My essay will utilise gender-oriented and object-oriented analyses of Marie de France’s text Le Fresne, in order to gain a better perspective of the overall critical approach to this work. I will also explore the idea that many ideological mindsets that one might use to explore a literary piece can be related to object-oriented theory. This is due to the fact that most critical approaches, such as gender-oriented approaches, necessarily require a study of the balance of power between the different actants in a text. The view that there are different assemblages, and actants within those assemblages enforcing or withholding their agency, can only facilitate the one performing this task.
In my gender-oriented reading, I will be examining the power which the women and men have in comparison to each other, and the ways in which they affect the plotline. The societal construct which the characters live in is intrinsically limiting for women, with very few roles open to them. This is best displayed by Gurun’s vassals’ apparent view that reproduction is a woman’s most important function, to the detriment of all others. I will seek to show that despite this entrenched gender imbalance, Marie’s women impact the text greatly, without even stepping outside of socially-imposed limitations. It is the women, not the men, who shape the story at every turn, and who affect the happy outcome.
However, this gender-oriented critique is extremely limiting, as it only deals with humans, and I will attempt to illustrate this point in my object-oriented approach to the text. There are many other actants, both abstract and tangible, which play a role in creating the final scene, and only through acknowledging this is a full textual analysis possible. I will especially consider the importance of the tokens, as well as the thing-power of lies and secrecy, and the agency of truth and generosity which eventually triumphs over them.
When reading Marie de France’s Milun, I realized that it shared many characteristics with other lais that we have read, but most notably Le Fresne. Not only are the plots similar, but also the concept of unwanted children who are sent off to be raised by others, as well as leaving them with objects that ultimately become a major part of their identity.
In Le Fresne, Fresne is born with a twin sister, and the mother, believing that having twins will ruin her reputation and she will be thought of as an adulterer, sends Fresne to a monastery to be raised by a nun, and keeps one of the children. This is very similar to Milun, as he gets his lover pregnant, but because they are not married, she decides to send the baby to her sister to be raised because having a child out of wedlock would ultimately ruin her reputation. So, in both stories, children are not only sent off, but their mother’s reputations become more important than keeping their children, probably reflecting just how important one’s reputation was in a given medieval society. Also, in Le Fresne, Fresne is given a number of fine garments by her mother when she is given away. The garments become a major asset of her identity, and ultimately they define her when her mother sees them towards the end of the story and realizes that this is her daughter. In Milun, the child is given a ring, and once this is seen by his father, he goes from wanting to “put him to shame,” for having a reputation that is as strong as his, to being so happy that he kisses him. In both cases, these objects are not only crucial to the plot, but define their owner’s identities. There are also key differences between Milun and Degare. Degare is too born illegitimately, and is given a broken sword that he keeps throughout his lifetime. In the end, like in Milun, he is fighting his father, who notices the sword, and the two are happily united.
I feel like our discussion of the symbol of the nightingale in Laustic was very interesting and can apply to some of the texts we have read so far, especially the garments that define Fresne’s nobility in Le Fresne. In Laustic, the humans seem to misapply meaning to the object, or force their own intentions upon its agency.
As noted in class, the love between the adulterous night and maiden does not seem to be as grand as they believe it to be, especially noted when Marie says, “she loved him more than anything/ as much for the good that she heard of him/ as because he was close by” (26-28). In other stories that we have read by Marie, peoples great reputations spread across lands and are known by a number of people, but here his good is known because he lives next door, possibly hinting that their love is superficial. In the end, the dead nightingale that is dressed up nicely is seen by the two “lovers” as a symbol of their love, but in reality, it is a symbol of a love that really didn’t amount to anything, or of jealously, vengeance, and loneliness felt by the maiden’s husband, or possibly it is just a dead bird. It seems that these characters are misapplying agency to the dead nightingale because they are forcing human beliefs or possibly delusions upon it. In Le Fresne, the garments are what make her of noble class to the individuals who surround her, but throughout the entire story, before her noble heritage is revealed through the garments, she is of noble character, and everyone who comes to know her realizes this. Therefore what made her truly noble was the way that she interacted with and treated other people, and not the garments, but the characters in the story misapply a meaning of nobility to the garments, or force their human perspectives upon them, and turn them into something that they really aren’t.
As I am doing a closer reading of Jane Bennett for an essay proposal, the supposed activeness of ‘things’ that are not necessarily objects has led me to conclude that if the characters in Le Fresne valued all ‘things’ as much as “thing-power’ theory does, there would have never been any doubt that Fresne was a noble match for Gurun. In Le Fresne, her nobility is finally asserted by her mothers recognition of her identity through the presence of the ring and the fine fabric, both literal representations of wealth and noble blood. However, if Gurun and his lords placed equal value on behavior as they did on objects, Le Fresne would have proven herself from the start.
