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Theory and Genre 

This page contains summaries of generic descriptions and literary theories/ideas which may be useful in evaluating and discussing the Canterbury Tales. There are direct links to this page in the left-hand navigation bar on the other pages, and from the Tales themselves to the most relevant genre descriptions. This is not, of course, intended to be definitive, but to provide an initial stimulus to thinking about the Tales in terms of theory and genre.

Genres of the Canterbury Tales

Epic | Fabliau | 'Woman in a boat' | Sermon | Saint's Lives | Fairy Romance | Breton Lay | Manuals/Didactic Treatises | Beast Fable | The Manciple's Tale | 'Fall of Great Men' | The Language of Chivalry/Romance/Courtly love

Literary theories which may be applied to the Tales

Allegory | Bakhtin & Polyphony | Bakhtin & Carnival | Carnival & Chivalry | Deferral & Difference | Liminality | Marxism | Translation in the Middle Ages | Translation as Feminising | Post-Colonialism and translation | Mythologies and Archetypes | Barthes and Mythology | Psychoanalysis - Freud and Lacan | Supplements | The 'Other' in Literature

Genres of the Canterbury Tales

Vernacular poetry was the language of narrative fiction. If Chaucer had lived today, the Canterbury Tales might have been a prose novel. Poetry was also used for historical writing, and Latin verse could be used for scientific and academic writings.
Vernacular prose was used for the writing of serious, didactic, moral and spiritual works, such as the Tale of Melibee and the Parson’s Tale.

Chaucer selected the genres of his tales very carefully, in order to match the status or occupation of the teller. However, he then develops and/or subverts the genre itself, pushing the boundaries in order to make points, comments or reflections not possible within the usual generic parameters.

Here are the main genres Chaucer uses. Some of the Tales are problematic in respect of their genre, and I have indicated some of the possibilities with a question mark. Genre is always a very fruitful means of approaching Chaucer’s style as a writer.



The epic is written in the language of ‘high style’, and is concerned with elevated and important political subjects, such as battles, countries, cities and rulers. It is also concerned with the way in which the divine operates and interferes in human affairs; humans in epic stories are manipulated by forces which they cannot control. Fate and destiny are important factors.

In epic stories, the private and the public worlds of the characters interact, and specific events are selected in order to ‘telescope’ time, heightening the drama and intensity of the story.


(Miller, Reeve, Cook, Summoner? Merchant, Shipman)

The fabliau is a relatively short, comic tale, centred around the playing of a trick. Sometimes the trickster is then themselves tricked in return.
Fabliaux usually contain elements of ambivalent violence, farce, blasphemy, sexual activity and coarse language.
The characters are usually urban bourgeois, often involving merchants. The characters are usually stereotypes – the priest, the wife, the daughter, the husband, the father, the student, the squire. It is usually the woman and/or the young man who ends up ‘on top’ at the end.

There are very few fabliaux in medival English (although there are ‘English’ Anglo-Norman ones), almost all of which are in the Canterbury Tales. The fabliau was extremely popular across Europe, and there are many examples in European vernaculars, particularly French.

‘Woman in a boat’

(Man of Law)

This is similar to the female saint’s life. A woman is put into a rudderless boat, which is steered by the power of God to distant lands. There she is unrecognized, and undergoes a series of trials, whilst preaching her faith (and maybe working some miracles). She is eventually returned by God to her own country, is recognized and restored to home, status and security.


(Wife of Bath?, Pardoner, Canon’s Yeoman?, Parson, Friar?)

This is an exposition of part of the Christian message, based upon a mixture of biblical exposition, authoritative interpretation, exempla (see below), and possible illustrations from life (or personal experience). This is didactic (that is, intended to teach), teaching moral and religious principles to the audience, in order to elicit a spiritual and moral response.

Exemplum – this is a moral tale, usually simple and readily understood, illustrating a moral and/or spiritual ‘truth’, in order to obtain a spiritual and/or moral response from the audience.

