Literary Lab 3: Reading for Genre in The Canterbury Tales

Literary genre (Chaucer and Spenser would have said “kind”) is familiar to all consumers of fiction. Netflix and Hulu organize its videos according to genre: comedy, horror, drama, action, teenage gothic love war stories, etc. Such categories change over time as writers, filmmakers, and others do things differently. Think back on your experience with entertainment and you will realize you know examples of such historical change. Genre is something we recognize when we have experienced so many examples that they begin to fall into categories. You may not have read a medieval fabliau (plural is “fabliaux”) or a romance before but the genre of the literary work you’re reading is crucial to know. For the record, The Miller’s Tale is a fabliau, a kind of comic short story built around a dirty practical joke in which certain kinds of characters get punished and others triumph according to a sense of human nature being motivated by physical appetites and competition for scarce resources. The Wife of Bath’s Tale is a romance that follows many of the tropes we say in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Genre embodies not only kinds of characters, settings, styles, and plots but also sets of values. Genre sets the ground rules and individual works launch themselves off of those rules.

In The Miller’s Tale and The Wife of Bath’s Tale, sexuality plays a primary role, whether for better or worse. In this literary lab, I want you to explore how sexuality defines the two genres (fabliau and romance) according to Chaucer. To help you think through these stories (and their prologues), consider these questions (use these to think about the text, but you don’t need to necessarily answer them in a Q&A format):

  1. Are the women in these two tales examples of the anti-feminist tradition, or do they counter it? Why do you feel this way?
  2. How does the Wife manipulate argument and textual authority? Is she justified in manipulating texts and argument in the way she does?
  3. How on target is the Wife about why so few stories of good wives exist? How does the character Alison reinforce or push back on this idea?
  4. How do you feel about the judgment the knight in her tale receives? Do we, as the audience, feel justified by his treatment? Why/why not? Similarly, do we feel that everyone got what they deserved in The Miller’s Tale?

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