Desiring Chaucer


Detail of a miniature of Amour (Love) kissing the Lover. Roman de la Rose. Southern Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 – c. 1500. London, British Library Harley 4425, fol. 24.

We have long acknowledged the formative role of desire when reading literary texts. Readers never come to texts without their desires—what appear more neutrally in the form of “expectations”—some of which may be completely unrelated to the actual text at hand. But it’s not as if these excessive desires can be done without. For texts themselves can hardly say anything without them. It’s what causes someone to open the pages and start asking questions in the first place. The desires a text answers may not be its own. Its responses to the desires of others may always miss their mark. Desire thus names both a lack and an excess in readers and their texts, and it is difficult to know which comes first as they appear to arise together, or at least become visible, in the process of reading. It’s what makes our intuitive understanding of desire, as something we experience every day, a much more complex formation than we typically credit it. One of the many reasons for our attraction to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales may be its manner of articulating desire, for these issues arise out of the structure of the Tales as a competitive collection.

It is not hard to talk about the ways the tales are about desire. Some tales even use that word explicitly—“what thyng is it that wommen moost desiren?” (3.905). Still others are about desire even when they don’t explicitly say so—what else generates the antics of the fabliaux or the torments of the saint-like? But that is not exactly all I mean to imply here in saying the tales are about desire and that desire is all about them. The substitutive logic of desire, whereby we continually replace objects we think we want with newer ones, organizes the tale-telling game. That logic also drives the productive metonymy of tales—relations of contiguity that result in new and different pathways—as well as the language through which desire is mutually constituted. Such a metonymy relieves us of merely understanding the tales as pairs, and from trying to figure out why the Friar – Summoner pair follows the Wife’s just as easily as the Clerk’s Tale appears to, and which properly belongs after hers. We can thus track the productive misreading of the Wife’s stories—those told in her Prologue and the one that is her tale—in the Clerk’s idealized Petrarchan response and the comic exposures of variously fictionalized friars and summoners. That the thematic and textual connections pull us in different directions, yet equally emerge from her story, shows us that the way desire circulates in the Canterbury Tales is anything but linear. Sometimes things double back as well as go forward.

Calling attention to the propulsion of desire in this way, its transactional and transformative nature is more clearly exposed, as well as the way it works—like the language to which it is so intimately related—in and through substitution and the kinds of interpretive misrecognition desire entails. Such transactions appear early, not only in the obvious places (the Miller’s Prologue) and where desire is the very subject of the argument (at various levels of the Miller’s story: Isn’t Alison a better object of desire than the Knight’s Emily?). It also occurs in those tales that seem to neglect desire or abjure it, whether for vengeance (the Reeve’s) or something transcendent (the Second Nun’s). The Miller’s desires on the Knight’s story are all too familiar. Not so for the Reeve, a figure whose aged, moralizing resistance is antithetical to everything that comes before his tale. But desire no less drives the Reeve, which we see most clearly in his misrecognition that the Miller’s story had anything to do with him.

Desire appears, then, beyond the content of the tales. Is it in the relationality of the tales, by which I mean a moving and unstable set of relations that prioritizes motion and change, rather than shape. When looking for analogies to the design of the Canterbury Tales, readers in the past have looked to historical objects: interlaced tapestry designs or cathedral architecture as a means of finding unity in diversity or opposition. These have offered historical grounding and New Critical coherence to what might seem the confusion of Chaucer’s poem, helping to secure its status as an elite literary object. But we may now (in an age when elite literary objects have lost their sheen for other pressing political priorities) also find them colder forms of engagement, which have held the poem still and at arm’s length. Desire helps us capture the movement of the story collection, the changes that it wreaks forward and back on the unstable sequence of tales. It names an utterance that utterly transforms both what comes before as well as what follows. A paradoxical recognition of an only just discovered lack, desire articulates and is articulated by the individual Canterbury tales, no matter what they are putatively about. All of them are fundamentally “about” desire.

Harley MS 1758 is a late 14th Century text that has been in the possession of The British Library (initially as part of a library that would become The British Library) since 1741 and is now available for all to browse on their website:

The manuscript is unique and sadly can no longer be handled by the public without special permission. Viewing the document electronically is now the most viable approach for those interested in it, and The British Library has made it available to all via their website.

Elizabeth Scala is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin. Her most recent book is Desire in the Canterbury Tales (Ohio State University Press, 2015).