Allegory may be defined in many ways: from the general and somewhat cryptic view that it is a story that represents another story, to allegory as a vexing puzzle. Allegory is taken from the Greek word allegoria, meaning to “speak otherwise.” Allegory is generally an extended metaphor in the form of a story or poem that has a literal meaning and a meaning that is derived from outside the narrative itself. Allegory will often employ symbolism, personification, and typical characters (Ackerman 137). Characters in allegory usually represent abstract qualities or virtues whose actions convey a significance often unrelated to the literal narrative. These allegorical meanings may represent political, personal, or satiric ideas, but mostly the religious relating to the Scriptures within medieval allegory (Robertson 289).
Medieval allegory, states Miller, should be regarded as a “habit of mind than as any rigid system of artistic composition” (270). When discussing medieval allegory, most critics concur that a firm understanding of the audience is necessary to comprehend the significance of allegorical tropes, or it sentence. Robertson explains that the sentence is what the text implies, not what it literally says (287). That is, states Bloomfield, the sentence is the “fruit,” or the significance of the literary work beyond its literal interpretation (301).
This sentence, or pith of the allegorical matter, can, in most cases, be viewed in four ways: literally, allegorically, tropologically, or anagogically. The literal reading addresses facts or history — things which actually occur; the allegorical refers to the church and its relationship to people generally; the tropological is concerned with the spiritual constitution of the individual, sometimes called the moral; and the anagogical pertains to the universal, unchanging soul and heaven. Dante, in his Convivio, calls such an interpretation a polysemous meaning: a multiple meaning that can be derived form a single text (This is not to say that every poem deemed “allegory” will contain all of these polysemous levels: “not everything in a long allegory can be or need be allegorical, just as not everything in a comedy can be comic” (Leonard 10). Seemingly, only Dante in his Divine Comedy, was successful (or cared about being so) in incorporating all of the levels of allegory (Ackerman 139). The medieval mind, suggests Robertson, moves freely and easily between these realms of allegory as they pertain to the Scriptures (293-4).
However, the act of allegorical interpretation is not limited to the Scriptures in the Middle Ages: “creation itself is an allegorical book” as well as things created in it (Robertson 296). A language of clerkly authority developed to help in the analysis of the Book of Nature and the pagan classics as well as the Scriptures (Miller 271-2). Since God created nature, and through direct revelation He transmitted the words of the Bible to His scribes, both the Bible and Nature offer humanity a guide to charity and salvation if it can interpret the signs correctly (Ackerman 137-8). The language of clerkly authority, then, attempts to order and understand these tropes of the physical world that represent the ineffable word of God that is beyond human comprehension (Ackerman 138).
So, according to Isidore of Seville, the Christian poet draws upon established tropes for his alieniloquium, seven of which are the most important: irony (deriding through praise), antiphrasis, aenigma, charientismos, paroemia (proverbial expression), sarcasm, and astysmos (sarcasm without bitterness). These figures were understood by the medieval audience, but, states Robertson, are almost unknown to even sophisticated audiences today (288).
Whatever the case, allegory attempts to make sense out of the world of individual human experience and how it relates to the “more real” world of universal human experience; the literal sense is an imperfect world of human action compared to the figurative sense of an idealized, perfected humanity (Leonard 11).
While Ackerman suggests that the effectiveness and appropriateness of allegory within a particular work falls within the purview of the critic (137), others posit that allegory is only present within literature when the author or narrator explicitly states that he/she intends a meaning other than the literal, exemplified by Chaucer’s Clerk:
Finally, Bloomfield discusses the point that the literal level of a work is just as important as an allegorical level. Without the literal level of language, there can be no interpretation, and no art (315). The greatness of all art, Bloomfield states, lies in its literal sense: “a work of art is not only what it says, but also what it is” (317). His point suggests that while medieval allegory may instruct its listeners, it is the literal level that delights them and makes the interpretation possible.
Robertson suggests that Chaucer was well-versed in literary allegory and expected a certain degree of allegorical response from his audience (365). In the General Prologue, the Host states that
The Host states that whichever pilgrim tells a tale that is both the most entertaining (“moost solaas”) and has the greatest significance (“best sentence”) will win the contest; this directive also exemplifies what the practitioners of medieval literature felt to be the purpose of poetry: that it must teach and delight (Ackerman xiii).
