The Franklin's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson introduces Chaucer's Franklin. We will explore the Franklin's role in ''The Canterbury Tales'' and the genre of the Breton Lay. Then, we will examine how the Franklin concludes the conversation about marriage, which the Wife of Bath began.

Meet the Franklin, Chaucer's Gentleman

Is a woman a piece of property, as the Knight contests? Or is she free to love as she wishes, as the Wife of Bath asserts? Are husbands the masters of their wives, as the Clerk seems to think? Or can men and women love one another faithfully, as the Squire romantically describes?

The Franklin breaks down assumptions about marriage and chivalry, gender roles, and social class. This middle-class landowner, having climbed the social ladder to achieve great wealth and dignity, cannot escape the restrictions placed on common folk to rise to the level of aristocracy. His tale promotes a moderate viewpoint that invites the other pilgrims to consider the limits of gender roles and social class.

'The Franklin's Tale' demonstrates that Medieval beliefs concerning the institution of marriage are not as restrictive as the other storytellers make them out to be. In contrast to the extreme views presented by the Wife of Bath and the Clerk, the Franklin shows how a husband and wife can form a union based on mutual respect and commitment.

The Marriage, painting by Niccolo da Bologna (1350s)

Love and Marriage

The Franklin relates a harrowing love story between Arveragus, a noble knight, and Dorigen, a fair maiden. These young lovers prove their devotion to each other time and time again over the course of the tale, illustrating the importance of love and mutual respect in marriage. Dorigen is devastated when Arveragus goes off to war. Every day during his absence, Dorigen sits on the rocky shore praying for his return.

After years of waiting, the handsome young Aurelius sets eyes on Dorigen and falls instantly in love. He pleads with Dorigen to abandon her husband. Aurelius tests Dorigen's devotion, but she remains faithful to her husband. Eventually Arveragus returns and they live happily ever after.

Dorigen and Aurelius (1877)

Chaucer found inspiration in several tales by Medieval Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio. Boccaccio's Decameron (1340s), which many literary scholars compare to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1380s), includes a story called 'A Garden in January' (Tenth Day, Fifth Tale). In this tale, Boccaccio introduces a marital affair in which a handsome suitor tests the wife's faith and devotion to her husband. 'The Franklin's Tale' also follows the example of Boccaccio's tale Il Filocolo (1330s) which tells a similar story of love, marriage, and the choices man and wife make when tested with an affair.

Chaucer wrote 'The Franklin's Tale' in the style of a Breton Lay (also spelled Lai), a romance genre popular in Medieval France and England. These stories, intended for a common audience, tend to feature noblemen and women in romantic plots often involving supernatural elements and fantastical events. You might compare the Breton Lay with a pulp Harlequin romance novel, as opposed to more sophisticated romances aimed at an upper class audience, like the novels of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte.

A Conversation About Marriage

'The Franklin's Tale' closes the set of tales known as the marriage group begun by the Wife of Bath. The group includes 7 tales by the Wife of Bath, the Friar, the Summoner, the Clerk, the Merchant, the Squire, and the Franklin. The stories in the marriage group address questions about the role of women and sex. Are women supposed to be chaste, or is it all right for them to express their sexuality? How can marriage lead to a happy life? Can marriage and love coexist? Are men and women equal?

The Franklin (1912)

'The Wife of Bath's Tale' begins a new conversation in the Canterbury Tales, disconnected from the previous tales, which weave into one another. She confidently argues that wives should be dominant over their husbands and masters of the house. The Friar, the Summoner, and the Clerk all agree that the Wife is spreading heresy. The Clerk insists that wives should be submissive and obedient to their husbands. The Merchant speaks cynically of the institution of marriage and his unfaithful wives. The Squire continues the conversation, focusing on the importance of love and romance.

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