The Principle of Exchange in The Shipman’s Tale

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The Shipman is a western man, perhaps hailing from Dartmouth (as Chaucer suggests in the “General Prologue”). He is a modest man, riding a cart horse, and wearing a wool cloth with a dagger around his neck. He is a “good felawe.” On his way to the pilgrimage he had stolen a good deal of wine from a merchant in Bordeaux, this his conscience is tainted. He is a bold and well-traveled mariner: “many a tempest hadde his berd been shake.” His ship is called the “Maudelayne.”

His tale is a bawdy story about a French merchant who is cuckolded by his friend, a monk named Don John. Whereas the “Pardoner’s Tale” labels greed as a cardinal sin, the Shipman sees a nuanced perspective. The merchant in the tale is obsessed with tallying his money and settling his debts, though surely this is no way for a just man to live. Justice and a happy marriage cannot simply be the mere paying and collecting of debts (recall the early definition of justice in Plato’s Republic).

The form of the “Shipman’s Tale” takes its roots from the French comedy fabliau genre. The ridiculousness indicates to us that Chaucer has concealed something important – delineating lowly things from high-born things. The tale touches on other recurrent themes in the tales: the question of a happy marriage, or the satire of the clergy. However, on a much deeper level the idea of currency, debts, commerce, and exchange is at the heart of the story. Underlying the principle of exchange in the city is a certain degree of trust, credo, or fraternity. However, wealth is an inferior past-time when considered in contrast to honoring a marriage or a friendship. Unfortunately the merchant has chosen the path of riches, and he ends up being cuckolded.

The “Shipman’s Tale” tells the story of this unnamed merchant from Saint-Denis, the region located just north of Paris known for its abbey where nearly every French king was buried between the 10th and 18th centuries. It was also a cloth-making hub -perhaps the Shipman trades in cloth. At any rate, people consider the merchant wise and he has a beautiful wife who is fond of revelry and socializing -an unfortunate expense for the good merchant. The tale is told in the first-person tense: who is the true narrator of the “Shipman’s Tale?”

“Swiche salutaciouns and contenaunces
Such salutations and courtesies
Passen as dooth a shadwe upon the wal;
Pass away as does a shadow upon the wall” (8-9).

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A 19th century sketch of the basilica at Saint-Denis

The merchant also has an intimate friend, a monk named Don John. One day, the merchant decides to take leave for business in Bruges (the Netherlands was the mercantile hub of Medieval Europe) and the monk travels to his home with malmsey wine and white wine and fowl, to celebrate with the merchant before he leaves. While the merchant is busy counting his money, the monk and the merchant’s beautiful wife confess their love for one another in the garden. The merchant’s wife is persuaded when Don John invokes Saint Martin of Tours, one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages.

The merchant’s wife complains about her husband’s miserliness, because everyone knows there are six things that women desire in a man (per the wife): hardy and wise, rich and generous, obedient unto his wife and fresh in bed. She says she will sleep with Don John if he pays her one hundred francs, and he promptly agrees. Just before the merchant’s departure for Flanders/Bruges, Don John asks the merchant to lend him one hundred francs, to which Don John also agrees.

The merchant’s wife trades sex for money, money which Don John borrows from the merchant, and when the merchant returns he goes to collect his debt from Don John, but Don John says he has already given the money to the merchant’s wife. The merchant returns home but the merchant’s wife says she has already spent the money and will offer him lewd favors instead as repayment of the debt. The tale closes with a crude play on the idea of “tallying.”

At the end of the tale, the Host exclaims that the story is ‘well said’ and he wishes well for the shipman while criticizing monks, like the monk in the tale. Next, he asks the Prioress to tell a tale.


For this reading I used the Broadview Canterbury Tales edition which is based on the famous Ellesmere Manuscript. The Broadview edition closely matches the work of Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst.

Modernism in My Ántonia

A novel is just a glimpse, a framed and sometimes fragmented exploration into the depths of memory, psychology, time and place.

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“Graves of Travellers, Fort Kearny, Nebraska” by Worthington Whittredge (1866)

Willa Cather’s My Ántonia (pronounced “an-ton-ee-yuh” as in the name Anthony) is one of the seminal works of the great American pastoral tradition, similar in style to O Pioneers! It is told as an imagined reflection by Cather’s childhood friend, Jim Burden. Appropriately, the novel begins with an epigraph citing Virgil’s Georgics – Optima dies…prima fugit (“the best days are the first to disappear”). Like Virgil’s Georgics or Hesiod’s Works and Days, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia celebrates nostalgia for the rustic, Arcadian life.

