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Shame and Guilt in Chaucer Open Access


Other title
shame, guilt, Chaucer, ethics
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
McTaggart, Anne H
Supervisor and department
Reimer, Stephen R. (English and Film Studies)
Examining committee member and department
Demers, Patricia (English and Film Studies)
Bowers, Rick (English and Film Studies)
Kitchen, John (History and Classics)
Astell, Ann W. (Theology, University of Notre Dame)
Fox, Michael (English and Film Studies)
Department of English and Film Studies

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
In the penitential ethos of late fourteenth-century England, ideas about shame and guilt were of central concern. Preachers and poets, alike, considered questions such as: what role should shame have in contrition and penance? What is the precise relationship between physical purity and moral or spiritual purity? What are the emotions best suited to eliciting the fullest and most sincere confession? Such questions were posed explicitly in penitential manuals and handbooks, but they also formed the ethical and philosophical soil out of which many of the period’s major literary works emerged. This dissertation examines representations of shame and guilt in the literary contexts and narrative poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer. I consider Chaucer’s treatment of these ideas in light of his contemporaries, especially the Gawain-poet, as well as a broader historical context, surveying shame and guilt in the Middle English literary traditions of romance and hagiography. I also explore recent developments in affect theory, and draw on work in anthropology and psychoanalysis in order to theorize the ethical dimensions of shame, guilt, and related ideas of agency and purity. I argue that much of Chaucer’s poetry, but especially the Canterbury Tales, articulate the private and public facets of these emotions, not only as matters for the confessional, but as representative of opposing ethical systems, and, therefore, as fundamental in shaping possibilities for human social life. I see Chaucer as a poet deeply concerned with ethical questions. His works consistently represent guilt as an ethical ideal whereas shame is often portrayed as the psychological reality that gets in the way of attempts to realize the ideal. From Dido to Criseyde to Virginia and Dorigen, many of Chaucer’s characters call attention to the injustice of “guiltless shame”: the way in which the individual’s inner moral state conflicts with the external world of honour and shame. Thus, while Chaucer’s narratives present us with a full spectrum of ethical responses and psychological motives for evading or claiming moral responsibility, I pay special attention to the many ways in which shame is mobilized in service of social and gendered dynamics of power and victimization.
Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.
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