Realism in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition

Realism in Charles Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition

Realism with its emphasis on the ordinary, mundane life of the middle class and depiction of the individuals struggle for an ethical responses to life arose as an ‘-ism’ in “the period of time from the Civil War to the turn of the century” and may be considered a response to the rapid changes in society during that period.(Campbell) It is this idea of change and the question of how one should respond correctly to it that tinges Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. Chesnutt, who passed the bar in 1887, has written a story that is the quintessential expression of Realism.

Through his careful crafting of events and characters drawn from a historic incident, he manages to depict the horror of immoral responses and the monstrous consequences that ensue from the aforementioned. Set in the south, The Marrow of Tradition has as its main characters, not senators and congressman, but a doctor, a housewife, employees of a newspaper, etc. That is, it is set squarely in the mundane.  These characters are then depicted going about their daily life. We are witness to a birth. We watch as Tom Delamere woos Clara, and fights his gambling addiction. We see Dr. William Miller navigating the strictures of an unjust law as he returns from the North. Chesnutt drags his reader through the quotidian routine of Southern life, deliberately building up his “individuals” before confronting them with “the struggle for ethical responses to life”.

The climax of this novel may be said to be the riot, a fictionalized version of the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 in which a mob went on a rampage causing the death of between 6 to 100 people. The original riot, like the fictional one, is not squashed by the government. It runs its course under the raging power of ordinary citizens in the grip of unyielding prejudice. We then have three points of “life” in the novel. There is the first one, which is the riot itself, and then the response to the riot’s aftermath. The riot, itself, is a point in relation to the white Southerners who are faced with a choice between giving into the prejudices unleashed by Captain McBane and his co-conspirators or leaving the individual accountable for the individual. That is, they have a choice between seeing individuals as responsible for their own actions, or blaming an entire group. Chesnutt depicts them as having made the wrong choice at this critical point. They give into emotions and cast reason to the winds.

The second point is in relation to Dr. William Miller, who may be seen as a symbolic representative of a specific class of blacks, ones who have not had to bear the harsh sting of racism in the form of loved one lost and who may still hold a favorable opinion towards the whites. His test comes in his response to Major Carteret’s request to aid his child. Having just lost his own child to the blind fury of rampaging mob who share commonality with Major Carteret, should Dr. William rush to aid this child? Is it ethically wrong to run his back on an innocent babe in need? Chesnutt answers this question in a unique way, reinforcing the Realism in his novel. He, again, shows us a regular, middle class individual giving into his emotions.

Perhaps, had Chesnutt ended the novel there, on such a dark note, it would have been, at the very least, cathartic. However, still working within the framework set out by Realism, he adds a third point: the reunion of the sisters. Janet, having just lost her own child and having born humiliations at the hands of Clara, chooses to forgive her half-sister, and urges her husband, Dr. William, to save the child. Chesnutt anchors this response in reality, acknowledging the pain born by this woman while at the same time allowing her to take the high ground as he writes: “…that you may know that a woman may be foully wronged, and yet may have a heart to feel, even for one who has injured her…”(195) It may be worth noting that Chesnutt makes the character who takes the moral high ground, the one who makes the right and ethical decision, a woman. Perhaps, he is toying with Realism and stereotypical European ideas of womanhood in his time, or perhaps he is hinting that “masculine”, rather than chivalric, codes of revenge will tear the world in two, leaving its burnt husk for none to enjoy.


Perdue, Theda, and Michael D. Green. The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears. New York: Viking, 2007. Print. 189 pp. ISBN: 978-0-14-311367-6

Themes of Empowerment and Victimization

The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears was written by Theda Perdue and Michael D. Green,  professors of history at University of North Carolina and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill respectively, and edited by Professor Colin G. Calloway of Dartmouth College. Both Perdue and Green have written other books. In the case of Perdue, she wrote  Cherokee Women, in which she “examine[d] the roles and responsibilities of Cherokee women during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,”(“Cherokee Women – University of Nebraska Press.”) and Sifters, a “rich collection of biographical essays on Native American women”(“Sifters”).  Green is the author of The Politics of Indian Removal, a book about the Creek Indians that is “ based heavily on a wide variety of primary sources” (“Politics of Indian Removal – University of Nebraska Press.”). It sounds like a powerhouse combination, one author steeped in Cherokee history, the other apparently knowledgeable about the politics involved in the subject. One would have hoped to be informed through first-person narratives and vivacious prose, since this is not the authors first try at writing a book and you can only get better with practice.

The Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears starts in the fourteenth century and ostensibly ends in 2005, though really it stops in the nineteenth century with a brief overview of events occurring after that point. Its focus is not on the horror of the Trail of Tears, as the title suggests, but on the politics and events leading up to this event. It utilizes a full 115 pages doing this, sparing the last 49 pages for the Trail of Tears and its aftermath. It does little to draw the reader’s attention, an appalling lapse when dealing with such an important topic, especially when it claims it is an “American story” and that “ we should make sure that it is a lesson well learned”(P. 164). If it is as important as they claim, and it is, they would have done well to make it more accessible and engaging. This is, after all, the history of the very foundation of this country and therefore the tale of where we all have come from, and, if we are not careful, the tale of where we are also heading. The point of looking into the past is not to merely spectate, it is to take admonition and learn lessons. However, as any teacher worth their salt will tell you those lessons must be made accessible to the students.