The book was published in 1918, and was Cather’s great masterpiece. It is sometimes grouped together as the “Prairie Trilogy” which includes: O Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Ántonia (1918).


The novel is uniquely modernist, as it contains no significant plot arc, aside from being a bildungsroman of sorts. What is at stake in My Ántonia? The story is framed and told through the perspective of Jim Burden, an old friend who is now a successful East Coast attorney. He mentions that he is trapped in a loveless marriage. Cather and Burden decide to embark on a competition to write a novel reflecting on their jovial childhood friend, Ántonia. At the start of the book, Willa Cather claims to simply reiterate Burden’s story of Ántonia. The novel is told in five parts through Mr. Burden’s lens:

Book I: “The Shimerdas” – Book I introduces our characters: Jim Burden is an orphan traveling to live with his grandparents in Nebraska, when meets Ántonia, later nicknamed “Tony,” while they ride the train together. She is a young child with her Bohemian immigrant family hoping to make a new life as Nebraska homesteaders. Tony’s father, however, soon finds life on the prairie listless and hopeless. As the long winter arrives, Tony’s father kills himself causing much grief to the community. As time passes, Tony grows into a beautiful and vivacious young girl. We are also given a story of Peter and Pavel, two men from Russia who are hiding from a secret crime: in confessing their dark secret, they remember a happy wedding back in Russia that in tragedy. While all the carriages were traveling home from the wedding, their carriage was attacked by wolves so they cast the bride and groom overboard to flee the scene. They saved their own lives but left the bride and groom to be mauled by wolves. Not long after this confession is introduced, Pavel dies and Peter leaves town, never to be heard from again. This is one example of the unique blend of styles and genres introduced in the novel: the dark secret of Pavel and Peter is a parody of Gothic folklore.

Book II: “The Hired Girls” -Book II tells the story of Jim and his grandparents as they rent out their farm and move into town. Jim starts attending courses at the University of Nebraska. Meanwhile, some of the young country girls come to work in “service” for wealthy elder families. Tony is one of those young girls. The girls also start going to dances in the evenings, despite the dissatisfaction from their elders. This section of the novel ends shortly after Tony starts work at a new house, the Cutters. One day, they leave Tony to watch over the house, and Jim spends the night at the house to cover for Tony. However, he is attacked when a surprise visit from Mr. Cutter causes alarm for them both.

Book III: “Lena Lingard” -throughout reading this novel we find ourselves asking: will Tony and Jim finally strike up a romance? Alas, they never do, despite significant tension between the two character. In this way, the novel is not a romance or a melodrama. However, Jim appears to have a fling with another young mischievous girl in Book III. Her name is Lena. He takes her out to shows in the evenings while Jim attends school. Jim’s beloved teacher suddenly moves to Boston so Jim decides to follow him to continue his learning, so he promptly ends the relationship with Lena, who does not wish to get married or settle down. They part ways on a somewhat somber note, but the plot continues to roll along and Lena seems to give little care.

Book IV: “The Pioneer Woman’s Story” -this section tells a sad tale of when Jim Burden returns to Nebraska to learn that Tony was set to be married bu shet was abandoned just as she discovered she was pregnant. Now she has a child. Through it all, Tony remains positive and works hard on her farm. She is living in with her mother. In this moment, Jim and Tony go walking in what could have been a romantic moment, but it is not. For a brief moment they return to their childhood together, and then they part like old friends. Jim returns to his busy world of culture and education, while Tony remains alone on her farm, standing in a wheat field as Jim leaves.

Book V: “Cuzak’s Boys” -the brief but final section of the novel recounts Jim’s regrets at not returning to Nebraska for decades. One day, he returns on business and he decides to pay a visit to Tony. She is now married with a large brood of children living on her homestead with a ‘good-enough’ husband. Tony remains chipper and active. Jim is welcomed but he has little room for connection with Tony because her husband and children are her main focus. Jim spends time talking to Tony’s husband but he largely unimpressed. Jim’s life is busy now, but when he returns to his roots nothing has changed. Nebraska remains the same. Life continues on the prairie as if there were no world outside.


