The Program

The Canterbury Tales and the Pursuit of Happiness

By A.J. Peters

For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in language class, and on Monday had seminar on “The Knight’s Tale“. Chaucer is the first author we’ve read in seminar in English (sort of), and I’m enjoying just seeing how he works with words and crafts the language. I often do the readings aloud, and it’s wonderful to hear the rhythm and rhyme of Middle-English iambic pentameter. But that’s not to say there’s no substance beneath the beauty of the verse. “The Knight’s Tale” recounts the story of two cousins who fall in love with the same woman while in prison together, and the battle they carry out to be her husband. We later learn that she wishes only to be able to remain unmarried, and yet story concludes with a fatal duel and the ensuing marriage of the victor. Our seminar on Monday asked what Chaucer was saying about chivalry, a theme that comes up frequently in a tale about knights told by a knight. It went great, but one of the questions I found most interesting went unanswered, “Is our unhappiness a result of our furious pursuit of happiness?”

Arcite, one of the cousins, says this in a discussion of his love:

And certes, in this world so faren we;
We seken faste after felicitee,
But we goon wrong ful often, trewely. (1266)

We seek fast after felicity, but we often go wrong. The lines preceding this passage, though a little too long to quote, further imply that we go wrong because we seek fast after it (Lines 1260 and below). The Knight, who tells the story, seems to think it is joyful—ending in a happy marriage. But I cannot help but read it as a tragedy. The grandfather of Emilyee, the object of all the lust, speaks only once. But the despair he paints in the brief stroke of the three lines is striking.

In al this world, that som tyme he ne deyde.
This world nys but a thurghfare ful of wo,
And we been pilgrymes, passynge to and fro.
Deeth is an ende of every worldly soore. (2847)

His summation seems to be the more accurate one of the story. Two cousins, who love each other like brothers, turn against one another under the supposition that Emilyee, who neither has spoken to, will make them truly happy. Egeus concludes that “this world is nothing but a thoroughfare full of woe”, but perhaps we only make it so out of an absurd aggrandizement of what we think will make us happy.

Earlier this year, an article appeared in The Atlantic titled, “There’s More to Life than Being Happy“. The story, well worth a read, is about Viktor Frankl, the Auschwitz survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning

According to Gallup , the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high — as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word “happiness” in their titles. At this writing, Gallupalso reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy, without a lot of stress or worry. On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.”

Or, as Arcite stated about 600 years earlier, “We seken faste after felicitee, But we goon wrong ful often, trewely.”

Ellesmere Manuscript Chaucer
Chaucer from the Ellesmere Manuscript

3 comments on “The Canterbury Tales and the Pursuit of Happiness

  1. The Canterbury Tales are my favourite! Although, if you get the chance, AJ, you should read some Frankl. I’ll lend you my copy of Man’s Search for Meaning, if you’d like.


    • A.J. Peters

      That’d be awesome! I remember checking it out from the library in 7th grade, but I think it might have been a little over my head then…


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