A dreary monologue on the land and its people frames the story, probably meant to draw the reader in by dropping them down in the middle of the Cherokee cosmology. It reeks of fluff, seeming more an attempt at showing the authors’ deep knowledge of the subject as opposed to the offering up of useful information. If it was meant to engender sympathy and humanize the victims portrayed later on, they would have been better served opening up with a firsthand account of the aftermath of the Trail of Tears, and then backing up to the causes leading up to what had been described. Or if they found it important to show the deep connection the Cherokee had to the land and a first-person narrative was not available, a reader might excuse them if they started off by writing “Farming in the Southeast probably began about 3000 B.C.E.”(Page. 8)

Although it does a good job at pointing out the injustices being heaped upon the Cherokees, it has an undercurrent that seems to whisper, ‘but it was their fault’. Take for instance the “group of Lower Town chiefs led by Doublehead”(p.37) who “ceded the last Cherokee hunting grounds.”(p. 37) One may well argue that  this was just a “legacy perhaps of the individualistic ethos of warriors.” However, it should be noted that in doing so blame is shifted from those trying to get their grubby hands on the land in the first place. While it is a known fact that Africans didn’t get into massive boats bound for the New World without a little help from their fellow Africans, it is something altogether different to say that the European who bought those people did so with pure intentions and clean hands, having done nothing to instigate and help along the exchange of flesh for commodities. In a similar manner, to point out the greed of certain chiefs who stupidly sold off lands their people had lived on for centuries cannot so nicely sweep under the rug the fact that the people trying to get their hands on the land did not have ‘pure hearts’. It may have been far better to point out that the people buying the land at times purchased it from short-sighted chiefs. Wording is everything.

In the end, while the information contained in the book is interesting enough, pointing out the Cherokee’s consolidation in an attempt to fight off the encroaching Americans, the publishing of their own paper, one that had “a very salutary & happy effect” (P. 76), and the humorous way they adopted what suited them when it came to “civilization”, to get to it one must wade through prose as lively as a mummy, and paragraphs whose bare starkness assault the eye. When held up to the likes of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Where White Men Fear to Tread, Mankiller, or Crow Dog this book withers. Where they paint a harsh picture of reality through vivid first-person narratives, and, yes, sometimes pictures that tugs at ones heart and makes one think, wonder, and gasp in horror, this book falls short. This could be excused as the constraints of an academic work more concerned with portraying facts, but its epilogue is a travesty. To end a tale of genocide and forced exile with the upbeat speech of some chief proclaiming, “We are not a people of the past. We are a people of the present, and for many centuries, we will be a people of the future,”(P. 164) smells like a large paint brush being brought down over the reader’s mind. “Forget what passed before,” it whispers. “They live on!”

It would be in the readers best interest to ask what kind of Nation survived into the present century? In what areas have they been completely cut off from their traditions? Where they were cut off was the loss compensated by a gain of, at least, equal proportions? How have their children’s worldview been shaped, and to what extent will that mold the future of this once proud tribe? Are they bitter, self-hating drunkards who root for the cowboys as they chase down Mexicans masquerading as Native Americans? Was this the best way to treat the themes of empowerment and victimization that it deals with?

Islām in Birago Diop’s Tales of Amadou Koumba

Islām in Birago Diop’s Tales of Amadou Koumba

This paper will consider the historical account of Islam’s spread in West Africa, pedagogical structures, ritual worship, the social institute of marriage and the place of women. It concludes with a meditation on the need for an interdisciplinary approach to Tales of Amadou Koumba.

Islam in West Africa: A Nonviolent Model of Expansion?
The character Narr the Moor in “Fari the She-Ass” is a devout Muslim, but we are not supposed to be surprised or impressed by this “since it was his duty to show himself worthy of his ancestors who had introduced Islam into the country by force”.(B. Diop 99) Similarly, in “Mother Crocodile” we are told that Islām was  spread by a bloody sword when she speaks “of the red colour of the water after the passing of the white men, who had taught the black men to bow down like them to the rising sun…”(B. Diop 47) These apocryphal accounts of Islām’s dispersal in West Africa fly in the face of historical fact. Indeed, Cheikh Anta Diop attributes the success of Islam in West Africa to “the fact that it was propagated peacefully at first by solitary Arabo-Berber travelers”.(163) This paradigm is reinforced by Sylviane Diouf, who writes that “the spread of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa followed a mostly peaceful and unobtrusive path… [being] diffused not by outsiders (except in the early years) but by indigenous traders, clerics, and rulers.”(4)

Preparatory to detailing this invasion-conversion model, Mother-Crocodile informs us of Ghanian merchants, past kings and a glorious empire, of ”Soumangourou… Soun Diata Kéita and… the empire of Mali”.(B. Diop, “Mother Crocodile” 47) One of the great Empires of West Africa was that of Mali, which had a great muslim ruler who deflated the value of gold in Egypt when he went for Ḥajj. Toyin Falola writes, “Under Mansa Musa (ca. 1312-37), Mali attained the height of its power … adding areas twice the size of the former kingdom of Ghana.”(95) Further, Stride and Ifeka credit Mansā Mūsā with being “responsible for establishing islam as the official religion of Mali cities,” and attributes his patronage of the culamā with encouraging the growth of indigenous Muslim scholarship.(52)

The Marabout: Pedagogical Structures in West Africa and Scholarship
In “The Deer and the Two Huntsmen” we are told of a marabout by the name of Serigne who “had a greater mastery of literary Arabic than any scholar of timbuktoo”(B. Diop 34). The task of preserving and disseminating knowledge (
cilm) in West Africa, as in the rest of the Muslim world, was the job of the culamā. Rudolph Ware III asserts that culamā was not the preferred term in West Africa and that a more widely used Arabic term was “mrābiṭ and its Europeanized equivalent, ‘marabout’”(78-79). The word mrābiṭ is derived from ribāṭ which has the meaning of being consistent in something, as well as guarding.(Ibn Manthūr 1561) Perhaps, this connotation is how the word mrābiṭ/marabout is to be understood. That is, these are individuals guarding the intellectual tradition of Islām, as well as its practical implementation.