As indicated by the title, the novel is possessive. That is, the narrator feels a certain ownership over the poor but lively bohemian immigrant-girl, Ántonia. However, he is not explicitly in love with her, though he wishes he was (despite having romantic dreams of Lena). He is jealous when Ántonia finds other men more courageous than he, except when he bashes the head of a rattlesnake for her. Like America, Jim is young. As in the old country of the bohemians, he is bound by the politics of circumstance, and as a scholar, he never seems to find true love. Like Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the novel is circular, beginning as Jim and Ántonia ride the train to a dirt road in Nebraska, and it ends with Jim departing from that same dirt road. Jim never seems to find love in the novel, but he gets closest with his memories of Ántonia.

Here are a few notable selected passages from My Ántonia:

“As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the green prairie the colour of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there is so much motion in it; the whole country it seemed, somehow, to be running” (page 16).

“The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers. Queer little red bugs came out and moved in slow squadrons around me. Their backs were polished vermilion, with black spots. I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or goodness and knowledge. At any rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep” (page 18). –This passage is unique in that Cather had a portion of it imprinted on her gravestone: “…that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”

“In that singular light every little tree and shock of wheat, every sunflower stalk and clump of snow-on-the-mountain, drew itself up high and pointed; the very clods and furrows in the fields seemed to stand up sharply. I felt the old pull of the earth, solemn magic that comes out of those fields at nightfall. I wished I could be a little boy again, and that my way could end there” (page 208) -Jim Burden reflecting on returning to visit Tony in Nebraska after learning of her illegitimate child.


Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. New York, Dover Publications, February 13, 2012.

The Story of French Impressionism, Part III: Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) was born into a lower middle-class family in France. His father was a tailor and his mother worked as a seamstress. At a young age he wanted to be a singer, however due to his family’s financial concerns, he went to work in a porcelain factory until a new mechanized procedure was developed in the factory. The factory went bankrupt so Renoir went to attend art school, working to paint fans and signs as decorative art to pay his bills while in school.

Self-Portrait (1875)

He studied under Charles Geyre with new friends: Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, and Frédéric Bazille. Through Monet, his roommate for a spell, Renoir was connected to other notable artists, such as Camille Pissarro and Paul Cézanne. Together they began experimenting with painting en plein-air outside, and like Monet, Renoir was penniless through his early career, despite generous support from Jules Le Cœur and family, a fellow artist. Unlike Monet, Renoir’s early works found favorable audiences at the Salon. His first successes include the following:

Image result for la esmeralda renoirLa Esmerelda (1864), based on Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame that was featured in the Salon, a first for Renoir. He later destroyed the painting -above is a copy.

File:Pierre-Auguste Renoir - William Sisley.jpgWilliam Sisley (1865) – a commissioned portrait of his friend and fellow artist, Alfred Sisley’s wealthy father.

Lise with a Parasol or just simply Lise (1867)

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Diana (1867)

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In Summer (1868)

These latter three paintings feature Lise Tréhot as the female figure, Renoir’s mistress and model for many of his early paintings. The painting Lise won acclaim at the Salon. In total, she appeared in more than twenty of Renoir’s early paintings, several of them in the nude. Renoir fathered a child out of wedlock with Lise in 1870, however the child was given away to a wet-nurse. Renoir never acknowledged his daughter, Jeanne, as his child, but he did secretly financially support her all of his life. Little is known about the relationship between Renoir and Lise, however they separated in 1872 and it was said that Lise never spoke to Renoir again. She eventually married and raised several children.

In 1870, Renoir was drafted to serve in the military for the Franco-Prussian War, however illness soon sent him back home. In 1874, Renoir was part of the first Impressionist exhibit. He exhibited many of his early great works, however in order to remain financially stable, Renoir started painting portraits upon commission to survive.


Pont-Neuf (1872)


Claude Monet painting in his garden at Arganteuil (1873)


The Grand Boulevards (1875)

This painting uniquely displays an out of focus street in Paris, around the time that the boulevards were widened. The street is filled with activity, shortly the effects of industrialization take hold.

Auguste Renoir - Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette - Musée d'Orsay RF 2739 (derivative work - AutoContrast edit in LCH space).jpgBal du moulin de la Galette “Dance at Le moulin de la Galette” (1876)

The painting portrays an evening out for working class people in Paris, filled with dancing, drinking, and eating. Note the lighting of the sunset through the trees as it appears on the party-goers. We can almost hear and see (peripherally) the sounds and motion of the people in the crowd when viewing this painting. The painting is currently held by a private and anonymous collector. It is currently on the list as one of the most expensive paintings ever sold ($78M in 1990). Prior to that it was owned by the wealthy and well-connected American, John Whitney, whose widow sold it to a wealthy Japanese manufacturer who professed at one point a desire to burn the painting, luckily financial troubles caused him to sell it in 1990.