Saint’s Lives

(Prioress, Second Nun, Clerk?, Man of Law?, Physician?)

The female saint prays and witnesses for her faith, often in adverse family circumstances. She is frequently subject to unwanted marriage, or attempted marriage to a pagan. The female saint is subjected to torture and death because she refuses to denounce her faith. If married she usually converts her pagan husband.

The child saint is usually distinct from other children, hearing voices and seeing visions from God, or the Virgin Mary. The child martyr is usually the victim of some non-Christian ‘other’, such as Jews. The child is killed in a barbaric, and covert, way, then is discovered, and performs miracles after death.

Fairy romance

(Sir Thopas, Wife of Bath?)

A man is abducted or goes away with a fairy lover, who bestows on him a selection of gifts: success, military prowess, riches, supernatural power or knowledge, or superhuman abilities.
The fairy world usually interacts with the human world in the vicinity of streams, rocks or trees.

Breton Lay


A form of ‘romance’ story, originating in oral performance, with Celtic connections.

The lay is usually concerned with issues of ‘trewthe’ (or personal worth), and fidelity in relationships – family, and marriage. Issues are provided which test these qualities in the characters.

Manuals/Didactic Treatises

(Melibee, Parson, Physician?, Man of Law?, Clerk?)

These convey moral and spiritual guidance and instruction on ‘how to’ properly fulfil one’s place in society, or how to be a better Christian. Some also offer mechanical means (prayers, confession etc) along the road to personal salvation.

Beast Fable

(Nun’s Priest)

This is a story in which the main protagonists are animals. They possess a combination of human and ‘beastly’ qualities. The animals signify human beings, and the result is a moral tale, which is simple and easy to understand. The story has a moral conclusion, which seeks a moral and/or spiritual response from its audience.

The Manciple’s Tale

This is a form of beast fable or exemplum, which would nowadays be termed a ‘just so’ story. It explains how and why as aspect of a particular animal’s behaviour or appearance is what it is. In this case, the story tells ‘how the crow got its black feathers and its raucous voice’.
This is the type of story with which a ‘churl’ might be familiar in Chaucer’s day, but the Manciple uses his educated and slippery tongue to manipulate it into a much more complex, multi-layered and multivalent story.

‘Fall of Great Men’ (de casibus illustriorum virorum)


This describes the fall of individuals who have attained power, riches and/or worldly success. They rise to the top of Fortune’s wheel, and then they fall off. Their sufferings and the drama of this fall (suddenness, reversal of circumstances) are emphasized, often quite melodramatically.

The language of Chivalry/Romance/Courtly Love


This language is:

  • Affective - verbs of feeling
    Gestures are often exaggerated and stylised to show this eg. crying, swooning.
  • Descriptive - detailed descriptions, often rich, of people and things - loves spectacle.
  • Values the outward display of status.
  • Based on social class, the right upbringing or ‘nourriture’, and being ‘gentil’.
  • Violent and conflictual, always pursuing an individual’s honour.
    ‘ The honourable man must demonstrate his honour continually before his peers, and this in turn often involves challenging the honour of others.’ J. Barnie, War in Medieval Society: Social Values and the Hundred Years’ War 1337-99 (London, 1974), p.75.
  • Personalised and possessive - me, my, he, his.
  • Endows reality with a ‘game-like’ quality; the importance of etiquette, or imposing rules on all forms of social and interpersonal activity.

Literary theories which may be applied to the Tales

Allegory | Bakhtin & Polyphony | Bakhtin & Carnival | Carnival & Chivalry | Deferral & Difference | Liminality | Marxism | Translation in the middle Ages | Translation as Feminising | Post-Colonialism and translation | Mythologies and Archetypes | Barthes and Mythology | Psychoanalysis - Freud and Lacan | Supplements | The 'Other' in Literature


Allegory is primarily a rhetorical device, used extensively by writers, and popular with audiences, in the Middle Ages. Simply and basically put, it is the art of using one thing to mean another.