In “The Deer and the Two Huntsmen” we are told of a marabout by the name of Serigne returning from Makkah who “had a greater mastery of literary Arabic than any scholar of timbuktoo”.(B. Diop 34) Timbuktu (timbuktoo), “the lodging place of the culamā (scholars) and worshippers, the abode of the righteous and the ascetics,” was the residence of “the elite amongst the culamā, pious people, and the wealthy from every tribe and land”.(Al-Sacdī 22) That Serigne is described as having more knowledge of literary Arabic than the inhabitants of this city is no small matter. Cheikh Anta Diop records the incident of an Arabian scholar who returned to Mali with Mansā Mūsā:  “He settled in Timbuktu and found this city full of Sudanese legal experts. As soon as he realized that they knew more than he in legal matters, he left for Fez, devoted himself to the study of law there, then returned again to Timbuktu to settle here.”(181)

We are further told that Serigne, who had just come back from Ḥajj, spent his time at his host “[intoning] litanies and verses of the Koran”.(B. Diop, “The Deer and The Hunstmen” 33) Serigne is a walking example of the verse: ata’murāun al-nās bi al-birr wa tansawna anfusakum wa antum tatlūn al-kitāb afalā ta
cqilūn [Do you command mankind with righteousness and forget your own selves, while you are reading the book, do you not have intellect?]. (Qur’ān 2:44) One exegete of the Qur’ān, Ibn Kathīr, records Ibn Juraij as saying about this āyah (verse), “So whoever commands good should be the severest of people in hastening to it.”(1:246)

We also find in Tales of Amadou Koumba references to the small schools scattered across the continent of Africa where foundational cilm was covered. These Qur’ān schools were run by marabout and attended by “little talibés… who beg their morning bread, their midday meal and their evening provender.”(B. Diop, “The Excuse” 27) The act of begging mentioned in “The Excuse” is termed “yalwaan (begging for food) [and] was an important part of the Qur’an school experience”(Ware III 46). Dorte Thornston writes that “education in Daaras often is free or almost free but implies that pupils –Talibés– may beg for alms”(3). Ware  III explains, “Because it was thought to produce humility and good character, yalwaan was esteemed by some teachers who did not require or even use the proceeds of the children’s quest for alms.”(47) Qur’ān schools were geared towards making functioning adults with upright morals and character.

“A Judgment” describes the importance which West African Muslims placed on their children’s education: “…in Maka-Kouli, as soon as a child could say to his mother, ‘Mama, carry me on your back,’ he was sent to school to learn the Fatiha and the other teachings of the Koran.”(B. Diop 13) This is little wonder, as one ḥadīth says: afdhalukum man tcallam al-qur’ān wa callama [the most virtuous of you are those who learn and teach the Qur’ān]. (Ibn Mājah 1:199)

Besides covering the Qur’ān, the curriculum also included “elementary education instruction in the obligatory rituals”(Reichmuth 424) Such studies would have covered basic beliefs, ritual purity, prayer, fasting, and other subjects. The concept of ritual purity is alluded to in “A Judgement”  when it describes the detrimental nature of dog’s urine which “if it touches the slightest part of the body…reduces the most fervent prayers to nothing.”(B. Diop 12) One of the preconditions of prayer (salāh), as opposed to ducā (supplication), is the body being free of ritual impurity which can take a corporeal form (e.g. urine, blood, wine, etc.) or be intangible.

Faith In Practice: Ritual Worship
One of the main pillars of Islām is ṣalāh (prayer). We can see this form of worship in several stories, though most clearly in “A Judgement”. In that story we are told of how Madiakate-Kala leads the faithful in prayer after the muadhdhin “had already launched the izan on to the evening wind”.(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 14) Congregational prayers in particular are proceeded by an ordinary individual calling out adhān (i.e. the call to prayer) to let everyone know that the time for prayer has entered. The particular prayer being described here is more than likely the
cAṣr prayer (the other prayers being, respectively: Maghrib, cIshā, Fajr, and Dhuhar). As is seen in  “A Judgement” the men pray together in the masjid, an act which is deemed to be more rewarding for them, whereas it is more rewarding for women to pray in their homes.

Another pillar, the Ḥajj is presented in “Fari the She-Ass” which informs us about a moor who “had departed on the pilgrimage to Mecca”.(B. Diop 101)  We are told that the story may have turned out better if the poor man had remained “for the rest of his days near to the Kaaba, to be closer to paradise”.(B. Diop, “Fari the She-Ass” 101) The Kaaba, which is a brick structure erected by the prophet Ibrāhim (Abraham), peace be upon him, in Mecca is the direction towards which Muslims are directed to face when performing prayer, just like they are asked to point the palms of their hands towards the sky while making ducā (supplicating), and is not strictly speaking consider to be closer to Paradise than any other place in the world.
In “The Bone” after Mor Lame is shrouded we find that “holy words were spoken” before he was “carried to the cemetery”.(B. Diop 133) Salāh in the graveyard is prohibited because it gives the impression that one is grave worshipping. The reference to holy words refers to the funeral ṣalāh prayed before the deceased is taken to be buried in which the congregants pray for forgiveness for the deceased and all Muslims. They then take the body to be buried and, as we are told in “The Bone”, put the body into the grave “lying on the right side”.(B. Diop 133)

The Institution of Marriage and Women
“A Judgement” deals with the case of a marriage that turns sour. It tells us of a husband who vents his ire at some outside problem on his wife, subtly critiquing this behavior by chastising the husband’s choice “to pass his annoyance on to his wife.”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 9)  Marriage in Islām is not, to borrow a term,  a morganatic construct, by which I mean that it is not a union between people of unequal social status.

With his mind clouded by anger, Demba, the husband eventually “…began to beat Koumba…”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 9) Unsatisfied with physically abusing her, he utters the following words: ”Go back to your mother, I repudiate you.”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 9) In Islamic jurisprudence, a man may not mentally, verbally, or physically abuse his wife. The ḥanafī madhab (i.e. the school of law founded by the Persian, Nucmān bin Thābit) takes the stance that this is grounds for a wife to annul the marriage.(Ibn cĀbidīn 6:131) This odious behavior of Demba’s exceeds the limits of Islamic decorum. He violates the aȳah of the Qur’ān which commands: wa cāshirūhunna bi al-macrūf [And live with them with macrūf].(4:19) Imām Tabrī (May Allāh have mercy on him) explains that this āyah means: “O Men, socialize with your women utilizing good manners…”(6:538)

Later, Koumba refuses to return to Demba when he comes to regret his rash actions and there is a distinct lack of social pressure compelling her to acquiesce to his demands. Furthermore, her apparent status as a divorcée has not caused her to drop in social standing, nor to be considered damaged goods, rather she is swarmed “by the many suitors who invaded her hut every evening, from the first day of her arrival.”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 10) In this she resembles Awa, the widow in “The Bone” who is remarried soon after losing her husband. In these two episodes the  critique of a commonly held notion that Muslims prefer virgins is scathing.