The Clerk’s Tale puzzles critics and readers alike. Critical approaches to the Clerk and his tale range from simple interpretations of an ostensible allegory, to mock exemplum, to psychological readings of Chaucer’s motivations for having the Clerk tell such a horrific tale. While much critical attention addresses the latter issue and other speculative readings based upon the etymology of the tale itself, this study focuses on The Clerk’s Tale as allegory.
Probably the most basic and agreed upon exegesis of The Clerk’s Tale as allegory is contained within Miller’s article “Allegory in The Canterbury Tales.” On the literal level, readers might find Griselda’s behavior as both a wife and a mother repugnant; Sledd calls her a conceivable “dolt” and “ninny” (232-3). However, when she is viewed allegorically, she becomes representative of the individual soul and its relation to God (Miller 281). Huppé suggests that Griselda, whom Knapp calls naturally noble (338-9), could also stand for the Virgin Mary, evidenced by her birth near “a litel oxe stalle” and her response to Walter’s marriage proposal (143). This same evidence is used by Hinckley to support her allegorical relation to Jesus, as the figure of perfect devotion, sacrifice, and love (220). Also, an allusion made by the Clerk himself to Job, suggests that Griselda may be likened to Job — a clear indicator to the Clerk’s sentence (Huppé 142). Job’s patient humility and obedience represent the only solace that humans can find, especially when the trials never cease. Finally, Spearing makes a connection between Abraham and Isaac, likening Griselda to the latter in his patient acceptance to God’s will through his father (99). Whichever the case, the critics almost all agree that Griselda typifies the true Christian in his/her relationship to God: patient and obedient. This relationship, as the Clerk himself suggests (quoted above), represents a single human virtue that we should strive for figuratively; Griselda’s literal devotion should only be given to God (Allen and Moritz 191). The lesson: patience and obedience will be rewarded.
Walter, most critics agree, allegorically stands for God. He is God’s literal representative on earth as a Marquis, and he has control over both Griselda and his serfs, allowing him to test Griselda (Knapp 339). The story’s political, or allegorical, meaning is represented by the peasantry’s obedience to their lord (Knapp 339-40). This social order, states Huppé, is also reflected in the marriage, which lends the tropological reading (145). Defiance to God’s will would only bring confusion and chaos; this allegorical explanation helps to justify Walter’s supposed cruelty, and Griselda’s humble obedience (Knapp 340). Yet, states Allen and Moritz, Walter is too self-assertive and anxious by attempting to unite the perfection of heaven with his kingdom, and subsequently breaks his duty to himself, his wife, and his serfs (190).
Some critics, like Sledd and Knapp, question Walter’s role in the tale. The Clerk himself only offers words of disdain for Walter, whom he blames for being too passionate and willful (e.g. ll. 78-84, 460-2). Yet, does the allegory break down because of the Clerk’s or the reader’s disapproval? No, states Knapp, in that Walter could represent the Clerk and his propensity to probe and push, or any one of us as we search for the answers in this universe (341). Walter, in his obsession, has missed watching his children grow up and spending time with his wife. Truly, while there is no certainty in an interpretation of this difficult tale, there is, equally, no certainty in anything in life that we as humans choose, or are subjected to. While we cannot have the answers, we can have patience and submit to the tribulations that the universe throws our way.
Allen and Moritz conclude their discussion of The Clerk’s Tale by suggesting that it “represents the moral order of the merely human, evil or lacking when it fails to remember that it is derivative and not absolute, and even then capable of being the context of great individual moral achievement” (192). This statement seems to sum up the argument of the allegorical levels between critics and readings: when the tale is taken literally, its realism is questioned; however, when viewed allegorically, The Clerk’s Tale represents a complex tale about human struggle to reach the divine. Some characters, like Griselda are naturally noble, while others, like Walter, are still questing. The Clerk’s allegory, despite much debate, might be successful.
The foregoing was lifted with nimble typing fingers from Dr. Gerald Lucas @ http://litmuse.maconstate.edu/~glucas/archives/000242.shtml