Abandoning Desires, Desiring Readers, and the Divinely Queer Triangle of Pearl

  • Tison Pugh
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In Pearl, what does the Dreamer desire? On the surface level of the text, he unequivocally seeks to reunite with the Pearl that he loves and has lost. The apparent objectives of desire are rarely as clear cut as they initially present themselves, however, and surface desires often conceal covert objectives, which lie hidden from view and refuse to signify monologically and teleologically. Pearl affirms the ways in which ostensibly normative desires—a father’s heartbreak and mourning over his daughter’s death and his longing to reunite with her—simultaneously conceal and reveal other unarticulated and latent objectives. The strangely eroticized familial relationship between living father and dead daughter, in the end, serves as one facet of a multidimensional romance that becomes increasingly and competitively linked with the Dreamer’s latent desire for the God who now possesses her. In this divinely queer and erotic triangle that forms around the Dreamer, the Pearl Maiden, and God, desires lead the Dreamer to self-sacrifice and abandon in response to his undeclared amatory competition with God, whose desires can never be trumped. In the formation of normative Christian masculinity, the Dreamer must be queered into submission to the Divine Will.


Queer Theory Moral Lesson Normative Desire Courtly Love Christian Revelation 
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  1. 1.
    In analyzing readerly desires, I am not arguing that Pearl’s readers are uniform in their responses to the text. Various readers interpret texts in a multitude of exciting, harmonious, and disparate manners. The goal of this chapter is certainly not to establish a sole, exclusive, and definitive account of this masterpiece, but rather to point out similarities between the Dreamer’s and the reader’s desires arising from the ways that the Pearlpoet manipulates them simultaneously.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Psychoanalytical studies of Pearl include George Edmondson, “Pearl: The Shadow of the Object, the Shape of the Law,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 26 (2004): 29–63; Sarah Stanbury, “The Body and the City in Pearl,” Representations 48 (1994): 30–47; and David Aers, “The Self Mourning: Reflections on Pearl,” Speculum 68 (1993): 54–73. I am indebted to the insights of these scholars, and my goal is to build upon their observations in order to explore the queer workings of desire in the text. Queerness provides a basis for investigating the narratological and metatextual structures of the poem in their compulsory construction of Dreamer and reader.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), p. 43.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    Translations of Middle English are my own, including those of Pearl. In all translations I aim for clarity of expression rather than for retaining poetic qualities of the texts.Google Scholar
  5. 7.
    Studies addressing the collisions of religion, gender, and sexuality in medieval mysticism include Amy Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002); Karma Lochrie, “Mystical Acts/Queer Tendencies,” Constructing Medieval Sexuality, ed. Karma Lochrie, Peggy McCracken, and James A. Schultz (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), pp. 180–200; and Grace M. Jantzen, Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).Google Scholar
  6. 8.
    Quotations of Pearl are taken from The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, ed. Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978).Google Scholar
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    Eve Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), p. 21.Google Scholar
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    Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, 2nd edn. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 21. Fish’s ideas about how readers are constructed through textual encounters are especially relevant to medieval allegories and their construction of ideal readers. The quotation of Milton is taken from Tetrachordon, Complete Prose Works of John Milton, Vol. II: 1643–1648, ed. Ernest Sirluck (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), 571–718, at p. 642.Google Scholar
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    For an analysis of the ways in which medieval generic forms can be used to queer texts and audiences, see my Queering Medieval Genres (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), esp. pp. 1–20.Google Scholar
  10. 22.
    Biblical quotations are taken from The Holy Bible: Douay Rheims (Fitzwilliam, NH: Loreto, 2004).Google Scholar
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    The Pearl-poet consistently plays with semantic and semiotic sense by packing multiple meanings into one word, and the primary significations of “perle” include gem, Pearl Maiden, New Jerusalem, and the Dreamer himself. Edward Condren observes that the mathematical architecture of the poem constructs it as a pearl itself: “The obvious circularity of Pearl… creates an overwhelming sense of something round with a seamless surface, like its main subject the pearl” (The Numerical Universe of the Gawain-Pearl Poet [Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2002], p. 63). See also Laurence J. Krieg, “Levels of Symbolic Meaning in Pearl,” Mythlore 5 (1978): 21–23; Cary Nelson, The Incarnate Word: Literature as Verbal Space (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973), pp. 25–49; and Maud Burnett McInerney, “Opening the Oyster: Pearls in Pearl,” Aestel 1 (1993): 19–54.Google Scholar
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    Lawrence Clopper, “Pearl and the Consolation of Scripture,” Viator 23 (1991): 231–45, at p. 245.Google Scholar
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    Do readers desire meaning? We probe texts in endless quests to comprehend them more fully, but like the Dreamer’s desire for the Pearl Maiden, what would we do if we established a definitive and monological end to this desire? As with other desires, readerly desires establish an eternal circuit that often staves off closure. Certainly, the opacity of Pearl is one of its most alluring features.Google Scholar
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    Sarah Stanbury, ed., Pearl (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2001), p. 4.Google Scholar
  15. 27.