Nevertheless, the legality of Koumba’s refusal eludes the village elders and the couple are sent off in search of a verdict. They eventually arrive in the village of Maka-Kouli. In this village ḥijāb (i.e. separation of marriageable members of the opposite sex) is practiced as proven by the following: “Koumba dined in the company of the women and Demba shared the men’s meal.”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 13) Furthermore, when it comes time to sleep, Koumba refuses to join Demba because she does not consider herself his wife, and Madiakate-Kala staves off an argument, ordering one of his own wives, “Take Koumba to your hut with you…”(B. Diop, “A Judgement” 13)

Recognizing the natural attraction of the sexes to one another and the ensuing harms that unmarried sexual relations bring to society, Islām has prohibited unnecessary interaction between members of the opposite sex, termed ghair maḥram, who can marry one another. Such individuals are the polar opposites of another category, labeled maḥārim (i.e. people whom one may never marry due to blood ties or marriage). This prohibition is one of the reasons why we see that the narrator informs us in “The Bone” that “[woman] do not accompany a burial to the cemetery, any more than they go into a Mosque.”(B. Diop 133) Such strictness does not, however, preclude interactions that occur due to some valid legal reason. An example of this is the interaction between Demba, Koumba, and Madiakate-Kiala.

As an aside, this story also highlights the practice of polygny. The priest, Madiakate-Kala has more than one wife and, it would appear that, in keeping with Islamic law, they have separate houses. The Islamic allowance to take up to four wives is qualified in the Qur’ān with a stipulation that one be just when it sternly states: fankiḥū mā ṭāba lakum min al-nisā’ mathnā wa thulātha wa rubac fa in khiftum allā tacdilū fa wāḥid […then marry what pleases you of women: two, and three, and four; but if you fear that you cannot be just, then one…]”(4:3) Additionally, this is not a command to marry up to nine wives, as Ibn Kathīr explains, “Marry whatever one of you wishes of women besides them; if one wishes two, and if one wishes three, and if one wishes four.”(1:598) That is, if the husband fulfills the conditions he can marry up to four women, but not more than that at one time.

To return to Koumba and her failed marriage, Madiakate-Kala tricks Demba into admitting that he has divorced his wife, thus allowing Koumba to move on to  a new phase detailed by Serigne-the-Marabout in “The Bone” when he states “As soon as the period of a widow’s mourning is over, you [i.e. Moussa] will take her [i.e. Awa] for your wife.”(B. Diop 134) Due to shortage of space and time the legality of giving away a matron without consulting her will be left to others. Nonethless, Serigne-the-Marabout is correct in delaying any marriage until after a certain period, termed an ciddah, has passed. The ciddah is defined as: “muddah manc al-nikāh li faskhihi aw li mawt al-ẓawj aw li ṭalāqihi [the period in which marriage is forbidden after its annulment or the death of the husband or his divorce]”(al-Ẓarqānī & al-Bunānī 4:354) This period does not include locking a woman in a room, and is only a period during which it is forbidden for her to marry, though suitors may make chaste hints of their intentions.

From the above we see that men and women have certain rights and responsibilities. We also see that Islām has a robust legal system derived from jurisprudential principles that take years to master. A grounding in the classical law schools is needed to understand and expound on certain legal aspects in the
Tales of Amadou Koumba. Furthermore, conflation of European models of expansion in pre-Colonial and Colonial Africa with the growth of Islam in West Africa will lead to the propagation of historic untruths. Readings of Tales of Amadou Koumba should be strongly rooted in the history of West Africa to avoid such interpolations. While acknowledging the painful truths of history, we should also celebrate the contributions of autochthonous Muslim laymen, scholars, and rulers to the social-intellectual health of the region.

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Tagore, Rabindranath. “The Conclusion,” in The Longman Anthology of World Literature. Trans. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson. David Damrosch, ed. 1st edition. 2004.

Tagore, Rabindranath. “The Conclusion,” in The Longman Anthology of World Literature. Trans. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson. David Damrosch, ed. 1st edition. 2004.

Like other colonies of Britain, India was left in a woeful mess. The psychological and physical scars left by years of colonialism can only be imagined by outsiders. This paper will attempt to take a peek at those scars and one individual’s manner of dealing with it through an exert of one of his works: ‘The Conclusion’. It will consider the social and quasi-political background of the author and ultimately the educational argument that rather glaringly leaps forth from the written word of Tagore’s writings when the historical background is considered, specifically as depicted by the couple described in the story.

Utilizing the “keys…[of] superior weaponry, a strong profit motive, and Eurocentric confidence[,]”(“Learn About British Rule in India“) Britain managed to subdue an entire nation with its own rich history spanning centuries. The author, Tagore, was born ”three years after Britain took over the government of India.”(949) That is, the Bengali, Tagore, was born three years after rumors, if we are to believe this explanation of events, “…that the cartridges [of the Indian Army] had been greased with pig and cow fat, an abomination to both major Indian religions [caused the “Indian Mutiny”, which was started by] mainly Bengali Muslim troops.”(“Learn About British Rule in India“)

After this mutiny, the British Raj started, and along with controlling the government of the Indians, Britain began “educating them in British modes of thought, and stamping out cultural practices…”(“Learn About British Rule in India“) Though Tagore “benefitted… from the early example of the Bengali reformer Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) who, offered an early synthesis of European enlightenment with brilliantly reinterpreted Hindu tradition[,]”(949) we find that “he found his outside formal schooling to be inferior and boring and, after a brief exposure to several schools, he refused to attend school.”(“Rabindranath Tagore on education“) One may well wonder what it was about the education system in India at the time that produced such a dislike. Shades of this dislike can be found in his work.

