolas and Absolon express their love for Alyson in The Miller’s Tale.
  3. If submissive emotional displays by women are the most conventional means by which they convince certain men to alter their plans in The Canterbury Tales, what are we to make of very different ways other women in the tales achieve agency? Analyze the gendered power dynamics at play within The Wife of Bath’s Prologue or at the conclusion of The Wife of Bath’s Tale (I’m particularly thinking of the hag’s lecture to the knight on their wedding night) in light of both current and medieval perspectives on emotion.
  4. Analyze displays of emotion across The Canterbury Tales to assess the way they cross binaries of body and mind, emotion and reason, self and community, or masculinity and femininity. You might concentrate on the various arguments that arise among the pilgrims (most spectacularly, between the Reeve and the Miller, the Summoner and the Friar, the Pardoner and the Host). Alternatively, you might explore Custance’s emotional states and displays throughout The Man of Law’s Tale, and formulate an argument about the kind of relationship that the tale constructs between emotion, gender, and agency.

Works Cited

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility, in Jane Austen: The Complete Novels. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1981. 3-178.

36 Leave a comment on paragraph 36 0 Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Franklin’s Tale, in The Canterbury Tales Complete. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2000. 160-71.

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 Crocker, Holly A. “Affective Politics in Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale: ‘Cherl’ Masculinity after 1381” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 29 (2007): 225-58.

38 Leave a comment on paragraph 38 0 Hardt, Michael. “Foreward: What Affects are Good For” in The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Ed. Patricia Ticineto Clough and Jean Halley. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. ix-xiii.

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 Rosenwein, Barbara H. “Worrying About Emotions in History” The American Historical Review 107.3 (2002): 821-45.


40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 [1] Scholars sometimes prefer the term “affect” to “emotion” to signal that they’re talking about this synthesis and about the capacity to affect and be affected by others. The hard core affect theorists are, in the end, talking about something “beyond emotion,” to which emotion is connected, but not reducible. It is fascinating work, but that vein of it is beyond the scope of this essay.

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 [2] It is also possible, of course, for someone who does not really feel an emotion to imitate that emotion, to deceive or to otherwise fulfill social obligations. This is one of the reasons that scenes like these, with Marianne and Dorigen, become vexed, even if we read their grief as genuine.

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 [3] And because this is her perspective, Marianne misunderstands her sister Elinor’s affection for Edward: in a similar situation of loss Elinor represses all emotional performativity (Chapter 37). Austen’s narrator is on Elinor’s side as far as this goes.

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 [4] Ancient and Medieval Philosophers saw a division between emotion and reason—a division, we must keep in mind, that current theorists of emotion have generally rejected.

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 [5] Look back at the moment where Dorigen finally receives “the emprentyng of hire consolacioun” (834): she receives it, Chaucer says, “by hope and by resoun” (833).

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