Her value is apparent: “There wasn’t one, big or little, who didn’t love her for her noble character, and honor her well.” (310-313). But instead of ultimately being associated with the nobility that she emanates she is instead associated with the literal place from where she came, a barren Ash tree. This is ironic because as we have seen, nobility does not always act nobly but those who act nobly should be valued and honored for that alone. Gurun should have placed more respect in the ‘thing’ that was her virtue, devotion, and respectability, not her lack of proof in the form of an object or title of being noble.
Although I very much enjoyed reading Le Fresne, I saw the interchanging of Fresne and Codre as surprising and offensive given the knights past adoration for Fresne. He fell in love with Fresne by merely hearing about her beauty and noble character, donated much of his land to the abbey and completely changed his lifestyle to be with her. He brought her back to his castle where everyone regarded her highly, but when his vassals warned him that if he should have a child out of wedlock they would desert him, he drops all allegiance to Fresne and readily agrees to marry a stranger. Though his feelings for Fresne were once important to him, the sanctification of a noble marriage to qualify his own status becomes more important.
In this way, marriage to a woman in the right class is objectified and becomes a pivotal “thing” in the story of Le Fresne. Despite her obvious noble behavior and stoicism in the face of heartbreak, the right marriage leading to noble social status and acceptance, would have led to the downfall of Fresne if the mother had not recognized her as her own daughter. We have talked about “everything” being an active “thing”, not only objects. In this story, it was interesting to think of something like marriage, a non-material “thing”, having such a large role in the characters lives and decisions. Even when Fresne is recognized and Codre and the knights marriage is annuled, the story is said to have a happy ending because Codre found a good marriage, and therefore everyone get’s what they need: Marriage to “the right person”.
In accordance with Thing Theory, Marie de France’s Le Fresne features mere “objects” with the potential to assert themselves as “things.” Fresne’s tokens, “locked…in a chest” as they are for the majority of the lay, keep a certain static objectivity (304). In isolation, their material existence is not interrupted, nor is it disruptive. Revealed in a social context, though, they suddenly assert their symbolic existence and cause quite a stir. This assertion is transformative, transforming the significance of the tokens and Fresne herself. The mother’s examination of the ring best captures this instantaneous transformation: “She recognized it very well, / and the silk cloth too. / No doubt about it, now she knew – / this was her own daughter!” (445-8). The ring and silk cloth may understandably signify nobility – not a far stretch considering their material value. But that they too so easily prove Fresne’s nobility and legitimacy (when she was previously considered a “concubine”) seems quite a stretch (323).
Granted, Fresne’s nobility is supposedly inherent in her character. All of Brittany recognizes that “she was noble and cultivated / in appearance and speech” (249-40). In this respect, Brittan society recognizes nobility as being distinct from (or at least not entirely constituted by) material wealth. Noble esteem, though, is not equalent to noble status, at least as far as the Gurun’s vassals are concerned. The vassals demand a lady of objective, indisputable nobility. “Things” like virtue and decorum are still rivaled by objects like coins and jewels. Yet again, it seems that it’s those “things” of both material and symbolic value that prevail. For Fresne’s tokens, while largely symbolic (they’re not official documents, after all), provide a material basis to which to attribute her nobility. Material and symbolic value should coincide. Fresne’s rich and noble tokens reveal her rich and noble character, just as the nestling ash tree’s boughs reveal Fresne’s nestling domesticity.
I found the small discussion on “branching” in the tale Le Fresne to be very interesting during class. As a refresher, when talking about the Ash Tree as an object, Dr. Seaman talked about many readings of the text as seeing a parallel between the twin boys from the beginning of the tale and the twin girls the tale centers around. Fresne and Codre are the girl twins who we, as the reader, follow as they grow older. As for the male twins? We never hear any more about them after Fresne’s mother spreads the lie about having twins means the mother had been with two men. I actually thought for a second that Gurun was going to end up being one of those male twins when we are first introduced to him in the lai, but that was clearly not the case.
The branching discussion was interesting to me because there really was a certain amount of stress put of the Ash tree around line 169. Focus is given to the broad limbs of the tree. It seems to have a great significance attached to it, and we find out that it keeps baby Fresne sheltered long enough to be found. What happens to those male twins? Did they grow up to be successful knights? How different would the lives of the knights been if the mother had never spoken inappropriately? That branch of the story was, as Dr. Seaman said, completely cut off from us. I’m going to theorize that the two sets of twins would end up together had the mother never spoken aloud. I’m just having fun here theorizing but looking at evidence in the text we can see that the father of the male twins wanted to share these two boys with Fresne’s father. It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to theorize that two sets of twins one male, one female from noble families would end up together. Look at Gurun later in the tale. He is pressured to go out and find a suitable noble female to marry. It just seems like the perfect match to me.