Briefly, The Conclusion is the story of Apurba Krishna, a hindu who has just passed his BA exams in Calcutta and no longer has an excuse for warding off marriage. Instead of marrying right away though, he goes to see the girl, a meeting that is disrupted by the village “pagali”, Mrinmayi, whom he finds intriguing. Upon returning home he announces his intention to marry this rebellious madwoman and digs in his heels in the face of his mother’s opposition. The marriage gets off to a rocky start, appears to smooth out when the couple visits Mrinmayi’s father, hits a roadblock once they return home, and then finally comes to a “blissful” end once Mrinmayi realizes she loves her husband.

The work itself cannot be mistaken for anything but Indian, steeped as it is in that culture. Mouth watering references to “rice pudding, curds, and rui fish,”(951) and “dal and rice”(956) flesh out a story punctured with descriptions of clothing that is distinctly Indian in name. Apurba sets out to see his bride-to-be, decked out not in his “usual dhoti and chadar”(951) but in a “long silken chaplain, a puggree on his head…”(951) and finds her “trembling…painted and polished, tinsel round the bun in her hair, and wrapped in a fine colourful sari…”(951)

However, there appears to be a certain subtext running underneath it. Considering the fact that Tagora disdained formal education, as we have mentioned earlier, it is impossible not to view Apurba’s refusal to marry until after passing his BA “in keeping with the slogan of the day”, as something viewed in a positive manner. This is compounded by the fact that instead of being a dutiful son, Apurba refuses to marry the woman picked out for him by his wise mother and chooses a “pagli”(950) tomboy “bone-burning good-for-nothing”(950) who, “[i]n the ranks of biddable children […,] was regarded as a scrouge(sic)”(950) and who had the village woman in “a constant state of alarm at her wayward behavior.”(950)  Clearly, cultural practices are being undermined by formal British education, it being assumed that Apurba would have dutifully submitted to his mother’s wishes had he not been polluted by outside influences.

It is rather noteworthy that these two mismatched people are Other in the face of an organic and wholesome social structure. They both stick out like sore thumbs. Apurba causes trouble in his family, arguably due to his formal education, while Mrinmayi’s agitation seems due to a lack of proper upbringing, her father’s utter fondness for her preventing “her mother from imposing too strict a discipline.”(950) Thus we see that Apruba’s descision to marry Mrinyamayi is not due to love, but due to a revulsion at his mother’s choice. “The more he thought of the dolled-up kind of girl, the more repulsive became the idea of marrying one.”(953) This choice of his, and here one may wonder if it was not caused by exaggerated romances studied during the course of gaining his BA, can be contrasted by Mrinyamayi’s response.

In spite of the fact that she is “mad”, and had orally refused to marry: “I’m not going to get married,”(953) we find that she does get married, and we are not led to believe that she did so because she was forced to, the picture having already been painted of a free-willed individual who will not bend. In fact, she runs away multiple times after she is married, however, and quite unlike Apurba, she takes her rightful place in society, becoming the epitome of her father’s words, “Let no one find fault with my Minu.”(956)

Thus we find that though Minu is Other she is redeemable, whereas no such indications are given in the case of Apurba. Certainly he comes to love Minu, but do we ever see him change from the arrogant man-child just returned from exams who finds fault with his mother’s match? Does he mature over the course of the story? It is hard to tell from this brief excerpt, but from what we are given, very little about him changes and he never appears to integrate fully back into society in spite of the impressive alphabet soup he is acquiring at the end of his name, and that, it would seem, is the problem Tagore has with formal education.

Works Cited

“Learn About British Rule in India.” About. Web. 8 Dec. 2014. <;.

“Rabindranath Tagore on Education.” Infedorg. Web. 8 Dec. 2014. <;.

Tagore, Rabindranath. “The Conclusion.” The Longman Anthology of World Literature. Trans. Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson. 1st ed. Vol. E. N.p.: n.p., 2004. 949-60. Print.

Textual Criticism & Psychoanalysis

This paper will attempt to summarize some of the points mentioned by Petter Berry in the chapter of his book, Beginning Theory, that deals with Psychoanalytical criticism. Some areas, specifically those dealing with Lacan, are supplemented with quotations from The Critical Imagination In African Literature in order to flesh out certain concepts mentioned by Berry. The paper gives a brief overview of the architects of these two strands of psychoanalytic theory: Freudian and Lacanian, compares and contrasts their methodologies, and looks at how they view literature. This paper closes with a cautionary note on the limitations of psychoanalytical criticism.

Before diving into what psychoanalytic criticism it would be proper to first define formalist literary criticism. Literary criticism, as embodied in formalism, used to focus on the text itself, word choice, character development, plot, etc. This is not the case in post-structuralist criticism which “derives ultimately from philosophy” and emphasizes “the difficulty of achieving secure knowledge”(Berry 61). One of the forms of criticism that arises from this field is Psychoanalytic criticism, which Berry describes as “a form of literary criticism which uses the techniques of psychoanalysis in the interpretation of literature”(92). Psychoanalysis itself is “based on specific theories of how the mind, the instincts and sexuality work”(Berry 92). Initially developed by Sigmund Freud, it would later be challenged by Jaques Lacan who “called to a ‘back-to-basics’ Freudianism”(Berry 92,104). This type of criticism is of two types: Freudian and Lacanian.

Berry alleges that all of Freud’s ideas depend “upon the notion of the unconscious” which  “has a strong influence upon our actions”(92). That is, Freud claims that our actions are influenced by urges that are beyond the human perception. Freud, it seems, views the unconscious as merely a storage space for socially unacceptable drives with the conscious self “regarded as the primary self”(Berry 107). He developed the notion of “repression”,  “sublimation”, “the Oedipus Complex”, “libido”, “Eros”, and “Thanatos”(Berry 92-93). While these terms attempt to describe human conditions, they are also used to explore literature which “is not involved with making direction explicit statements about life, but with showing and expressing experience through imagery, symbolism, metaphor, and so on”(Berry 98). Thus, Freudian analysis is adept at digging up hidden meanings and conflicts buried within literary works.

