The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Clerk's Tale Analysis

The Clerk claims to get the tale from Petrarch, but Petrarch almost certainly found it in Boccaccio’s Decameron – a fact that Chaucer likely knew. However, the tale may not actually have the meaning it seems to have a first glance. Although it sounds like a tale meant to instruct wives in how to be patient, the Clerk not only warns that real people can’t expect to live up to Griselde’s example, but he also explicitly praises the Wife of Bath for her comments about women needing “mastery” in marriage.

What, then, is the point of the Clerk’s Tale? It may be to demonstrate that people with superhuman patience, like Griselde, are a lost breed – for better or worse. On the one hand, Griselde shows great patience. On the other, standing aside while her children are murdered – at least as far as she knows – is not necessarily a praiseworthy act.

Petrarch’s own solution is voiced by the Clerk in the tale: that it is not a story about how wives should behave toward their husbands, but how human beings should behave towards God. The changes in Griselde’s clothes as her status changes from low to high and back again also serves as a symbol for how a person’s life circumstances can be reinterpreted in perspective – in other words, not everything is as bad or good as it initially seems.

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