The Canterbury Tales By Geoffrey Chaucer Summary and Analysis The Physician's Tale

Summary

Virginius, a knight, has only one child, Virginia, whose beauty is beyond compare and who is endowed with all the other noble virtues. One morning, in town, a judge named Apius (or Appius) catches sight of the daughter, is smitten by her beauty and purity, and determines to have her at any cost. He sends for the town's most disreputable blackguard, Claudius, and pays him to take part in a scheme to capture the girl.


In court before Judge Appius, Claudius falsely accuses Virginius of having stolen a servant girl (Virginia) from his house many years ago and keeping her all these years, pretending that she is his daughter. Before Virginius can defend himself, the evil judge orders that the young girl be brought immediately to the court. Virginius returns home and calls his daughter into his presence. She must, he says, accept either death or shame at the hands of Claudius and Apius. Virginia tells her father: "Blessed be God that I shall die a Maid (virgin), / I take my death rather than take my shame. / So do your will upon me ("Blissed be God, that I shal dye a mayde! / Yif me my deeth, er that I have a shame; / Do with youre child youre wyl"). Then she faints, and her father "smote off her head." Virginius returns to the judge and hands him Virginia's head. The judge orders the knight hanged for murder, but a throng of citizens, aroused by the Apius' treachery, imprisons the judge. Claudius is to be hanged, but the knight pleads mercy and suggests exile instead.

The Physician concludes his tale with the moral that "the wages of sin is Death" and let everyone forsake his sins.

Analysis

Many Chaucerian critics find this tale to be among the weakest, the least well constructed, and direly lacking in motivation. For some, it is part romance, part moral allegory, and part realistic horror. Viewing the tale as a moral allegory, it is the story of a man (Virginius — one who upholds purity) who, to save his virtuous daughter from a wicked judge (Appius), cuts off her head. The wicked judge hangs himself when thrown in prison, and his henchman, Claudius, and the other conspirators are exiled or hanged. The child, Virginia, represents Christian purity (virginity), and the false judge, Appius, may be identified with impurity. As a moral allegory, the tale lies in the tradition of many moral allegories of the fourteenth century. But always with Chaucer, the value of the tale lies in the narration.

The Physician introduces Virginia in highly artificial terms. Lady Nature, a personified abstraction, speaks of her marvelous construction as though Virginia were a piece of statuary, creating in the reader's mind an image of Virginia not as a person but as a wondrous figurine, artfully contrived. We do not even learn the name of this ideal person (Virginia) until line 213, about three-quarters of the way through the tale.

It tests the reader's credulity to hear of the father, who symbolically idolizes his perfect daughter, brutally cutting off her head and then, like a barbarian, taking it by the hair and carrying it to the judge. Likewise, the pleas of the daughter Virginia ring false; even though the description of Virginia's maidenly virtues and her chastity are found in many treatises on virginity, the reader should remember that these works were written by men to apply only to young women. The pathetic speech in which Virginia chooses death rather than the dishonor involved in losing her virginity can be found in many treatises of the time, but it rings false when she invokes the example of Jephtha. The significance difference between the death of Virginia and the death of Jephtha's daughter is that Virginia rejoices that she will die a virgin, and Jephtha's daughter grieved that, by dying a virgin, her life would be unfulfilled.

The tale ends in a rather sanctimonious confusion. Appius slays himself in prison. The judge's henchman, Claudius, is sentenced to be hanged, but Virginius begs for mercy — an unbelievable plea coming from a man who has just chopped off his daughter's head. Then, incredibly, we are told that the rest of the band were hanged. Where did this band come from, whose band was it — Appius' or Claudius' — and what did this band do to deserve hanging while Claudius is sent into exile? Finally, the tale concludes with a moral that is irrelevant to the tale.

Glossary

Livy Titus Livius, a Roman historian (55 b.c. to a.d. 17).

Pallas Pallas Athene, the goddess of wisdom.

Pygmalion, Zeuxis (Zanzis), Apelles Pygmalion created a statue so beautiful that he fell in love with it; Zeuxis was a fourth-century b.c. painter known for the beauty of his portraits; Apelles was a famous Jewish painter who decorated the tomb of Darius. Legendarily, these three argued over who had the best right to create Virginia's beauty.

Bacchus (Bacus), Venus Bacchus was the god of wine. Virginia had never tasted wine because it would arouse her interest in Venus, the goddess of love.

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