Though Jaques Lacan started “training in psychiatry in the 1920s”(Berry 104), and “learned about Freud’s theories for the first time in 1923… nine years before he defended his doctoral thesis”(Obiwu 77), he never had “any physical contact with Freud”(Obiwu 75). Lacan’s works emphasized “the unconscious itself, as ‘the nucleus of our being’”(Berry 104). This is one of the differences between Lacan and Freud: the importance placed on the unconscious, with Lacan claiming true selfhood lies in the unconscious (Berry  104, 108). Notorious for what Obiwu describes as “linguistic obscurantism”(78), Lacan is noted for expressing his ideas in an “often intimidatingly obscure”(Berry 105) manner. Nevertheless, Lacan alleges, that language is “a matter of contrasts between words and other words, not between words and things”(Berry 106). He claims that uncovering the truth of the unconscious, and thus underlying meanings in literary works, “def[ies] penetration without knowledge of their provenance, and traditions and legends”(Obiwu 85).

The idea of the unconscious manifesting itself through symbols is probably best illustrated through the “dream work, the process by which real events or desires are transformed into dream images”(Berry 94). From this idea springs the concepts of displacement and condensation. The former is “one person or event” being “ represented by another which is in some way linked or associated with it”, while the latter is “a number of people, events, or meanings” consolidated into “a single image in the dream”(Berry 94). Lacan likens these Freudian terms to “the basic poles of the language identified by the linguist Roman Jakobson, that is, to metaphor and metonym, respectively”(Berry 107). What is not mentioned by Berry is the African influence on this area of psychoanalysis, especially in Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams which is a “trove of African ethnographic materials”(Obiwu 77). In fact,  Jacques Lacan “compares Freud (especially in The Interpretation of Dreams) with the French  Jean-Francois Champollion, who reputedly deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphics”(Obiwu 90)  In any case, “since dreams do not show things, they say things…they are very like literature. Hence the interest of literary critics in Freudian methods of interpretation”(Berry 95).

Literature often includes conflict between characters, a device that is sometimes used for dramatic effect. These conflicts can be read by Freudians “as having Oedipal overtones…reproducing the competition between siblings for parental favour”(Berry 93). In describing the various stages of human development, Lacan lists a stage of “socialization, with its prohibitions and restraints, associated with the figure of the father”(Berry 109). This concern with the role of parents, and specifically the father, is “a recognition of the father in human experience as an essential sublimation toward the apprehension of reality”(Obiwu 85). From this, it would seem that the father in literature may have a symbolic role and can be seen as an antagonist who drives the protagonist forward through the plot, especially when using Laconian psychoanalysis. This is explained by Berry, who writes:

“…[A] major consequence of accepting the Lacanian position would be to reject the conventional view of characterization in literature. Since Lacan deconstructs the idea of the subject as a stable amalgam of consciousness, we can hardly accept novelistic characters as people but must hold them in abeyance, as it were, and see them as assemblages of signifiers clustering round a proper name”(108).

Freudian critics “make large scale applications of psychoanalytic concepts to literary history in general… [identifying] a ‘psychic’ context for the literary work, at the expense of social or historical context”(Berry 101).  When viewing a literary work, they give priority to the “‘covert’ content” which is linked to the unconscious, taking it “as being what the work is ‘really’ about, and aiming to disentangle the two”(Berry 100). On the other hand, Laconian criticism pays “close attention to unconscious motives and feelings, but instead of excavating for those of the author or characters, they search out those of the text itself”(Berry 110). This methodology “results in favoring the anti-realist text which challenges the conventions of literary representation”(Berry 110).

An interesting point is hinted at when Berry describes how Lacanian criticism handles “the literary text in terms of a series of broader Laconian orientations, towards such concepts as lack or desire”(Berry 110). The concept of desire, or lack thereof, brings up the issue of “jouissance” which Lacan alleges “is at the core of the ego of frustration and the alienation of desire”(Obiwu 93). Jouissance, analogous perhaps to the nafs with its insatiable appetite, is seen “as a place of anguish and defect”(Obiwu 93).  Obiwu describes the “scehma of jouissance” as being what “enables Lacan to arrive at the meconnaissance of the notorious discontent and ‘aggressivity of the slave whose response to the frustration of his labor is a desire for death’”(93). Where it seems that Freudian notions of “Eros (the Greek word for ‘love’), which roughly means the life instinct, the opposite of which is Thanatos (the Greek word for ‘death’) which roughly means the death instinct”(Berry 93) are universals, jouissance is not.

This brings up the final point. Psychoanalytic criticism is ‘culturally relative’. That is, symbols and words that may carry a specific connotation in one culture may not, and often do not, mean the same thing in another culture. Thus, one should utilize caution, and avoid overextending this tool beyond its true capabilities. Berry does not mention this explicitly in his chapter on psychoanalytic criticism, but it is alluded to when Obiwu states that  Lacan “insists that the… European mode of jouissance should not be imposed on the jouissance of the other”(92). If the “primary language is that which the subject negates or elides in his discourse with the analyst”(Obiwu 90), then care should be taken that the analyst is acquainted with the true language of the subject’s unconscious and the cultural framework which it rests on, else they may slip and misinterpret the text according to their own cultural norms and not that of the subject.

Text analysis from Birago Diop’s Tales of Amadou Koumba (“The Humps”)

Later, when Koumba came into contact with grownups… the other, spiteful, cantankerous, and peevish as a bear with a sore head.

