The University of Wisconsin Press

Literature and Criticism


Chaucer's Sexual Poetics
Carolyn Dinshaw

Through an analysis of the poems Chaucers wordes Unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn, Troilus and Criseyde, the Legend of Good Women, the Man of Law’s Tale, the Wife of Bath’s Tale and its Prologue, the Clerk’s Tale, and the Pardoner’s Tale, Carolyn Dinshaw offers a provocative argument on medieval sexual constructs and Chaucer’s role in shaping them. Operating under the assumption that people read and write certain ways based upon society’s demands, Dinshaw examines gender identity and the effects of a patriarchal society. The focal point of Dinshaw’s argument is the idea that the literary text can be seen as the female body while any literary activities upon the text are decidedly male. Through a series of six provocative essays, Dinshaw argues that Chaucer was not only aware that gender is a social construction, but that he self-consciously worked to oppose the dominance of masculinity that a patriarchal society places on texts by creating works in which gender identity and hierarchy were more fluid.

"A brilliant and revolutionary study that is certain to have a salutary and liberating effect upon the entire field of medieval English literary criticism.”
—Peter Travis, Dartmouth College

“A learned, engaging, and useful book, Carolyn Dinshaw’s Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics should be welcomed by both Chaucerians and many other readers interested in the history of gender and the ongoing project of interpreting canonical male authors with feminist questions in mind. Dinshaw situates her reading of Chaucer in the context of a traditional assumption about the gendered nature of literary activity: namely, the pervasive and influential idea that the written text is a woman, the reader/interpreter a man. . . . She persuasively argues for the continuity of patriarchal hermeneutics from Augustine to Lévi-Strauss and Lacan. She uncovers telling presuppositions about gender underlying modern textual editing practices as well as in the two apparently opposing schools of twentieth-century criticism represented by D. W. Robertson and E. Talbot Donaldson. . . . According to Dinshaw, Chaucer himself stands at least partially outside this tradition of sexual politics, in a position from which he both exposes the consequences of its discourse on ‘lived lives,’ male and female, and imagines alternatives. Her study is organized in such a way as to suggest a developmental poetics illustrating this point. . . . This book should spark lively debate.”—Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Medieval Feminist Newsletter

“Dinshaw’s book must be read by anyone interested in gender issues in Chaucer. . . . [The] last chapter, ‘Eunuch Hermeneutics,’ brilliantly links religion, poetics, and gender, suggesting that the pardoner’s God be considered as an alternative to the binary poles of masculine and feminine. . . . Learned, varied, and theoretically challenging.”—Choice

“[Dinshaw] has written a superlatively intelligent book. . . . What began by provoking outraged disbelief ended with delight at such a dazzling display of interpretive skill, richness, and generosity. There is much to admire here.”—Derek Pearsall, Speculum

Carolyn Dinshaw
is professor of English at New York University, and author and editor of many books including, Chaucer and the Text: Two Views of the Author and The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Women’s Writing.

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January 1990
LC: 89-040253 PR
310 pp. 6 x 9
ISBN-10: 0-299-12274-3
ISBN-13: 978-0-299-12274-4
Paper $24.95 x

The 1990 cloth edition of this book is out of print, but the paperback is still available.

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