Summary and Analysis
The Franklin's Prologue and Tale
The Franklin interrupts the Squire's tale in order to compliment him on his eloquence, gentility, and courtesy. He compares the squire to his own son, who spends his time in reckless gambling with worthless youths. The Host is not interested and tells the Franklin to get on with his tale, which he does.
Arveragus, a noble, prosperous, and courageous knight, desires a wife. He finds and marries a beautiful young maiden, Dorigen, and the two vow that they will always respect each other and practice the strictest forbearance towards one another's words and actions. Sometime after the wedding, the knight goes to England and is gone for two years. While her husband is away, Dorigen weeps, fasts, and laments his absence. In her grief, she often sits on the shore. Looking at the bare rocks near the shore, where so many lives have been lost, she becomes apprehensive for her own husband's safety.
One day, Dorigen consents to join friends on a picnic where a dance is staged. At the dance is Aurelius, "the most handsome man alive, young, strong, and wealthy . . . discreet and popular," who has secretly loved Dorigen for two years. Finally, Aurelius reveals his love, but Dorigen repudiates his advances. Aurelius becomes so despondent that Dorigen, trying to raise him from his despair, half jokingly says that she will agree to his love and embraces if he removes all the rocks from the coast of Brittany. But the task is impossible, and Aurelius returns home, elapses in despondency, and is cared for by his brother.
Aurelius remains sick for two years. Finally, his brother comes upon a way to solve the dilemma: He remembers a student who claimed to have deciphered the secret codes of magic found in rare books. Aurelius goes to the student-magician and promises payment of 1,000 pounds if his magic clears the coast of rocks. The student-magician agrees, and the deed is performed. Aurelius then asks Dorigen to keep her promise: "You made a promise which you know must stand / And gave your plighted troth into my hand/ To love me best." Dorigen, horrified and contemplating suicide, recalls for the reader twenty-one women, most of whom had taken their lives rather than disgrace themselves.
Meanwhile, Arveragus returns and finds his wife prostrate with grief. Dorigen tells him the story of her bargain, and he says she must keep her promise, even though it sorely grieves him. Dorigen presents herself to Aurelius. However, when Aurelius learns of Arveragus' nobility and sacrifice, he cannot force himself to possess Dorigen and sends the relieved lady back to her husband. Then Aurelius gathers all his gold together, only to discover that he can pay only half of what he owes the student-magician. When the student-magician learns that Dorigen was relieved of her part of the bargain, the student-magician cancels Aurelius' entire debt.
The Franklin's interruption of the Squire's tale is puzzling. That he interrupts intentionally is unlikely given that he is so complimentary of the Squire and is himself such a gentleman. It is more likely that Chaucer meant this interruption to come at the end of a tale that he had planned to complete some day.
Most of the themes and motifs introduced in the preceding tales are reintroduced in The Franklin's Tale and organized in support of the orthodox position of the Man of Law as tempered by the sensuality and worldliness of the Wife of Bath. The Franklin's position on marriage differs from the Man of Law's only in that it takes a far less austere view of this world's joys. The Franklin strives for something in between the complete sovereignty advocated by the Wife of Bath and the patience suggested by the Clerk. The marriage in The Franklin's Tale is one of mutual consent, mutual obligation, and mutual trust and faith.
The Franklin's Tale is also related to The Knight's Tale and The Miller's Tale in that all involve a three-way love affair. It is connected with The Squire's Tale in the way the Franklin insists upon complimenting the Squire, and it is related to The Clerk's Tale in emphasizing the need of patience in marriage.
The chief virtue of The Franklin's Tale is the noble spirit that pervades it and the idea that love, patience, and forbearance are the essence of love and marriage. Here we have the beautiful Dorigen who refuses to be unfaithful while her husband is away. Then we have Averagus' idea of "trouthe" (truth) and "troth" (promise and fidelity). The duty of keeping a promise even though it may be spoken in jest causes Averagus to send Dorigen to her sorrowful assignation because he is caught up in the letter of the law. Were he more informed, he would know that the rocks have not been moved at all — they only seem to have been moved — and thus the bargain has no reality or validity.
Bretons (Britouns) inhabitants of Brittany in France.
Mount Parnassus (Parnaso) home of the Muses.
Cicero (Scithreo) the Roman orator and writer.
Penmark Point Arveragus' home on the rocky sea coast.
Echo / Narcissus (Ekko / Narcisus) Echo, whose love for Narcissus was not returned; she pined for him until nothing was left but her voice.
Apollo the god of the sun.
Luna the Serene (Lucina the Sheene) the goddess of the moon.
Delphi (Delphos) the home of the oracle of Delphi, who issued prophecies.
Alnath a star in the constellation Aries.
Dorigen's Lamentations a recitation of women, most of whom took their own lives rather than disgrace themselves.