    Hugh White offers a striking counterargument to claims of the Pearl’s perfection in both poetic form and symbolic meaning, arguing that Pearl, then, seems to set out to be a pearl and thus to represent formally its content, but that representation actually involves a different form and a different content. Formal perfection seems to me to be purposefully breached so that the form can insist on a qualification of the claims of simple monistic perfection to be at the centre of an explanation of the world. (“Blood in Pearl,” Review of English Studies 38 [1987]: 1–13, at p. 8) As with so many interpretive cruxes within the Pearl-poet’s corpus, we are compelled to look for complementary both/and rather than binary either/or readings, which ultimately underscores the paradox of truly understanding heavenly Christian revelation from an earthly perspective.Google Scholar
  16. 28.
    Genre studies of Pearl include Ian Bishop, Pearl in Its Setting (Oxford: Blackwell, 1968), pp. 16–26; Laurance Eldridge, “The State of Pearl Studies since 1933,” Viator 6 (1975): 171–94, at pp. 172–78; Constance Hieatt, “Pearl and the Dream-Vision Tradition,” Studia Neophilologica 37 (1965): 139–45; Sandra Pierson Prior, The Pearl-Poet Revisited (New York: Twayne, 1994), pp. 21–26; and Michael Means, The Consolatio Genre in Medieval English Literature (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1972), pp. 49–59. Lawrence Clopper sees in Pearl a hybrid form, “an epistemological poem which incorporates consolatio into a meditative scheme” (“Pearl and the Consolation of Scripture,” p. 232).Google Scholar
  17. 29.
    Studies of medieval allegory include Suzanne Conklin Akbari, Seeing through the Veil: Optical Theory and Medieval Allegory (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004); Ann W. Astell, Political Allegory in Late Medieval England (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999); and Jon Whitman, Allegory: The Dynamics of an Ancient and Medieval Technique (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).Google Scholar
  18. 30.
    Studies of medieval dreams and dream visions include Phillips and Havely, eds., Chaucer’s Dream Poetry; Peter Brown, ed., Reading Dreams: The Interpretation of Dreams from Chaucer to Shakespeare (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); Kathryn L. Lynch, The High Medieval Dream Vision: Poetry, Philosophy, and Literary Form (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988); and Steven F. Kruger, Dreaming in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).Google Scholar
  19. 31.
    Studies of medieval elegies contemporary to Pearl include Ardis Butterfield, “Lyric and Elegy in the Book of the Duchess,” Medium Aevum 60 (1991): 33–60 and Ellen E. Martin, “Spenser, Chaucer, and the Rhetoric of Elegy,” Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 17.1 (1987): 83–109. Martin notes that the critical tradition mistakenly attempts to divorce elegy from dream vision: “Both [Chaucer’s Book of the] Duchess and Pearl, where elegy effects vision without departing from the sense of loss, have inspired long debates on whether their genre is dream-vision or elegy, the critical assumption being that grief and inspired knowledge are mutually exclusive” (p. 108, n. 33).Google Scholar
  20. 32.
    Does the fact that allegories and dream visions often depict the fulfillment of desire disprove the theoretical basis of this chapter—that desires do not seek their satiation but rather their perpetuation and that they wantonly pursue arbitrary objectives? It is not possible to answer this question definitively, but I would suggest that frequently within these genres, the protagonists’ desires reflect mirrored and exterior desires rather than interior ones arising from a coherently structured subjectivity.Google Scholar
  21. 33.
    Seminal studies of genre and its functions include Tzvetan Todorov, Genres in Discourse, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Thomas Beebee, The Ideology of Genre: A Comparative Study of Generic Instability (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994); Alastair Fowler, Kinds of Literature: An Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982); and Heather Dubrow, Genre (London: Methuen, 1982).Google Scholar
  22. 34.
    Jim Rhodes, “The Dreamer Redeemed: Exile and the Kingdom in the Middle English Pearl,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 16 (1994): 119–42, at p. 128.Google Scholar
  23. 35.
    Jane Beal, “The Pearl Maiden’s Two Lovers,” Studies in Philology 100.1 (2003): 1–21, at p. 2.Google Scholar
  24. 36.
    The Middle English Dictionary defines debonair as “kindly, mercifully; courteously, graciously; humbly, modestly.” One need not assume the word carries modern connotations of urbanity for it nonetheless to characterize the Pearl Maiden inappropriately, if she is indeed an infant. Infants express a rather limited range of attitudes and emotions and cannot properly embody any of the range of characteristics contained within the semantic field of debonair. Google Scholar
  25. 41.
    Hodgson, ed., The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counselling, pp. 154–55.Google Scholar
  26. 42.
    The biblical quotation in this passage is taken from Luke 9:23. The translation of the Middle English is my own, but the translation of the Vulgate is taken from the Douay Rheims Bible.Google Scholar
  27. 46.
    Anne Howland Schotter addresses the paradoxical meaning of equal rewards yet unequal ranking in Pearl and argues that a solution can be found in the medieval feast, which “embodies the paradox by providing the missing term of hierarchy. It thus serves as a metaphor for a heaven which is simultaneously equal in its reward and unequal in its rank” (“The Paradox of Equality and Hierarchy of Reward in Pearl,” Renascence 33 [1981]: 172–79, at p. 172). This ingenious solution to the Pearl Maiden’s spiritual puzzle resolves the interpretive difficulty of this passage for the reader, but the Dreamer nonetheless continues to face the paradox of Christianity. If the reader identifies with the protagonist (and the dream vision explicitly sets this readerly dynamic in motion), we must feel his confusion at the mystery of Christianity rather than resolve it. Schotter is smarter than the Dreamer, but the Pearl-poet relies on our enforced bewilderment in light of divine mysteries.Google Scholar
  28. 47.
    Glending Olson, “ ‘Nawther reste ne trauayle’: The Psychology of Pearl 1087,” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 83.4 (1982): 422–25, at p. 425.Google Scholar
  29. 48.
    Kathryn Gravdal, Ravishing Maidens: Writing Rape in Medieval French Literature and Law (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), p. 14.Google Scholar

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© Tison Pugh 2008

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