The use of allegory was recommended by St Augustine of Hippo, one of the most important authorities for biblical and literary study in the medieval West, including England. In his book De Civitate Dei (On the City of God) - completed in AD 426 and a classic in the Middle Ages, Augustine compared the city of Rome with the kingdom of God, and popularised the use of allegory, especially when related to spiritual subjects. His other great work was the De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Doctrine), completed in AD 427.

In City of God, Augustine developed the ideas put forward by Cicero in his Republic, written in 54BC. Cicero compared the state of Rome to a beautiful painting, which had lost its beauty through the neglect of its citizens. He then attempts to show how the ‘painting’ may be restored, by using the idea that musical harmonies represent the harmonies of different elements within the State - Rome must be restored by recreating this musical harmony.

Augustine took this image of the ideal republic, and showed that it had, indeed, never existed. The ideal republic became an allegory (an ironic one) of the state which actually did exist. For Augustine, the ideal which Rome should have been is that which the Christian faith will build. The ideal Roman empire, therefore, becomes an allegorical representation of the kingdom of God, which will be revealed in its full glory at the end of time (as given in the Book of Revelation). Augustine encouraged readers and preachers to find the ‘hidden’ meanings in biblical texts, to find a spiritual meaning for all the events recorded in the Old Testament, in particular. This not only helps a person to understand, but is also beneficial in everyday life, helping them to think and act justly in other political, social and personal relationships. This ‘journey’ into the meaning of texts helps the individual to understand themselves - it is a kind of pilgrimage, in fact. It also helps them to understand others, and to learn more about God and the meaning of life (just like pilgrimage). In this way the City of God, whose representatives form the Church, is strengthened. A preacher’s audience will be drawn from all walks of life, will have differing sets of relationships, and a differing level of intellectual knowledge. It is the work of the preacher to find all the interpretations which are appropriate to all of these levels, and to apply them for their own benefit, and the benefit of their audience.

Thus, Augustine linked allegorical interpretation to composition - encouraging writers to ‘build in’ the possibility of allegorical interpretation into their works. This approach eventually gave rise to writers who did this, and to audiences who became sophisticated in the application of two or more meanings to a text. This resulted in ‘an amazing flourishing of political allegory, intricate in its verbal codes, powerful in its social ramifications, dangerous, and difficult to control.’ A. Astell, Political Allegory in Late Medieval England (Ithaca and London, 1999), p. 21.

Bakhtin and Polyphony

Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) was a Russian scholar, persecuted by the Stalinist régime, whose works were largely unknown outside Russia until the 1970’s.

He identified language as an area of social conflict, especially in what he termed ‘the novel’ - a work in which different voices, all privileged equally, vied with one another to be heard. They could either challenge, or be equally as valid, as the privileged voice of a narrator. As examples, Bakhtin cited Tolstoy (monologic, with the narrator especially privileged - i.e. his view is seen as universal) and Dostoevsky (heteroglossic or polyphonic, with each voice of equal importance, the narrator being simply one of many voices). The Canterbury Tales may be seen as an example of polyphony, with many voices speaking, none of them with special privilege (or are they?). Bakhtin maintained that the novel had existed since classical times, but only in the Renaissance was its potential fully realised. (Does this make Chaucer ‘Renaissance’ or ‘Medieval’ man?)

Most genres arose among the upper classes, but the novel was a genre of the middle class. What is important in the novel is not what we are told about a character, but the way in which that character is addressed. Power in the polyphonic novel is relativised by being addressed, that is, it is not automatically possessed by the narrator, whose view is ‘all there is’ - different characters within the novel are constantly challenging the power claimed by others (including the narrator, who is only a challenger and a claimant), and claiming it for themselves. This polyphony at work in a novel (or other sphere of art or of society) works within a system (literary or otherwise) to reveal its limits, and the constraints which it imposes. ‘Carnival’ is an example of polyphony, which occurs in the ‘public square’, just as the novel takes place in the ‘public sphere’ of the reading, writing and talking middle classes.