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The Swing (1876)

Image result for Madame Charpentier and her ChildrenMadame Charpentier and Her Children (1878) – this was Renoir’s first big breakthrough

By the late 1870s and 1880s, he had secured a name for himself. This new financial security allowed him to travel to Algeria, as well as Italy and throughout France, to meet the great European artists of the day. While in Algeria he contracted pneumonia which permanently damaged his respiratory system.

Portrait of Alphonsine Fournaise (1879)


Boating on the Seine (1879)


By The Water (1880)

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The Two Sisters, on the Terrace (1881) – note the elder sister was actually a young French actress and the younger is unknown. The two were not related.

Le déjeuner des canotiers “Luncheon of the Boating Party” (1880–1881)

This painting was showcased at the Impressionist exhibit in 1878, and won great acclaim. It featured a variety of Renoir’s friends and patrons enjoying themselves at a high-class restaurant which had recently opened its doors to all groups of people, a novelty in the 19th century. A still-life of fruit and wine sits on the table. The French art patron Gustave Caillebott is seated in the lower right, and Aline Charigot, Renoir’s future wife, is playing with a dog in the foreground on the left (Renoir replaced a different woman who was annoying him with Aline in the painting). A panoply of other art historians, painters, and patrons are depicted in the painting. Note the casual attire of the people in the painting. It is a masterpiece of the Impressionist era, one of Renoir’s best. Duncan Phillips, the grandson of an American banking and steel family, was obsessed with acquiring the painting and in 1923, he purchased it, in an effort to build his collection of modern art. Today it remains the most popular work in his foundation’s collection – The Phillips Collection – in Washington DC. The location of the activity in the painting is the The Maison Fournaise in Chatou west of Paris along the Seine. Renoir also completed an earlier painting at this location below:

Lunch at the Restaurant Fournaise (1879)

Children at the Beach at Guernsey (1883)

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The Large Bathers (1884-1887)

Renoir spent three years completing this painting, studying various sketches and pieces of architecture. His hope was to harmonize the classical modes of painting, like Raphael, with the new Impressionist. Notice the sculpted, classical style of the nude women in the painting (one is Renoir’s future wife, Aline), and contrast those sharp characteristics with the blurred, shiny Impressionistic background. Two women bathe in the background, while the action occurs in the foreground, where one woman reaches to splash the other two from the river, one preparing to shield herself, the other covering herself with a towel.

Renoir grew disillusioned with Impressionism over time, and as such his style evolved, though his work always remained lush, indulgent, and voluptuous.

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Dance at Bougival (1883)

Tamaris, France (1885)


The Farm at Collettes (1908-1914)

In 1890, Renoir married Aline Charigot, one of his models and a dressmaker who was twenty years his junior. Like Monet, Renoir had a child out of wedlock with Aline named Pierre (born in 1885), who later became a notable stage and film actor. They had two other children together: Jean Renoir, the great film director, and Claude Renoir who also became an artist of ceramics.

Self-Portrait (1910)

By 1892, Renoir was stricken with arthritis which severely limited his mobility. Yet he continued to paint, and was at one point quoted as saying: “The pain passes, but beauty persists.” He moved to a warmer Mediterranean climate along the French Riviera in a town called Cagnes-sur-Mer in southeastern France, where he lived on a luxurious home he had built called “Las Collettes.” He had a stroke in 1912, yet Renoir still continued to paint. His wife, Aline, died in 1915. In 1919, Renoir traveled to the Louvre to see his paintings hung alongside the masters. He died at his home in Cagnes-sur-mer in 1919.  Renoir had completed thousands of paintings in his lifetime.

La Roue (1923) Review

La Roue (1923) Director: Abel Gance

“Creation is a Great Wheel which does not move without crushing someone” -Victor Hugo

★★★★★

La Roue is a film which defined and solidified the train/railroad motif in early cinema. It seems that all the great directors of early cinema made copious use of trains –Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, and, in this case, Abel Gance. With La Roue, Abel Gance offers a new cinematic language for conveying visual narrative: extended close-ups of characters and scenes which deeply ingrain a sense of time and place. The film itself rolls along like a wheel. In La Roue the two chief contrasting locales are striking: first, a gritty and ashen railroad town where life is hard and noisy, followed by a peaceful and remote snow-capped mountain town where our protagonist Sisif is now a blinded but contented old man.

