Abstract

Chaucer's three major dream visions all follow their respective narrator-dreamers as they move through various interior spaces, on one level reproducing the mise-en-abyme effect of the framed dream narrative. This paper examines the series of three interiors structuring the narrative of the House of Fame, and specifically how these spaces are constructed through a technique of accumulative description, in which the contents of a given room are catalogued at great length but rarely placed in precise spatial relation to one another. To employ the catalogue as the primary tool of spatial description may seem capable of leading only to a jumbled, a-perspectival representation of an interior, but the strategy aligns with the narrator's difficult task of organizing into narrative description the luxuriant confusion of the spaces he perceives. In the House of Fame, the narrator turns to the catalogue because he finds the corridors of dreams filled with objects of high signifying power, including statues and other images that serve as windows out of one interior and into other narrative spaces. The accumulative catalogue becomes at once a way to narrate an otherwise un-narratable profusion of objects and associations, and a way to limit that profusion to the catalogue's conclusion.

We also find in the poem moments of more perspectival description linking these catalogues, as in the House of Fame itself, in which the narrator at first perceives only a formless crowd of heralds impossible to describe due to both their number and the semiotic complexity of their garments. After relegating their regalia to a short catalogue, the narrator can then move past the press and look up to observe a rising dais with the goddess Fame enthroned on it. Only after spatially locating arbitrary Fame as the principle governing the crowd in the room does the narrator notice and describe the pillar-lined corridor leading down to the hall's wide doors. Since, upon closer examination, these pillars are seen to bear up the fame of ancient authors, they generate further descriptive catalogues. Throughout the poem we find this same sort of telescoping between the purposively cluttered catalogue and more perspectival articulations of space, presenting a challenge to spatial theories of narrative that would dismiss pre-modern narrative as crudely and/or flatly a-perspectival. Indeed, we will be unable to describe medieval literature as uninterested in perspective when we finally compare the navigation of space in House of Fame to the medieval and classical technique of the “memory palace,” in which memories are recalled based on their precise spatial relationships inside a mentally constructed building: Chaucer's poem is at once such an edifice of memory and a challenge to the practice.

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