Sadness and Faith:
Chaucer’s Griselda and the Sacrifice of Abraham
[notice the analytical and informative title]
[notice the analytical and informative title]
The Clerk’s Tale seems to strike most readers as a distasteful representation of corrupt sovereignty and emotional sadism; few can find any value in Walter’s incessant urge to test his wife’s constancy, and the sense that woman is built for suffering is fairly revolting to most modern sensibilities. Nevill Coghill, for instance, described the tale as “too cruel, too incredible a story,” and he notes that “even Chaucer could not stand it and had to write his marvelously versified ironic disclaimer” (104-5). It seems, however, even more incredible that a great poet should bother composing a tale for which he himself had little taste; that is, there must be some point, however strange, to the ordeal of Griselda. One of the words Chaucer frequently uses to describe her character is sadness. The word obviously had a very different meaning in fourteenth-century England from what it has today: In Chaucer it does not denote a depressed moral or psychological state, but a way of reacting to events which takes them thoroughly seriously without letting them disturb one’s internal composure. This kind of sadness can best be understood in terms of the biblical models Griselda follows. She explicitly echoes the Stoic resolve of Job when she declares, “Naked out of my fadres hous, …I cam, and naked moote I turn again” (871-2) [this quote needs a / to show line breaks and should use spaced periods with square brackets for ellipses]. But the allusions to Job may momentarily throw the reader off the trail of an even stronger biblical model: the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac [excellent and original point].
The affinities between the Clerk’s Tale and the book of Job will naturally lead us to associate the tempter Walter with the tempter Satan, and the narrator seems at times to encourage this with his disdain for the demonic cruelty of Walter:
O nedelees was she tempted in assay!
But wedded men not knowe no measure,
Whan that they fynde a pacient creature.
quote should have been incorporated into the sentence and not set apart
as a block quotation; see # 49]
[this quote should have been incorporated into the sentence and not set apart as a block quotation; see # 49]
Most readers are familiar with the legendary patience of Job, but it must be noted that during the course of his trials Job is brought to the utmost limits of his patience and comes dangerously close to following his wife’s advice: “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die” (Job 2:9 NRSV) [the Bible version is not necessary here, as it will be on the Works Cited]. But the limits of Griselda’s patience are never touched; she seems to draw upon some mysterious private impetus to endure. The profound strangeness of her humble resignation must not be tritely attributed to some idealized character trait, for Griselda finds herself called upon to make a unique sacrifice; her patience is not for nothing [great point].
Abraham too was called on to make a sacrifice, but the familiarity of his story too often diminishes its mystery. God commands Abraham to take Isaac, his only-begotten son through whom Abraham is to be made a “father of nations,” to the top of Mt. Moriah and offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Abraham obeys and at the last moment an angel is sent to interrupt the ceremony and proclaim that Abraham has passed God’s test. But why should God have asked such a thing of Abraham in the first place? Is such cruel experimentation not just as revolting as Walter’s “marveillous desir his wyf t’assaye” (ClT 454)? According to Kierkegaard’s well-known interpretation of the Abraham story, the shock of God’s cruelty must be sustained, “in order to see what a tremendous paradox faith is, a paradox which is capable of transforming a murder into a holy act well-pleasing to God, a paradox which gives Isaac back to Abraham, which no thought can master, because faith begins precisely where thinking leaves off” (64). Similarly in the case of Walter’s treatment of Griselda, what strikes us as a needless and fickle-minded torment on the part of the markys becomes the occasion for the manifestation of a devotion which seems wholly out of proportion to the worth of its immediate object.
Yet this faith of Griselda is finally a good thing, and despite the narrator’s disgust with Walter’s behavior, he does not compromise the sense that all is done for the sake of a blessing in the end: “But hye God somtyme senden kan / His grace into a litel oxes stalle” (206-7). Walter himself at last defends his actions from the charge of pointless cruelty claiming that all was done “for no malice, ne for no crueltee, / But for t’assaye in thee thy wommanheede” (1074-5). But what is this womanhood that needs testing? If it is merely a capacity for suffering, then Walter’s apology is nonsense and the story must be anti-climactic: What else is cruelty, after all, than the testing of a creature’s capacity to suffer? There must rather be some positive virtue that is being brought to the fore in these ordeals. What motivates Griselda to endure them so quietly?
When her first child is about to be taken from her, Griselda delivers a moving speech which shows that there is more at stake in her resignation to obedience than mere suffering for suffering’s sake:
But sith I thee have marked with the croys
Of thilke Fader—blessed moote he be!—
That for us deyde upon a croys of tree,
Thy soule litel child, I hym bitake,
For this nyght shaltow dyen for my sake.
