Without a doubt, one of the most misunderstood characters in all of world literature is the cuckold. The root of such misunderstanding is often found in the revulsion the reader feels towards such a character. In all honesty, a character that exists solely to be humiliated hardly commandeers any sympathy particularly when they bring such humiliation upon themselves. When someone is cuckolded because they have either neglected their lover or they simply lack the will to stand up for themselves, it is doubtful the reader will have sympathy. Yet, the character of the cuckold repeatedly appears in literature.
Rarely, however, does the cuckold ever rise above his or her situation. Instead, the cuckold remains the perennial “sad sack” who is never in control of his life. While the circumstances that surround the cuckolding may changes, the character of the cuckold has a tendency to maintain similar traits. There are many different heroes, but there really is only one type of cuckold. This is evident in both Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale and in Marguerite de Navarre’s The Heptameron. Examining the presentation of this archetype in both tales reveals as much.
In The Miller’s Tale, the presentation of the cuckold is designed as an almost peripheral device. In other words, the tale does not so much seek to provide any moral judgments on cuckolding and it also does not seek to offer any psychological examination of the cuckold. Rather, the use of the cuckold is designed to set in motion the chain of events that lead to the ribald punch line that makes up the tale’s ending. This Cuckolding in Two Classic Works – Page 2 is a different approach from what is presented in The Heptameron which possesses an insight into nature.
This presentation of human nature in The Heptameron is a far cry from the lighthearted nature of The Miller’s Tale. Instead, there is a dark and ominous cloud that hangs over the heads of this work’s characters. In The Heptameron, cuckolding exists because of pure dysfunction. People who should not be in love have married and the eventual dysfunctional breakdown develops in the form of cuckolding. However, the problems have long since existed between characters long prior to the actual occurrence of the cuckolding.
That is, King Alonso quite easily seduces his subject’s wife. In turn, the subject easily seduces the Queen of Naples. These activities continue until a truly ironic event occurs. Cuckolding ceases to be cuckolding. That is, it is difficult to be a cuckold when you really do not care about your significant other. As such, there really is no cuckold in this work as much as there are characters who have the appearance of being a cuckold; or, possibly, they may have started out as cuckolds and the psychological impact cuckolding possesses simply weakens and lessons over time.
It is important to note that such occurrences reveal a decidedly dark and non-loving world. This is a far cry from the whimsy presented in The Miller’s Tale. At least in The Miller’s Tale the reader can laugh about the scenario. In The Heptameron, the reader is simply a passive observer of a rather ugly world. No, cuckolding is not anything that is whimsical. The scenarios it is connected to in The Miller’s Tale may be whimsical, but cuckolding itself never truly is. In fact, The Miller’s Tale seems to display the rage of
Cuckolding in Two Classic Works – Page 3 cuckolding within its humorous confines to a greater degree than the serious (albeit almost bored presentation) in The Heptameron. Granted, while the actions of John and Absolon are mosre humorous than distressing they do display a hidden sense of rage. While the presentation of Absolon’s violent acts is presented in such an over the top manner, the fact remains he committed an act of sodomy with an object with the intent to injure or possibly kill.
While some may consider this an overly serious description of the act, it is a description that does not deviate one iota from the actual happenings in the tale. Absolon is the “real” cuckold of the tale and not the landlord. (The landlord seems to drift towards being a peripheral character in the story) In his actions Absolon reveals the internal rage that explodes when he realizes he has been made a fool of. (Absolon’s behavior is identical to what we would call a “stalker” in modern times) When he comes to this realization, he explodes.
Yes, his actions are humorous but his state of mind is near psychotic. This is a far cry from the cuckolds in The Heptameron who seem to trudge with almost casual indifference through the narrative. While the Queen does state she truly loves the king, all the husband has to say to her is that by not sleeping with him she is making the king a god on earth. This appeals to her and she concedes. Clearly, had there been any realistic love such an easy seduction would not occur. The husband realizes there is no true love in the marriage and he easily exploits it.
In a way, the absurdity of the marriage of the King Alfonso and his wife almost reaches the level of Absolon’s actions. Cuckolding in Two Classic Works – Page 4 Cuckolds remain a bizarre archetype as they are dysfunctional in all their thoughts and actions. This dysfunction is on display in varying degrees in The Miller’s Tale and in The Heptameron. The cuckold, however, never reaches a level of sympathy in either tale.. The archetype is simply too dysfunctional to garner such sentiment.