The epic (aristocratic and monologic form) exists in cyclical time, but the novel exists in linear time; that is, it moves from a past, to the present, into the future. For example, the medieval Church taught that time began in the garden of Eden, moved through human history, and would end with the renewal of the universe as a second Eden - it therefore moved in a circle. The classical idea of epochs, in which time went round and round in recurring cycles, was another example of this. Bakhtin said that the novel and carnival culture (and literature) were opposed to this idea, being centred on the ‘real world’ of the ‘here and now’.

Bakhtin and Carnival

Mikhail Bakhtin was fascinated by the works of the French sixteenth century author Rabelais. He maintained that the ideas and images Rabelais used in books like Gargantua and Pantagruel were inherited from a subversive, carnivalesque, unofficial (or semi-official) culture of the Middle Ages. These are some of the main features of his ‘Carnival culture’:

A world of humorous forms and grotesques opposed to the official, serious tone of feudal and ecclesiastical culture; laughter opposed institutionalised fear.

Does away with the division between actors and spectators - the audience are part of the spectacle.

In the dominant, official world-view all is stable, unchanging, perennial; moral values, norms and prohibitions are sanctified by the past. This is opposed by the festive character of the marketplace.

All heirarchical precedence is suppressed; the use of marketplace speech and ‘free and frank’ gestures.

The laughter is not that of individuals, but of ‘all the people’; it is ambivalent, at the same time mocking, deriding, gay and triumphant. It asserts and denies, buries and revives, all at once; it is directed at the participants and the audience.

The ambivalent laughter of the people exresses the point of view of the whole world; those who are laughing also belong to what they are laughing at.

It parodies official language, especially that of the Church and religion; uses profanities and oaths, which are excluded from officially-sanctioned speech; oaths are usually in the name of Christ and the saints, and body parts.

Uses the grotesque body. This is a universal, representative body, not an individual one; it is an unashamedly earthly body; it is the collective body of all the people, and can be related to natural phenomena like mountains, seas, heavens etc. Its body parts can be separated and exist on their own. Particular stress is laid on the mouth, nose, and anything below waist level.

Excrement and fertility are linked, so are the mouth, stomach and genitals. The mouth and lower body devour and give birth at the same time, hence the importance of images of food and eating, defecation and urinating; sadness and food are incompatible.

Beatings and dismemberment of the body are also ambivalent - it is not an individualised body.

Time is devalued by official culture, especially the church, so carnivalesque stresses the importance of the present, and time passes in the present. There is no totality of time, as in theology and the teachings of the Church.

Carnival and Chivalry

Carnival is contrary to the nature of chivalry, the discourse of the cultured and the aristocratic, to which all who had any social pretensions aspired, even if they were not themselves knights.

Chivalry is a result of the correct education and upbringing, resulting from social position and birth, but carnival stresses the fact that all are equal, and act according to their (animal) nature.

Chivalry idealises the body of the lover and of the beloved, but carnival stresses, even accentuates, its natural shape and functions, especially eating, belching, urinating and defaecating. It highlights the mouth and genitalia, which are ‘veiled’ and ‘romanticised’ by courtly love literature. In carnival, these organs simply take in and pass out various objects and substances.

Chivalry regulates the whole of life and love by codes of conduct, such as courtly love which regulates contact (even illicit contact) between the sexes, the chivalric code which regulates war, and associated codes for tournaments and hunting (‘pretend’ and ‘practice’ war), and the ‘good manners’ which control social intercourse with one’s equals or betters. Those of low status don’t matter, and the codes don’t apply in dealing with them, of course. Carnival does away with these rules, and revels in excess and in the pleasure of excess, which entails a total lack of control. Carnival characters do what they want, without reference to any moral or authoritarian rules or codes of behaviour. Carnival replaces the language and rules of courtly love with sex for its own sake (‘swyve’ translates simply ‘fuck’).