We begin with a dramatic and cataclysmic train crash. Sisif (played by Séverin-Mars who died of a heart attack before the release of the film) the ironically named and alcoholic railroad engineer, adopts a young girl from the wreckage, Norma. He raises her along with his son, Elie, whose mother died in childbirth. Sisif lives in a humble house surrounded by railroads. He comes home each day covered in soot and filth, though he is actually a gifted inventor and another colleague takes the credit for his work. As Norma grows, she becomes a lovely girl. Suitors begin to hang around, one wealthy gentleman offers his hand in marriage, promising to save Norma’s family from destitution, however is reluctant. Sisif gets into a fistfight with a co-worker over the beauty of his adopted daughter, Norma. Elie dislikes the dreariness of railroad work, and he dreams of becoming a violin-maker, married to someone pretty like Norma.

As time goes on, Sisif falls in love with his adopted daughter, whom he calls his “Rose of the Rail.” Midway through the first part of the film, Sisif reveals his dark secret in a private confession. Afterward, he tries to kill himself by starting the train and throwing himself under it, in a fiercely tense scene, only to be rescued at the last second by a fellow railway worker. He announces that he must be living in hell because he cannot even die. When he recuperates, his wealthier colleague blackmails him into allowing Norma his hand in marriage. Sisif recklessly drives the train to Norma’s wedding day, nearly crashing.

la roue

Time goes by and her marriage is unenjoyable. Sisif’s son, Elie, realizes the truth, and both men acknowledge their love for Norma. Sisif again is punished at work, this time for running his train named for “Norma” off the rails. The accident nearly blinds him. He moves away to a small mountain home high up in the snowy mountains with his son. Sisif operates a small mountain train, a parody of his former work. These scenes are some of the most majestic in the whole film. Elie spots Norma in the audience for a classical performance featuring one of his violins. Elie writes a note to Norma professing his love, but it is discovered by her husband. He goes to confront Elie and the two of them fight in a dramatic cliff-hanging sequence high up in the mountains. At the last moment Elie spots Norma only to fall to his death moments later in an intense cut-scene sequence. Norma moves in with Sisif, at first without him knowing because of his failing eyesight. They live in sorrow for their losses. An old co-worker (the one who once saved Sisif) arrives for a visit and asks about Elie, and Sisif looks off in the distance and says he has gone for 27 years, for that is how long it takes for the glacier to give up it dead. The last hour of the remastered film contains extended scenes of misery and sorrow for Sisif and Elie, and Sisif’s eyesight continues to grow more cloudy. They live together, and he re-assumes the role of her father. She goes out to a gay dance in the mountainside, while Sisif looks out the window smoking his pipe: “Sisif had gently departed, as a ray of sunshine abandons a window at twilight” and also “As the soul of Sisif found release one of its shadowy wings caressed the carefree young Norma as she continued to revolve within the Wheel.” We are given scenes of the mighty snow-capped mountains inter-spliced with scenes of the railroad wheels, as Sisif dies in front of his mountain home window. Sisif transforms from an odd and, in some ways, unlikable character in the first half, to a sympathetic human being in the second half of the film.

I was particularly struck by the unique glimpses we are given into the minds of the characters through unique visual arrangements such as flashbacks, memories, and dreams (such as the dream of Elie and Norma in medieval garb as violin-makers or the scenario in which the face of Norma appears to Elie while he is high up in his new mountain home as he amusingly tries to swat the image away and close the window on it to no avail). These unique asides to the audience cannot be conveyed in traditional theatre, and they help to reinforce a new language of cinema. Jean Cocteau once said ‘there is cinema before and after La Roue, in the same way that there is painting before and after Picasso.’

Image result for la roue abel gance

Gance initially screened the film on 32 reels, over three days. Estimates vary, but the film originally lasted somewhere around 7.5-9 hours, and unfortunately the original has been lost, however thanks to the tireless efforts of the current version runs somewhere just south of 4 hours. The film was highly influenced by Gance’s lover who was ill –she was dying of tuberculosis while he was developing the film. His leading man and friend, Séverin-Mars, was also seriously ill and dying during the filming, and Gance, himself, was recovering from the Spanish Flu.