Narration in Two Versions of "Virginius and Virginia."

Spearing, A. C.

Narration in Two Versions of "Virginius and Virginia."

Spearing, A.C. "Narration in Two Versions of 'Virginius and 'Virginia'." Chaucer Review 54 (2019): 1-34. ISSN: 0009-2002.

Throughout a body of work that spans many years, A.C. Spearing has brought more clarity to elements of medieval narrative than anyone else. His expressed purpose here is to reconsider Gower's "Tale of Virginius and Virginia" and Chaucer's "Physician's Tale" alongside "modern interpretations of them, in the light of the relation between medieval narrative and modern narrative theory" (1, abstract). That being a task too large for a single essay, however substantial--Spearing has indeed more than one book on this subject--his discussion soon narrows to focus on identifying the narrator of the two tales. His particular "bĂȘte noire" is the "unreliable narrator," a concept "first formulated in 1961" (3). This, he emphasizes, developed as an element in "post-1700 novels and short stories" (3) and hence is inconceivable as a device employed by medieval writers like Gower and Chaucer: "it is not part of the regular equipment of medieval poets but rather an unhistorical projection by modern medievalists" (4). "Unhistorical" is a key word here, as Spearing makes plain, noting "we should be scrupulous in distinguishing, as far as we can, between what we see in medieval texts and what we believe medieval tellers and readers might have seen in them" (7). Indeed, Spearing argues that for Gower and Chaucer stories found in sources were "history," and so thought factual--what was reported actually happened. This was especially true of classical sources like Livy, who first tells of Virginius and his daughter (and whose version Gower probably knew and used); details of the "plot" found there could not be substantially altered, although they might be embellished or downplayed here and there. In an extended argument, Spearing asserts that the "narrative I" present in the "Physician's Tale" is not the Physician but Chaucer himself (17-33), and that in Gower's "Virginius and Virginia," where the first-person pronoun is not used, the narrator is not Genius, nor the fictional "Amans/Gower" who presumably narrates the frame tale of his experience, but can only be the poet: "the creator of this subjectless subjectivity is the reteller of the story, John Gower" (11) As Spearing sums it up, "My argument is only that neither [Gower's nor Chaucer's tale] benefits by being understood as told by an unreliable narrator, and my aim has been not just to offer one more interpretation of each work but to investigate some principles on which interpretation might be based." Central to those principles is the idea that "greater attention [should be shown] to medieval assumptions about the retelling of old stories" (34). [RFY. Copyright. The John Gower Society. eJGN 38.1.]


Gower Subjects
Confessio Amantis
Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations