Confining the Daughter: Gower’s “Tale of Canace and Machaire” and the Politics of the Body
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 11 (1994)
Gower’s “Tale of Canace and Machaire” (Confessio Amantis, III.143-336) is based upon Canace’s farewell letter to her brother Macareus in Ovid’s Heroides, Book 11. In the Heroides, Canace recounts her plight: she fell in love with her brother and had a child by him. Her brother fled, and her father Æolus, full of wrath when he learned about her pregnancy, ordered her to kill herself and the child to be taken to the woods. As the only narrator, Ovid’s Canace tries to draw our sympathy towards herself and her child and against her father, lamenting his cruelty and wrath.
Gower’s version of the story follows Ovid’s plot closely, but, while in Ovid’s version Canace’s letter is the only source for our knowledge of the events, in the “Tale of Canace and Machaire” the letter is confined within Gower’s narrator’s own version of the events. In this respect, A. C. Spearing has stated recently that “the letter which in Ovid makes up the whole poem is in Gower only an incident in the narrative.” I will argue here that precisely the incidental character of the letter noted by Spearing points to a distinctive feature in Gower’s tale. The letter seems a mere incident in the tale; so too Canace’s other act of creation, her child, seems an incident in her father’s life or so he would have it. Throughout the tale, Canace remains in her father’s house, within her “chambre.” By choosing her own lover and becoming pregnant, Canace takes some control over her own body, and by writing a letter, she tries to take control over her own life. These two assertions of independence, though, are finally thwarted by the absolute control of a tyrannical father. Gower’s “Tale of Canace and Machaire,” I will argue, explores the incestuous aspect of fathers’ control over their daughters’ bodies in patriarchal families. And, in this sense, the confinement of the letter parallels the confinement of the daughter’s body within her father’s house.