With the male twins’ branch cut off from us in the tale we never get to find out what happened to the twin boys, so I guess I’ll just keep on wondering.
Our discussion of object-oriented approaches so far has led me to examine the use of objects in Marie de France’s Le Fresne.
First of all, Fresne cannot create an identity through her actions alone. Although her behavior might be considered noble, she does not have the necessary proof that would enable her to become the king’s wife. The ring and the cloth allow her to truly act out the “noble lady” role she was born to play. It’s ironic that her mother’s attempts to name her (in giving her the ring for instance) backfire and she is named after another object instead.
Her being named after the ash tree is crucially problematic, as it is the catalyst for her rejection in favor of her sister Codre. She is not seen as fit for the wife of a king, even though she exhibits all the “noble” qualities inherent to that station. Her identity, in this case, is wrapped up with the wrong object. However, it is through objects that she gains her rightful place in society.
Because they name her after the ash tree, Fresne does not initially get a chance to claim her identity. The name “ash” becomes the thing by which people judge her. It’s interesting to note that Gurun still loves her, even though he has no way of marrying her at that point. He’s the only one who seems to look beyond both the objects and the name, loving her despite her social status.
Her private actions were not sufficient enough to create a public identity. For that, she would need evidence more substantial than mere actions. Fresne’s mother accepts her only after she has seen the ring and the silk cloth. Fresne “…brought her the ring/she examined it carefully/She recognized it very well/and the silk cloth too” (443-446). This scene shows that even her mother (who gave her the objects in the first place) cannot simply acknowledge her nobility outright.
Furthermore, when she was a child at the abbey, they “…discovered the ring/and they saw her costly, beautiful clothes/from these they were certain that she was born of noble lineage” (207-210). While her refined speech and beauty would have marked her for nobility, it was ultimately the objects that convinced people of the truth.
Today I re-read Le Fresne, and tried to pick out an object and analyze it using thing theory and also actor-network theory. However, after trying to do so, I became very confused about what exactly the difference is between the two theories.
For this example, I chose to look at the garments and the ring that Fresne’s mother gives her before her servant takes her to the abbey and leaves her in the ash tree. To me, these objects most obviously play a role in the story, so much that they are arguably just as important as the characters themselves. These objects represent more than just physical items. They, like we discussed in class, almost represent Fresne’s identity. They are also symbols of nobility and wealth, allowing those who know nothing about Fresne to at least know that she comes from a good family. Therefore, these objects clearly work as actors, considering without them, Fresne’s mother would most likely have never known that this was her daughter and the entire story would unraveled in a completely different way and consequently had a whole new set of morals, if any, in the end. I think it is fair to say that these objects “bend space around” themselves, but how is this different than thing theory? I’ve had the thought that the difference is that thing theory incorporates ideas and unpredictable actions as well as objects, but couldn’t an idea or an action not be an actor too? When trying to project these theories onto the garments in Le Fresne, I had a great deal of trouble differentiating the two, and, because they seem to have so many similarities to me, they sort of just combined themselves into one theory. I’m probably missing some very important and blatant point that would solve all of my problems, but for now I’m having trouble distinguishing the theories.
Marie de France’s Le Fresne was definitely my favorite reading this week. The story flowed very well and was beautiful to read but I did have several problems with it as a whole.
My first problem was with the punishment of the mother who had foolishly misjudged her neighbor and had to pay for her spiteful slander when she gave birth to her own set of twins. The mother was not a likeable character to me and I wish she had been more appropriately punished. Marie de France really never revealed whether or not the mother grieved over the child she abandoned. She slandered her neighbor, contemplated murdering her child, and then abandoned it, instead, yet she walks off into the sunrise with a happy ending and a forgiving husband. All of this seems a bit too unrealistic to me.
I also battled with the hefty importance that was placed on being born of a noble blood line. I realize that this was an accepted notion of the time period but it is still hard for me to grasp. Fresne was depicted as a beautiful woman with a kind heart but her marriage to Gurun still couldn’t be accepted simply because she couldn’t prove noble birth. I absolutely hated this idea as well as the idea that Fresne was born with “noble” blood that allowed her to conduct herself in the manner in which she did. Noble blood obviously did not help her mother when it came to being cruel to her neighbors.
Another problem I encountered was with the nuns whom we hear very little out of. I wondered why exactly they allowed Fresne to run off with a man she wasn’t married to. Gurun was generous enough to donate them money, but they shouldn’t allow their morals to simply be bought. I thought that maybe they had no say so in what Fresne did but how can that be true when women weren’t allowed to make any decisions without the permission of their father, brother, or the next male of closest kin in their family?
The final problem I will harp on is the character of Fresne’s father. He just seems entirely too good to be true. He allows his wife to slander the wife of his dear friend and then he forgives her for casting his daughter out as an infant. Really? He reminds me of the clueless dad from a sitcom.