Deferral and Difference

Both of these terms were used by Derrida to describe the construction of meaning.

Differance refers to the way in which meaning is not fixed or finite, but is constructed as a result of the continual acceptance and rejection of possibilities, which in turn creates further choices. In the case of film, an audience (you or someone else) continually propose possibilities from what you see (action, image, sequence and placing of these etc), adding and subtracting possible meanings from this, thus creating further possibilities for selection in the same way.

Deferral -

Meanings are continually being deferred, and other possibilities presented. In film, this is important in the operation of genre and its expectations. The genre leads to an expectation - ie that the villain will be killed at the end of an action adventure such as Robin Hood - but this event, although expected, is deferred, and other possibilities raised, before it actually happens (or in some cases, doesn't happen).

The very act of deferral - that is, postponing meaning, creates a danger that one of the other possibilities raised may be chosen.


(Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (London,1969), chapter on ‘Liminality and Communitas’, pp.94-130)

Rites of passage accompany every change of place, state, social position and age.

Three stages:

1. Separation. Detachment from set position in the social structure, or a set of cultural conditions, or both (ie. from the ‘communitas’).
2. Margin (limen). Characteristics are ambiguous, as the subject passes through a cultural realm that has few or none of the attributes of his/her past or future state.
3. Aggregation. The subject passes back into a fixed state and is expected to comply with cultural norms and ethical standards relating to her/his new position.

Liminal (threshold) people are neither here nor there - their indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols, perhaps also fetishes (a fetish = something irrationally reverenced, or an object or part of the body which abnormally serves as a stimulus to, or is itself the end of, sexual desire). It can be likened to death, the womb, darkness, bisexuality, wilderness, or an eclipse of sun or moon.

Liminal people may possess little or nothing, possibly strips of clothing, or may be naked. Also may wear distinctive, special clothing associated with their liminal state. Their behaviour is usually passive or humble, must accept arbitrary punishment without complaint. They are made uniform, and among themselves they develop intense comradeship and egalitarianism.

The passage from lower to higher status is through a ‘limbo of statelessness’.

The liminal person is a blank slate on which is inscribed the wisdom or knowledge of the group. They have to be shown that they are clay or dust, whose form is imposed on them by society. Sexual continence often marks the undifferentiated character of liminal people, as they are isolated from kinship, which is the basis of social grouping. They are subject to more than human powers; liminal situations and rôles are often associated with magico-religious properties. The liminal person is therefore dangerous, polluting, inauspicious, because all sustained manifestations of ‘communitas’ must be hedged around with prescriptions, prohibitions and conditions.

Liminal people fall in the interstices of the social structure, are on its margins, or occupy its lowest rungs.

Some groups, like monks and other religious, are in a permanently liminal state.


Based on the ideas of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), marxism alleges that all literature, and critical approaches, are based upon principles of class, and act in the interests of the bourgeois ideology prominent at the time of composition. This means that writing is a political and social, as well as an artistic and intellectual act.

Central to all of this activity is the means of production - how a society, or a group within society, organises the production of what is neccessary to that society, or group’s, survival. On top of this, the society produces a culture - ideologies, myths, art, religion, political systems etc. - the ‘superstructure’. Marxism thus approaches literature historically and politically, seeing it as a manifestation of the struggle between the ruling ideology and the unprivileged.

Pre-eminent in Marxist criticism is the writing of György Lukàcs, who propounded the ‘reflection theory’. This maintains that writing should reflect the social reality surrounding the text: it should reflect the essence of that society. It should reflect the objective world of its time and place in detail, and also the essential nature of all types of relationships. It should show history in motion, the essence of social tensions, and the ‘true’ nature of change. Marx and Engels believed that history was a linear, not a cyclic process, and that historical movement was ‘progress’, which would eventually lead to a working-class revolution as the prelude to a classless society. Anything contrary to this ‘whole view’ is seen (and examined) as an aspect of capitalism.

