In both The Clerk's Tale and The Man of Law's Tale, the major female characters, Griselda and Custance, find themselves in positions of immeasurable suffering, and both meet their challenges with immeasurable virtue. These tales are meant to act as moral ones, didactic stories about the ideal behavior for dealing with human suffering. Arguments can be and have been made arguing for both Griselda and Custance as purely allegorical figures, Patience and Fortitude respectively, and while the women certainly embody the characteristics of these two qualities, such readings oversimplify and pigeonhole them too narrowly. The Clerk argues that his intention is not to present Griselda as a woman wives ought to imitate, but as a Christian soul that good Christians should be admired for her constancy to Walter no matter what befalls her. Custance also, is meant to express the ideal of Christian piety in her unconditional faith that Christ and the Virgin will help her persevere.
[...] Griselda aligned herself with Walter's will and put her faith in his decisions, and Custance puts all of her faith in Christ and the Virgin Mary. In this tale, there is a sense of fate unfolding, that Custance has little control over what happens to her, she can only drift along (and often does across vast oceans) and pray that Providence will provide for her. Her first marriage is to a Syrian Sultan, who offers to convert to Christianity for her when he hears of her virtue. [...]
[...] But even though his demand seems outrageous, to take their child away and kill her in order to appease his people, Griselda accepts without question: a lamb she sitteth meke and stille, / And leet this crueel sergeant doon his wille 538-89).” The child is sent to be raised by Walter's sister in secret, so that he might judge how Griselda reacts to the loss of her daughter. This cycle is repeated four years later with their next child, a son, and again, Griselda neither disobeys nor questions her husband's order, nor does she lessen her love for him at all. [...]
[...] / I speke in prose, and lat hym rymes make The Man of Law knows how to sound humble, but in fact, his description in the general Prologue betrays that he knows enough about words to convince of his character: semed swich, his wordes weren so wyse Helen Cooper notes a key difference in these two tellers based on a word used for both in the General Prologue: reverence. ‘Reverence' has here [in the Man of Law's description] has here a social meaning, of dignity, distinctly at odds with its last usage, seven lines earlier, where it described the respect with which the Clerk spoke: it is the difference between showing humility and requiring it in others (Cooper 44). [...]
[...] It would be simple to see Custance as a pure victim of circumstance, tossed upon the ocean's waves and made a pawn of by various angry mothers-in-law, but she does not see herself that way at all. Keiser argues that “only a heroine with such recognition, with an awareness of her own helplessness and the need to pray for grace, can be a fully satisfactory exemplar of the strength and virtue required to endure heroically in the face of misfortune.” When she is led to believe that her second husband, Alla, with whom she is very happy, wishes that she, along with their newborn son, be put back in the boat which brought her to him and sent off, Custance “nathelees taketh in good entente / The wyl of Crist 824-25).” Her faith is unbreakable, so even things that seem like the greatest betrayals. [...]
[...] The Tale ends in joy, with mother and children reunited, and a synopsis of how well the land was ruled afterwards by Walter and then his son. Griselda's patience dies with her, says the Clerk in the Envoy, and suggests that men who seek wives like her will be disappointed, as they rarely, if ever, actually exist. The Man of Law's Tale addresses a different kind of suffering woman, this time, Custance, a Christian Emperor's daughter, is passed across the globe from father to husband to a new husband, back to her homeland, and finally reunited with her second husband and her father again. [...]
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