The passage from Chaucer is this one:
Yet is ther so parfit felicitee
That evere I am agast now in myn age
That I shal lede now so myrie a lyf
So delicat, withouten wo and stryf
That I shal have myn hevene in erthe here
The boys have not read the Chaucer since the summer, hence the prompt in the question. Here is the sound file of our discussion and the unaltered written text.
Read lines 430-435 in The Merchant’s Tale (Yet is ther so…. hevene in erthe here). Using both texts, discuss the implications of this idea with regards to gender in marriage.
Both Chaucer’s ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ and Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ explore the pragmatism of what is now seen as an antiquated line of thinking that would designate gender roles and stereotypes to each partner in a marriage. While Chaucer looks exclusively at the woman’s place in marriage, Ibsen does this too, while also exploring the implications of the restraints put on women in society. Ultimately, both are interesting and controversial comments on a patriarchal society that went unquestioned, accepted and promoted in the 14th century, the 19th century and some many even argue continues to be promoted in our 21st century.
The general consensus between both pieces of literature is the idea that woman is a plaything who is invariably objectified and dehumanised by men. Chaucer describes a marriage that entails a man who is able to control his wife in order to achieve a life without “wo and stryf” and a marriage that is built on the foundation of one emotion: “lust”. Januarie is constantly driven by his “Venus fyr”, and with Venus being the Goddess of fertility and sexual desire, one can assume that Januarie does not actually love his “fresshe” May. Similarly, Helmer and Nora’s marriage is not one that strikes the audience as one that is particular loving. Torvald is very much in control of his wife, and while his pet names such as “songbird” may seem as a sign of affection at first. It later transpires that these names might have a deeper metaphorical meaning, with Nora being a “bird” who is trapped in Torvald’s cage, the home, or even more broadly, the cage constraining women’s freedom in the male dominated society of the 19th century. Afterall, it is Helmer who wants Nora to dress up as a “Neapolitan fisher-girl” and dance the “tarantella”, further demonstrating that she very little control over what directly affects her.
Meanwhile, his paternalistic nature invariably makes these names more patronising and controlling. Both Januarie and Torvald expect to enjoy a marriage so bliss and easy that it can only be regarded as “hevene in erthe”. Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Awakening Conscience’ is a visual embodiment of both Chaucer and Ibsen’s writings, and depicts a relaxed, smug-looking man who is grabbing his clearly uncomfortable wife, while she looks out of the window, daydreaming of or even begging for help. One must also note that the couple are positioned by a piano, and the young girl is most likely singing for her husband, much like Torvald’s “songbird” sings for him. It seems as though Hunt’s painting suggests a marriage without “wo and stryf” for the husband creates a bleak, controlling, abusive relationship for the wife.
However, perhaps “hevene in erthe” refers to a life without worries more for the wife than the husband. In both ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ and ‘A Doll’s House’, the wife is provided with a financially stable life and relatively lenient constraint compared to the societal expectations at the time. In fact, particularly in Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ it is Nora who seems to be in control with her ability to use her sexuality and flirtatiousness to manipulate Helmer. One can assume that his willingness to give into Nora’s wishes might receive some criticism from the ‘typical’ 19th century man. In many regards, Helmer seems to provide a home and a lifestyle where Nora is as free as society would allow it, especially financially. It seems as though a life without “wo and stryf” can only be achieved through compromise, in the case of Helmer and Nora, that might be a financial compromise for his “squanderbird” and in the case of Januarie and May – a compromise concerning the birth of an illegitimate child still in May’s “wombe” that Januarie will treat as his own.
While “hevene in erthe” may appear to be in man’s total control with some influence from woman, there seems to always be an external force that disrupts the marriage and the home. It is clear that in both ‘A Doll’s House’ there is an apparent heaven on Earth, the home, and in ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ Januarie’s “gardyn” has strong parallels with the Garden of Eden and the story of Adam and Eve. If one accepts that the garden and the home are both “hevene on erthe” and places of sanctity, one mustn’t be surprised when an evil force enters each place and destroys it. Krogstad and Damyan can be seen as the satanic figures that plot the downfall of man when they infiltrate each place of safety. The iambic stress falls on the first syllable of “Damyan”, emphasising the idea of damnation and evil, while Krogstad appears as a mysterious figure who “enters” the home without anyone knowing; a figure driven by revenge and reputation, a figure who will do anything to “get to the top”. This desire to regain reputation and seek revenge deeply mirrors Milton’s depiction of Satan in ‘A Paradise Lost’. After being banished to Tartarus (Hell) he vows to seek revenge on God and bring mankind to its knees, much like Krogstad vows to rise up from the “gutter” and disrupt Torvald’s comfortable, peaceful life. It is however, in the story of Adam and Eve, ‘A Doll’s House’ and ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, the woman who gives into temptation and initiates the downfall of mankind, a sin both Nora and May commit.
Overall, a man who truly believes that a marriage without compromise and “wo” or “stryf” is simply deluded, who must be oblivious to the feelings of his wife. Such naivety invites corruption and destruction, something both Toravld and Januarie suffer. The only way to achieve an “ese” marriage according to an antiquated and misogynistic line of thinking is for the man to control the wife. These credos and ideals mirror Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘The Princess’ in which he states and “Man to command and woman to obey”. In this sense, the paternalistic nature we see from Helmer in both Act 1 and 2 begins to appear as more patronising and dehumanising. The only way for a marriage to truly be “hevene in erthe” is not, as Wollstonecraft once said, for women to “have power over men, but over themselves”.