Another important Marxist, connected with the French School of post-structuralists, was Louis Althusser. Althusser maintained that the dominant class perpetuated itself by the use not only of ideology, but of language and discourse. Thus writers are trapped within the dictates of this ideology, and the contradictions used to maintain the privileged ideology must be identified in order to see the ‘truth’ of the text ( for Marxist feminists, this is what the Wife of Bath is doing). Althusser’s successors carried his ideas further, using them to identify the use of language in the perpetuation of the dominant bourgeoisie in the French school system. Many of these used Althusser’s theories in association with those of Michel Foucault, who showed (in Birth of the Clinic) that language could exist before an institution, and the birth and development of an institution could be determined by language (i.e. the ‘clinic’ was created and shaped by the language used by doctors).

Translation in the Middle Ages

When medieval people translated texts from other languages, what were they doing?

There were several views of translation:

1. Translation widened the available audience for works of recreation and of instruction. French literature was very fashionable, so this could be made available to those who couldn’t manage the language well enough to read the texts. By the later Middle Ages, this meant most people below the ranks of the aristocracy; although the aristocracy continued to prefer French material up to the end of the century, the gentry preferred to read in English by the middle of the fifteenth century, and the urban élites also preferred their literature in English. From Henry V onwards, royal sponsorship of the English language and the development of literary ‘style’ in English aided these developments. The translation of Latin works of spiritual, moral and technical instruction made these available to the same audience. Another factor was the growth of recreational reading in the later Middle Ages, and the availability of a certain amount of personal wealth which could be devoted to it (and the will to do so, of course).

2. Translation as theft. In this case, it was a question of stealing another culture’s intellectual property, in order to enrich one’s own. This is important in post-colonial theory (see below).

3. Translation as imperialism. This was true of the English occupation of France in the early ifteenth century. The translation of French originals signified that they, their culture and their country had been absorbed by the conquerors who were occupying the land. This is also true of the Arthurian legend - taken by the English from the Welsh, and absorbed into their own culture. At the same time (1295-) the English cease to speak of Wales as a separate country.

In the Middle Ages, translation did not mean the same as it does today. The translator took the material of the original, but did not attempt to reproduce it in his/her own language as close to the original as possible. The translator took the material, then remoulded it into something which still resembled the original, but which could be significantly different in content and in tone. This was still ‘translation’. An example would be to take a cooking-pot, reduce it to its original clay, then to mould it into another cooking pot, but one which looks very different and might be used slightly differently, but is still a cooking pot, and still made from the same clay.

Translation as Feminising

Translation feminises the intended audience, as it implies that the translator, and those who can read in the original language, are somehow superior than the prospective audience, who need the works to be translated for them. They are therefore educationally, and probably socially, inferior. This works in a gendered way, as texts were first translated into French for women and girls (because they did not go to grammar schools to learn Latin), and then into English for them (because they no longer understood French - or they were socially inferior to those women who did understand French). We know now that this was sometimes a constructed difference - there were women translators in later medieval England. Some translated from French (such as Dame Eleanor Hull) but some could also translate from Latin (such as Lady Margaret Beaufort, niece of Henry VI and mother of Henry VII). Some of the book commissions made ostensibly for male members of the aristocracy were probably actually for the use of their wives, and other female members of the family.

Post-Colonialism and Translation

Post-colonial theory originated in the study of translations from English by members of communities subjected to British imperial rule - India during the Raj, for example. These translations were a way of taking something from the conquerors and turning into one’s own, by interpreting it according to one’s own language and culture, and writing it in one’s own vernacular. Since 1066, the English vernacular had been subjected to the French (for fashionable recreational and historical reading) and the Latin (works of instruction and of intellectual and scientific learning, chronicles and, of course, the bible). This cultural imperialism of Latin and French has led to post-colonial interpretations of medieval writers in English, and translation in particular, and can be applied to Chaucer, the Gawain-poet, Malory, Lydgate and all the writers who produced English versions of French or Latin works in later medieval England. It is a form of the ‘translation is theft’ idea, which was much more satisfying if the ‘victim’ was one’s old enemy and close neighbour, whose vernacular culture was much better established and was an object of envy.

