Gower and Chaucer on Pain and Suffering: Jephte's Daughter in the Bible, the 'Physician's Tale' and the Confessio Amantis.

Yeager, R.F

Gower and Chaucer on Pain and Suffering: Jephte's Daughter in the Bible, the 'Physician's Tale' and the Confessio Amantis.

Yeager, R.F. "Gower and Chaucer on Pain and Suffering: Jephte's Daughter in the Bible, the 'Physician's Tale' and the Confessio Amantis." In Knowledge and Pain. Ed. Cohen, Esther, and Toker, Leona, and Consonni, Manuela, and Dror, Otniel E. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2012, pp. 43-62. ISBN 9789042035829

The Biblical version of the story of Jephte and his daughter, Yeager notes, contains little register of emotion--a bare reference to the father rending his garments, which in context might indicate either his horror or his grief--and the loss that is foregrounded is less that of her life than that of her inability ever to bear children. Yeager examines the brief allusion to the story, as an analogue to Virginia's plight, in Chaucer's 'Physician's Tale' and both Gower's retelling of the story in the CA and the accompanying illustration in Pierpont Morgan Library MS M.126 in order to define the very different sense of both loss and pain in the medieval versions. Chaucer's is made problematic by the possibly conflicting purposes of the Physician and the poet, but the description of the two characters' reactions in the key scene reveals an interest in their pain and suffering as "worthy of exploration" (51) in themselves, and consistent with that purpose, Virginia's evocation of her predecessor highlights both her innocence and her powerlessness, as she is not given the period of reprieve in order to bewail her loss. Gower's too has two narrators, Genius and the poet. For Genius, it is a tale of sloth in love, and he makes little more of the daughter's feelings than the biblical account. In her plea for time in order to "bewepe / Hir maidenhood, which sche to kepe / So longe hath had and noght beset / Wherof hir lusti youthe is let" (CA IV.1565-68), he finds an appeal to a "peculiarly modern-seeming, existential angst" for which he invokes Kafka as a model: "Jephte's daughter's tragedy in Gower's hands share elements with Gregor Samsa's: following the best social code, she has preserved her virginity as her years mounted toward a marriage and motherhood that, suddenly and irrationally, are snatched beyond her reach, leaving her body transmogrified and her self without purpose" (53). In their separate reactions to what the father must do in the lines that follow, each also "raises unavoidable questions about the purposes, if any, of suffering, in a universe that may or may not be just" (54). The illustration in the Pierpont Morgan manuscript is equally alert to the "larger, polyvalent exploration of suffering, both overt and suppressed" of Gower's tale and the "emotional complexity" of the father's situation (55). Both Chaucer and Gower thus demonstrate a keen understanding of suffering that goes beyond mere bodily pain. Their works, Yeager concludes, "manifest a developing social awareness of the emotional as a broad landscape, dim as yet but noticeably broadening, and deepening to account for complexity of feelings irrelevant to questions of sin and salvation yet too intense, and too universally present, to be left any longer unexplored in art" (57). [Copyright. The John Gower Society. JGN 32.1]


Gower Subjects
Manuscripts and Textual Studies
Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Confessio Amantis