Jan 16: Book of the Duchess Part 1

The forward of this section asks “Does he merely pretend to ignorance as a strategy for drawing out the ailing knight?…or, are we meant to take the dreamer’s obtuseness straight?” (5). What examples are there in the text for either argument? Further, the forward speculates Chaucer’s voice for the female characters of the story (or lack thereof). What do you make of this, given the things in Chaucer’s own life we talked about last class along with evidence in the poem?

7 thoughts on “Jan 16: Book of the Duchess Part 1

  1. The evidence for the dreamer either obtuse or tactful can go either way in this passage. The man in black makes it fairly clear that the reason he is crying with a ‘sorwe so grete woon’ is because his wife is ‘deed’ (475-80). The footnote does state that the dreamer may pretend not to get it because of a possibility of poetic convention on the part of the knight, but at the same time the man in black’s statement is so clear that that would be preposterous idea on the dreamer’s fault and would make the dreamer a very obtuse person for not understanding.

    The footnote also states that it could be tact, the dreamer doesn’t want to seem to be getting into a stranger’s business. This possibility is a much better interpretation of his response to the knight, but then also brings the question of why he doesn’t just tell him what he heard inside of trying to act obtusely with the knights analogies later in the poem. That seems even stranger considering how the dreamer says the man in black seems sad directly (547). So in this particular passage that we read, it seems that tact wouldn’t be enough of an answer to the dreamer’s obtuseness.

  2. It seems that the dreamer is truly obtuse to the situation. We know that the man in black is mourning the loss of his love because of the poem he is reciting alone in the woods. The dreamer overhears the poem and once the man in black tells him the story of the chess match, he believes he lost his queen (the chess piece). I think that we could equate the dreamer’s obtuseness with the fact that he is in a dream. Often things that would be obvious in real life are not as clear in a dream or dreamlike trance. These often represent allegories to the experiences a character is going through. I think in this case the dreamer doesn’t want to accept the loss of his own wife and so he chooses to believe that Fortune has take the man in blacks queen in chess.

    In this poem, I think the lack of female presence is purposeful. It is a poem written to mourn the loss of John Gaunt’s wife. The absence of the female voice seems to make the idea of loss more powerful. So far we have only heard about women and haven’t heard from them. It is like a veil has been put up between the reader and the women. Aside from Alcyone, Juno, and Fortune, who is portrayed as a woman, we don’t even get names. Some of this could also be equated to the dream state, where it is more mysterious to have someone be nameless as well. Chaucer wrote the poem for Gaunt though so it seems fit that it would be from the point of view of the grieving widower.

    • I think you bring up a good point when you say “things that would be obvious in real life are not as clear in a dream” – that could be a pretty handy explanation for the dreamer’s obtuseness: the fact that dreams are inherently weird and open to interpretation. It is also worth noting that the man in black seems like a ready stand in for John of Gaunt himself. Chaucer, knowing that this poem is intended as a gift to Gaunt, may have placed this misunderstanding within to allow the man in black to elaborate – but if that’s the case we could always point out that the man in black could have elaborated even if the narrator directly asked about his dead wife.

      I think there is some evidence for the narrator not wishing to pry into the personal business of the man in black (though he does anyway). By “misunderstanding” the man in black’s lament, he avoids the possibility of being seen as an eavesdropper. After the man in black shows him that he is not offended by his presence, the narrator feels comfortable enough to ask what he is lamenting, knowing that it is his wife.

  3. It is difficult to imagine that the dreamer could be so oblivious to the truth of the knight’s grief when it is right in front of him, but I agree with Regan that there is evidence to support the dreamer’s obliviousness as just that, or as a strategy. From lines 1126-1136, it seems that the dreamer is encouraging the knight to continue to tell the story of his lost love, possibly as a way of bringing the knight to a state of consolation. It’s often helpful for a person in grief to talk about the person they lost, to open up as a way of moving towards healing. By restating what the knight has already told him and asking the knight how he knew the woman loved him, the dreamer is encouraging the knight to continue his tale and to become more open about his grief. On the other hand, it would seem odd that the dreamer, at the end of the poem, appears dumbfounded about the woman’s whereabouts if he is supposed to be consoling the knight. The knight, having to proclaim to the dreamer, again, that his wife is dead seems incredibly painful to him, and not at all a way to steer the knight towards solace.

  4. The dreamer seems to grasp the perception of the situation in an obtuse manner. The moment the two begin their conversation about the loss of the knights lady there begins a certain amount of sympathy for the loss. Both appear to be able to relate to the shared feelings of what it is like to loose a loved one, and this situation parallels a conversation of what two strangers would discuss. After the knight explains his verse for why he is emotionally distraught, the speaker say “His spirits waned as one dead.”
    The absence of a female speaker represents the loss of the woman in the story. Many of the features for not including a female speaker in a story that is about the loss of a woman helps assimilate the reader to how the thoughts of the lover can not share their feelings with the one that they lost. Absence of the lost loved one helps show the grief and suffering that the Knight was going through alone, until the stranger approaches him with feelings of empathy.

  5. I think the dreamer is supposed to be confused by the allegorical explanations of the black night. He allows the knight to talk about his romance and loss of love instead of keeping his emotions bottled up inside. The dreamer serves the purpose of drawing the knight out from his reverie by asking these obtuse questions. A sense of catharsis and confession is invoked throughout the dreamer and knight’s conversation. As a reader from the modern era, the dreamer served the purpose of guide to me. He asked the questions that revealed what the knight was trying to say that I probably would not have realized until the second or third rereading because of the difference in syntax, spelling and pronunciation.

  6. I made note of both of these questions that you raise while I was reading the introduction. I’ve never read the Book of Duchess, so I entered the poem with these questions in mind. I can only speculate, but I might guess that the lack of female voice in a poem about the loss of a wife is rather not as problematic as it sounds. We must keep in mind what this poem is, the purpose it serves, and why it was written. At its core, the Book of Duchess is a poem that grips with death, but not to despair and dwell in sorrow over the dead, but rather to console those who are in mourning. This poem isn’t for the late wife; it’s for John Gaunt. His wife doesn’t have to come to grips with being dead; Gaunt does. In my opinion, taking command of her character’s voice risks comparison with her living self, and might disrespect her memory at the very worst. Instead, Chaucer sought to tell a tale in which the protagonist can stand in for Gaunt so that they may both learn to cope with death appropriately, and even find some meaning in it.

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