This text is extracted from the story “The Humps” in Birago Diop’s Tales of Amadou Koumba. The story tells of Khary and Koumba, two women afflicted with hunchbacks, and how they navigate the the world as girls and as married women. Their contrasting personalities leave their husband “half-happy” until a supernatural intervention renders judgment, saving one and destroying the other. This text is situated directly after a brief exposition detailing the background (i.e. childhood, and general outline of their married life) of the main characters, and informs us about the state of the house as Koumba enters it. It sets the stage for the rest of the story, explaining why Khary will be punished and Koumba rewarded. An appropriate title for this text could be: The Two Wives and Their Husband.

This text is divided into four parts. The first part ends with “she was just the same.” The subtitle for it could be “Immutable Nature.” As Koumba reaches adulthood, she finds that childish teasing has been replaced by spiteful adults, however she remains true to herself. This part sets up the idea that the way people are as children makes up their adult character where issues become more serious and consequences more severe. It is this underlying idea that sets the stage for the story’s conflict. 

The second part of the text ends at “and helped him with his work.” As a married woman, Koumba attempts to serve the first wife and the husband, the former because she considers her to be like her big sister and the latter out of love. The epitome of a loving wife and respectful sister, she does all of the heavy work in the house, washes the clothes, takes Momor’s food to him in the fields, and helps him work. As a representative of filial piety,  she is the hero of the story who embodies the customary values of the society: respect for the (broadly speaking) elders. This section can be entitled “Good Intentions” or “Filial Piety.”

The third part of the text ends at “So greedy is Envy that it will feed on any dish.” In it we are told that Khary’s good works are reciprocated with spite by the first wife, Koumba. In spite of the respect and help rendered to her, and the fact that Khary has a larger hump in comparison to her own, and thus should be the one with an attitude, Koumba’s bad qualities worsen. In this section the human vice (i.e. Envy) which will be punished is introduced to us. This section may be titled: “Bad Seeds.”

The fourth part of the text ends with the words “peevish as a bear with a sore head,” and informs us of the social disorder caused by the previous section. That is, the house (or family), upon which African society is built, is in a state of disharmony, and the husband is only “half-happy,” sandwiched as he is between an affable wife and one who is spiteful and peevish. We may call this part: “A House Divided.”

This story deals with the human vice of Envy (also called Jealousy) which is punished at the end of the tale. It is also an etiological explanation for the two geographical features (i.e. humps) “at the extremity of the Cape Verde Peninsula”. The tone of the text is serious, and is told from an omniscient third person perspective that delves into the thoughts and motives of the characters involved. In this text Envy is personified when Amadou Koumba says, “So greedy is Envy that it will feed on any dish,” a statement that is also a proverb, teaching us that Envy will rear its ugly head even against people who should not be envied, like Khary envying  Koumba despite the latter having a larger hump and being therefore undeserving of any envy. 

In addition, the text also employs a metaphor to vividly illustrate the trouble Khary is causing, when it lists her negative qualities and compares them to “a bear with  a sore head” using the word ‘as’. This events in this text set the stage for the rest of the story, give us motives for the characters’ future actions, and point out the conflict that is to be resolved at the end through the dance. The moral of the story is that no matter how bad our condition may be we should never envy others, because our condition could always be worse, and that the act of envying leads to a bad end: Khary ended up with an extra hump because of her Envy.

Handy Nicholas

Handy Nicholas

Born almost halfway through the 1300’s to “a prosperous wine merchant,” Geoffrey Chaucer would later write one of the “most famous medieval  frame tale[s],” The Cantebruy Tales. (Abrams 173, 176) Contained within that work is “The Miller’s Tale” which can be read as a meditation on the ills of knowledge not used for the benefit of society. Through the characterization of ‘hende Nicholas’, readers are made aware of the depths to which an individual may sink when scholarship is subject to carnal desires, and are shown the harrowing outcome of such perversion, the effects of which are not limited to a single individual.

Glossing over the initial three lines setting the stage, The Miller’s Tale starts off with a thirty-one line description of a ‘poor scoler’(82) living ‘After his friends finding and his rente’ which we are told means ‘In accordance with his friends’ provision and his own income’.(Abrams 201) This scholarly individual is depicted as having ‘lerned art’(83), that is ‘completed the first stage of university education (the trivium)’.(Abrams 200) We are further told of his interest in ‘astrologye’(84), and his ability to extrapolate future outcomes from ‘interrgaciouns’(86). His scholarly aptitude is fleshed out by the description of his chamber where:
His Almageste and books grete and small,
His astrelabye, longing for his art,
His augrim stones, layen faire apart
On shelves couched at his beddes heed. (100-104)

He has no house of his own and his landlord, in interesting juxtaposition, is an old carpenter painted as a ’rich gnof that gestes held to boorde’(80) who lacks book learning. We are told “He knew nat Canton”(119), a reference to “Dionysious Cato, the supposed author of a book of maxims used in elementary education”.(Abrams 201) This old, ignorant carpenter “hadde wedded newe a wif”(113), and not just any wife, but one that was “wilde and young”(117).

Nine different times we are told that this poor scholar is ‘hende’, a word which means “courteous, handy, attractive”.(Abrams 201) The first time the word is used is when we are told that “This clerk was clepped hende Nicholas”(91) and in the subsequent line we are informed that “Of dene love he coude, and of solas”(92), meaning that he “knew about secret love and pleasurable practices”(Abrams 201). Despite his good looks, erudition, and “his merye throte”(110), but probably due to his lack of finances, this pauper is ‘Allone, without any compaignye’(96), an interesting contrast to his old, rich, ignorant landlord who is wedded to a beautiful young wife. We might be allowed to overlook this disparity since knowledge is the crown of humanity, as Ibn Kathīr writes “fa sharafuhu wa karamuhu bil cilm wa huwa al-qadr alladhī imṭāẓa bihi abū al-barriyyah ādam calā al-malā’ikah (the honor of mankind is because of knowledge, an ability that distinguished the father of mankind, Adam, from the angels)”.(8:437) An individual, thus distinguished might be considered just as well off as a person blessed with other gifts.