Mythologies and Archetypes

The mythological approach to literary criticism is based upon the assumption that animals (in the widest sense) are all born with inbuilt instinctive reactions to certain forms of external stimulus. Thus baby chickens will not react to the imitation of birds flying overhead, but will run for cover immediately if the simulated bird is a bird of prey. It is these inbuilt reactions and responses which are termed myths. In human, literary terms the motifs and images which produce them are known as archetypes. The form of these differs according to culture, but myths are, in their basic form, universal. For example:

Water symbolises life, death and resurrection, timelessness and eternity, spiritual mystery and uncertainty, infinity and the unknown, helplessness (the sea);
cleansing, birth and rebirth, the flow of time (into eternity or the sea), the physical birth of deities, sex (the river).

The Circle sybolises wholeness, unity, eternity - it is also represented as the snake which bites its own tail, the ring.

Colours - red symbolises blood, savagery, slaughter, sacrifice, disorder, passion, the power of the female (regeneration - menstrual blood); black symbolises darkness, chaos, the unknown, melancholy, evil, orgasm and loss of self-control; blue symbolises purity (in a spiritual sense, faith and truth - often in association with white, which is its opposite in the spectrum - hence the juxtaposition of blue and white in detergent adverts, as blue makes white look whiter. White is mutivalent (it has different meanings), and can mean positive things like purity, innocence, enlightenment, timelessness, or negative ones like terror, fear of the supernatural (hence the ghost in the white sheet) or inscrutible, inhuman truth (such as the purity of the divine, which inexorably judges the human - the whale in Moby Dick or the shark in Jaws, for example, again associated with blueness, and the sea) - white being, of course, not a colour at all, but the absence of colour. White can also be associated with a basic lack of humanity which we would recognise as evil and threatening (such as the albino vicar in Jamaica Inn).

Myth criticism is popular with some feminists in that they recognise reactions to ‘the archetypal woman’ figure, but is very unpopular with feminists who believe that gender is constructed by those who hold power in a patriarchal society. Most critics would say that whether an image or motif functions as an archetype or not depends upon its context.

Barthes and Mythology

Roland Barthes took the structuralist idea of signification (see Structuralism and the French School) and applied it to mythologies. He maintained that an image is produced (his example was a French soldier of colour, dressed in uniform saluting the tricoleur, which he found in a news magazine), which is then invested by the viewer/reader with all the ideology which has been historically created in the reader’s society, and has been implanted culturally within that reader’s mind. In the case of his French soldier, this meant nationalist ideologies invested in the French flag, military ideologies invested in the uniform and the salute, and imperial ideologies invested in the soldier’s colour - not to mention, of course, the culturally implanted impact of his maleness.

Psychoanalysis - Freud and Lacan

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) concentrated his research upon the unconscious elements of the human psyche. He concluded that most of the individual’s thought-processes are unconscious. The most important psychic force in this unconscious is libido, or sexual energy. Freud then suggested that many sexual desires, impulses and memories are repressed by the human consciousness, because of the strong social taboos which operate upon them.

The foundation of Freud’s theories runs thus:

There are three zones of the human psyche:

The id is the reservoir of libido, and it functions to fulfil the pleasure principle. Basically, this means fulfilling the individual’s instinctual needs, or fulfilling their desires - eg the desire for sexual gratification, the pleasure of eating certain types of food, the urge to dominate and have power over others. This is lawless, amoral and asocial (it exists to satisfy ME, does exactly as it likes, and makes up the rules as it goes along).