Griselda understands that her daughter is to be offered as a sacrifice; here she almost ceremonially consecrates the child in a manner which ought to recall Abraham’s performance atop Mt. Moriah. And like that of Abraham in Christian tradition, Griselda’s sacrifice is represented as a type of the sacrifice of Christ upon the cross. But does it really make sense for this innocent girl to be (supposedly) destroyed? How is it that Griselda can imagine the girl to die for Griselda’s own sake? Part of the point of such a sacrifice is that it is incomprehensible. It is a mark of unflinching obedience and uncompromising faithfulness to one’s master rather than of a rational ethical economy. The sacrifice is not a payment for sins but a sign of devotion. (What sin would any reader dare attribute to Griselda?) [fine point] Readers are likely to be even further disturbed by the violence of Walter’s command; no standard of obedience ought to be allowed to proceed to the point of the murder of an innocent. But a faith that calculates such limits is no faith, for it sets a higher, more rational standard above that of obedience to the master. As Kierkegaard says of Abraham, “He believed by virtue of the absurd; for there could be no question of human calculation, and it was indeed absurd that the God who required it of him should the next instant recall the requirement” (46).
The point at which Griselda’s virtue diverges from Abraham’s
is in the essential passivity of her obedience in contrast to Abraham’s
consciously active submission. It is Abraham himself who must commit
the sacrifice, but Griselda is commanded only to accept quietly what
is necessary. Strictly speaking, in her first two trials Griselda is
never told to do anything; her submission consists in acceptance and
resignation. Walter’s commands take the basic form “Accept
this and do not interfere.” For this reason Griselda’s virtue
is less objectively measurable than Abraham’s. We can say objectively
whether Abraham did or did not do what he was told. Griselda’s
humble deference to the master’s will, however, can be marked
only by psychological attunements—sadness, courage, constancy:
“She was nat agreved” (500); she was “sad and constant
as a wal” (1047). The kind of sadness appropriate to Griselda’s
character has nothing to do with a depressed state of mind; indeed,
this would forestall the kind of contented resignation which her call
to acceptance demands. The sadness attributable to Griselda is not out
of keeping with great joy: “so sadly holdeth she / Hire children
two” (1100-1). Sadness is a mark of moral superiority; the “sadde
folk” of the town reproach the fickle hoards of on-lookers: “O
stormy peple! Unsad and evere untrewe!” (995). Griselda’s
virtue is an abstinence, an ability to confront the situation in fully
grave consciousness of its horror without balking at the demand for
acceptance; from the perspective of action, this virtue is entirely
negative, always a not-doing-something. For this reason, Griselda’s
sacrifice is not merely a giving up of her children and her attained
position, but a sacrifice of her own faculty of volition. Her faithful
obedience is marked by a relinquishment of the luxury of an independent
will, which is why we are told of Griselda and Walter “that of
hem two / Ther nas but o wyl” (715-6). And her heroism is not
to be discerned in any external activity. (Milton’s Paradise
Regained would later give
us a hero whose feat consists entirely of saying No.) [another
[another fine thought]
What then can we say about Walter’s character? Are we to associate his lust for “assaying” with that of the God of Abraham? It is certainly much more comfortable to think of Walter as merely a demonic grotesque; it would take quite a feat of the imagination to represent him as a hero in this tale. Yet the same is again true of the God who demands that Abraham sacrifice his son. To assert that Walter is merely a man and has not God’s authority to bend the principles of humane ethics does nothing to negate the simple, obvious wrongness of tormenting a person by ordering him or her to sacrifice a child. What in Walter seem the marks of a bent mind must strike us with metaphysical horror when we think of them as attributes of the deity. Somehow all things are made right in the end; Griselda’s children are restored to her just as Isaac is restored to Abraham. But what sick disturbance within the minds of our two masters can have necessitated such a sacrifice in the first place? The omnipotent God surely had no need to experiment with unsuspecting creatures, and the sovereign markys could not expect that anything but his own will would be carried out since Griselda’s obedience consists solely in passive resignation. Any objection on her part would be nothing more than a symbolic statement. Walter’s motivation must remain as incomprehensible as God’s; it is the absurd or paradoxical ground out of which the heroic faith of Griselda may grow. The call to such faith takes place not in the mundane current of psychological motivations and ethical imperatives, but in the region of the eternal and trans-historical in which consequences cannot be calculated, in which the “intoxicated security of the flesh” (in Calvin’s phrase), puffed up in its own satisfaction at an unbroken system of moral debts and repayments, is negated by the knowledge of an intractable sinfulness, and in which all human activity turns out to have been an anguished cry for forgiveness.
[the Bible is missing. Should have been added]
Benson, Larry. Ed. The Riverside Chaucer. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987.
citation is incorrect. It should read: Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Clerk's
Tale. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry Benson. Boston: Houghton
Mifflin Co., 1987. 137-53.]
[this citation is incorrect. It should read: Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Clerk's Tale. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1987. 137-53.]
Nevill. The Poet Chaucer.
London: Oxford University Press, 1967. [University Press is
abbreviated to UP; same in the next citation]
[University Press is abbreviated to UP; same in the next citation]
Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling. Trans. Walter Lowrie. Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1941.