Narrative Viewpoint in the Nun’s Description in the General Prologue

This was one of my first essays. The assignment was:

Choose one of the following passages, and in a 2-3 pp. paper, analyze its treatment of narrative viewpoint. What is the narrative telling us about the character?  What attitude does the narrator seem to take?  In what ways does the narrative seem to incorporate the character’s own point of view?  In what ways does that complicate the narrator’s own attitude.  Illustrate your discussion by examining as many of the passage’s details as possible.

I picked the selection from the Nun’s Tale and I got a B+. I really liked that class because it forced me way out of my reading comfort zone. It’s decent.


Narrative Viewpoint in the Nun’s Description in the General Prologue

In the General Prologue introduction to the Nun, we are given what seems to be a fairly rosy view of her, despite her faults. The narrator uses telling details of the nuns activities as much as her appearance to make her personality known to us. The narrator seems more amused by the nun than offended by her faults. He uses language that doesn’t invite a harsh criticism of the nun. The narrator does not indulge in the same kind of level of free indirect discourse as is seen in the monks description in the General Prologue. We are exposed to instances of the nuns point of view through use of specific language but it is not a dramatic shifting of point of view. By not engaging in a lot of free indirect discourse as compared to other characters it simplifies the narrator’s relationship with the nun. He is more of a dispassionate outsider  in his description.

The narrative describes the nun in fairly close detail. While it the detailed  effictio of Alisoun in the Miller’ Tale, still it spends 12 lines on her appearance. It includes descriptions of her body, “For hardily she was nat undergrowe.” (156)  her clothes, “Ful semyly hir wympul pynched was,” (151) and her face, “Hir mouth ful smal, and therto softe and reed.” (153) The passage uses language that is mostly complimentary, describing the nun as “charitable” and “pitous” (143). The narrator does not shy from describing the nun as dressing and acting in ways not befitting a nun. He tells of her keeping dogs for pets (146) and of dressing in a manner more fitting for court than nunnery (157). The description also include elements that are not that flattering, like her weight and her painted face (153). These are behaviors and appearances which are not appropriate for an nun. The narrator occasionally descends into sexualized description of the nun, “Hir nose tetrys, hir eyen greye as glas, / Hir mouth ful smal, and therto softe and reed.”, but never to the degree of other travelers, like the wife of bath.

The narrator is amused by the nun. He finds her to be a flawed character like so many of his subjects, the monk and the clerk for example. The passage describes her in a clownish manner, “She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous / Kaught in a  trappe, if it were deed or bledde.” (144, 145) He is far gentler on the nun in this manner than other travelers, or maybe just less thorough. The narrator shows that the nun is concerned with matters that are not supposed to be the nuns forte, like courtly dress (157) and of matters of romantic love, “And after, ‘Amor vincit omnia.’” (162)

Again, the relative lack of indirect discourse means that the narrators position is less complicated than in other passages. In only one line does he seem to delve into the mind of the nun at all. “And al was conscience and tendre herte.” (150) is the one line that could be described as coming from the nun’s point of view. In that line we get a glimpse of how the nun views herself, and of her good opnion of her own character. While other parts of the passage certainly do give us a look at the nun’s ideas and attitudes, they come from outside observation. The narrator tells us of her keeping small dogs and feeding them tender morsels of food (146, 147), the he insures we know that her attention is on romance and not a pious attention to holy works by describing the pendant on her rosary beads (162). However the narrator does not delve deeply into the nun head the way he does in some of the pilgrims. His views of the nun are not as ambivalent as his views of others. it’s mostly positive with a bit of amusement at her dalliances into worldly pursuits.


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