In spite of his education, Nicholas does not seem to have acquired moral uprightness. The knowledge which he has attainted has not penetrated into his heart and caused a transformation of his character in a manner that would give benefit to himself and his society. The second time we are introduced to ‘hende Nicholas’, he is engaged in a flagrant act of betrayal and violation as he attempts to flirt with his landlord’s wife while the latter is away. We are told “[t]hat on a day this hende Nicholas/ Fil with this yonge wif to rage and play,/ while that hir housebonde was at Oseneye”(164-166) In the absence of his landlord, Nicholas commits such actions that border on rape, and can certainly be described as molestation, as he physically “caughte hire by the queinte”(168) and “heeld hire harde by the haunche-bones”.(171) Only the wife’s physical efforts and verbal pleas to let go or she would “crye ‘Out, harrow, and allas!’”(178) bring his foul physical assault to an abrupt halt. Though he lets her go, he does not desist from his sinful actions, instead switching tactics, now attacking with words until “she hir love him granted atte laste”.(182) The carpenter has given Nicholas a place to stay, and he has repaid this kindness with treachery unbecoming even an ignoramus, to say nothing of a learned person.

We are again introduced to ‘hende Nicholas’ after the eyes of another immoral individual have fallen upon the carpenter’s wife, Alisoun. This individual, “a parissh clerk,/ The which that was yceleped Absolon”(203-205), is described in a lecherous manner. He goes about on “the holiday/ Cencing the wives of the parissh/ And many a lovely look on hem he caste”.(232-234) This Absolon attempts to seduce Alison with songs, and sends her gifts “For some folk woo be won for riches, And som for strokes, and som for gentilesse”.(274-275) However, his efforts go in vain because Alisoun “loveth so this hende Nicholas”.(278) So much greater is Alisoun’s love for the traitorous scholar that we are given a proverb to explain why Absolon’s efforts are futile. “Men saith right thus: ‘Alway the nye slye/ Maketh the ferry leve to be loth.’”(284-285) In plain English it would be rendered thus “Always the sly man at hand makes the distant dear one hated”.(205) Courteous, handy, attractive Nicholas is a sly serpent at Alisoun’s side who has used his knowledge and keen mind to blind her so that she sees good in no one but him. So manipulative is ‘hende Nicholas’ that he has turned Alisoun against her own husband, the man who has taken vows in the name of God to protect and provide for her, vows which Nicholas has not taken, and has expressed no intention of taking.

Another case of that scholarly acumen being bent to evil purposes is portrayed as we are told that “hende Nicholas and Alisoun”(293) have decided “[t]hat Nicholas shal shape hem a wile/ This sely jalous housbonde to bigile”(294-295), after all “A clerke had litherly beset his while,/ But if he coude a carpenter bigile”.(191-192) Nicholas would have “[p]oorly used his time”(203), we are told, if he could not pull the wool over that ignorant carpenter’s eyes. Not content with merely isolating Alisoun, Nicholas is intent on moving the carpenter out of the way so that they can consummate their illicit affair, “[f]or this was his desir and hire also”.(199) Given the devious nature so far exhibited by Nicholas it is questionable whether this desire on Alisoun’s part is a natural one bubbling up out of her subconscious or a superimposing of Nicholas’ will on her own. After all, the evidence of her adulterous actions will show on her in the form of a pregnancy. No such visible sign will appear on Nicholas, thus he can ‘afford’ to sow his oats without fear of repercussions, to a certain extent.

The next time we see ‘hende Nicholas’ he has ensconced himself in his room so long that his landlord has become worried and sought him out to enquire after his condition. This well-wisher is met with perfidy as “hende Nicholas/ Gan for to sike sore, and saide, ‘Allas,/ Shal al the world be lost eftsoones now?”(379-381) Nicholas does not immediately unveil his plot, but works a subtle web, drawing the carpenter in inch by slow inch, baiting the poor man with a question meant to perk his interest, then withholding the answer to his riddle by ordering the man to “Fecche me drinke,/ And after woo I speke in privetee”.(384-385) His machinations are designed to beguile the unwary, and it is here that we see his wicked mind and awful craft on full display. Before it was merely alluded to, but now the author uses nearly two hundred lines fleshing out this scene, ending with the carpenter’s reaction to, so to say, sign off on this masterful trickery. We are shown how skillful Nicholas is by the effect his words have on the carpenter even after leaving his company. Having left Nicholas “[t]his sely carpenter biginneth quake”(506), but his reaction is not due to fear for his own imminent demise, rather “[h]im thinketh verrailiche that he may see/ Noees flood come walwing as the see/ To drenched Alison, his hony dere”(507-509), and these thoughts cause him to “weepth, waileth, maketh sory cheere”.(510)

The last time ‘hende Nicholas’ is presented to the listeners he is shown to be a heartless rogue concerned only about his own reputation. Confronted with the townspeople and the imminent exposure of his ill deeds by Alisoun’s husband, he reveals the true extent of his depravity. “For whan [the landlord] spak he was anoon bore down/ With hende Nicholas and Alisoun:/ They tolden every man that he was wood”.(723-725) Faced with a chance to confess and right the wrongs he has wrought, courteous Nicholas chooses instead to conceal the truth in order to protect his reputation by calling his benefactor ‘wood’ or “crazy”.(Abrams 214) Throughout the tale, ‘hende Nicholas’ is depicted as a slimy libertine, unrefined by the bookish learning that he has been blessed with, and as we leave him his character development has only made this point more poignant. Nicholas raises the question of whether or not knowledge that is not applied for the betterment of oneself and one’s environs is worth acquiring, especially when it is used to beguile the innocent, conceal the truth, and wreck marriages, one of the foundational pillars of a health society.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffery. “The Miller’s Tale.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature.

Ed. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2001. 679-680. Print.

Ibn Kathīr, Abū Ismacīl Ibn Umar. Tafsīr Al-Qur’ān Al-Adhīm. Riyadh, K.S.A. Dar Tayyibah. n.d. Electronic.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt. 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2001. Print.