The ego exists to ‘put a brake’ on the id. The ego ‘stands for reason and circumspection’, says Freud. Some of it is subconscious, but much of it is conscious, and includes the power of reason.

The superego protects society, rather than the individual, from the consequences of the rampant id. The superego arrests and pushes back into the unconscious all the desires and functions of the id which are destructive of, or offensive to, society as a whole. It is, therefore, an instrument of repression, motivated by social considerations. An overactive superego creates a guilt complex.

The ego interacts with the superego and the id to keep the individual in a healthy balance, so that neither the ‘beast’ nor the ‘extreme social conformist’ wins out.

Two controversial theories stemming from this are Freud’s theory about dreams, which assigns a symbolic, sexual meaning to physical objects - eg water represents the womb, flying birds represent the sexual act, snakes represent ......etc, etc., and his theory of child psychology.

During the early period of his/her development, a child passes through phases of erotic development based upon the erogenous zones (places in which sexual force is located) - oral (eating) anal (expulsion of waste) and genital (reproduction). If any of these developments is obstructed or otherwise interfered with, the resulting adult will have a personality which is warped in some way. At around the age of five, the child develops an Oedipus complex. This means that a boy will begin to become a rival to his father for the affection and attention of his mother (hence the urge to ‘kill his father and marry his mother’). The boy thus develops an ambivalent relationship to his father (whom he reveres, resembles yet wishes to oust). This also results in fear of castration and hostility to authority, which represents the position of the father.

Jaques Lacan

Lacan refined Freud’s theory of childhood. He identified a child’s development as having a social, and a pre-social, Oedipal and pre-Oedipal, phase. The chief early development of a child occurs when he sees and recognises his own image in a mirror. Lacan called this the ‘mirror phase’. This is the point at which the child, who has previously existed in his own private world, encounters society, or the world of the symbolic order (language), for the first time. As the male child enters the symbolic world, he begins to reject the female, represented by his mother, and to identify with the male. In the symbolic world, everything is separate - conscious and unconscious, self and other, and ruled by the Law of the Father. That is, it is phallocentric. The entry into the phallocentric universe by females is difficult, and only partial, as the female retains her identification with the pre-Oedipal world of the Mother. Because the woman looks into the ‘mirror’ and sees that she has no penis, she needs to gain a ‘surrogate’ one by attaching herself to a male. The lack of a penis in woman gives rise to castration anxiety in the male.

Supplements (Derrida)

The idea of the 'supplement' dates from the Enlightenment period (late 17th, 18th century), when literary theorists believed that there was a central system of beliefs and attitudes to which everything else was supplementary, or marginal.

This was challenged by theorists such as Derrida, who maintained that there is no 'central' system of ideas or attitudes, until it is chosen and MADE central. That is, it is PRIVILEGED by some individual or group, for a reason or reasons. The rest then becomes supplementary - that is, it is deliberately marginalised.

In the case of a book, choices of this kind are obviously being made in the way in which the material is presented, the subjects and images chosen, the lines delivered (and what is left out - what remains is paradigmatic, the result of deliberately leaving out something else).

But BE CAREFUL - remember, there is more than one point of view at work - the audience is also making choices, and you, as a member of that audience, are doing so.

How do we position the privileged centre and what do we make supplementary? Is it the same as the writer? Is it the same for the audience – for different sections of the audience, who may have their own viewpoint (for example, according to gender or social position).

Remember, also, that the supplementary (eg the woman?) is often seen as dangerous, polluting and Other.

The 'Other' in Literature

There are two opposing entities: Self (we, us)
Other (those we perceive as different from us)

The Other is not usually named, but is categorised.

The Other can also be ‘ the other me, the one I wish to suppress, or the one I feel I do not know.’


The Other is strange, superior, beautiful.

It may be devalued, but eroticised and envied at the same time. The Other may accept devalued status, suppressing differences.

The Aristocratic World
The Churl's World
The Clerk's World
The Townspeople's world
A Woman's World
Chaucer and his world