Friday, March 28, 2008

Cross-Cultural Connections

I went out for dinner with another faculty member tonight; we were talking about teaching stuff (pretty racy, I know!); he's taught here a while, and also teaches something only tangentially related to English, so I was really curious about how he handled things, and what sorts of things he taught.

He started explaining an exercise he does to get students to think about their values. In the exercise, he tells a story:
There's a woman who's about to get married, but in order to get married, she has to cross a river to meet her husband-to-be. The river is FULL of crocodiles. So she asks a boatman to take her across the river in a boat. He says he will, but only if she'll have sex with him first. So she goes to a friend to ask advice, and he says, "it's not my problem, you decide." So she has sex with the boatman and he takes her across the river. The night before her wedding, she tells her husband about the problem and deal, and he throws her out, telling her that he wouldn't marry her if she were the last woman on earth. Another friend offers to marry her, even though she's used goods, because she'll probably be grateful and make a loyal wife.

You're supposed to then ask the students to decide how they feel about the different characters, and think about what values they bring to those decisions.
Well, golly, I thought (about three sentences in), this sounds familiar, just like the story we discussed in the English discussion group. That one went like this:
There's a shipwreck, but two small boats survive. On one boat, a woman about to be married, an old man, and a sailor. On the other, the woman's fiance [pretend I got the spelling and accent mark right] and his best friend. The small boats get separated in the night, and the boat with the woman, old man, and sailor end up on an island. The woman is worried, but in the distance, she spots another island. Hoping her fiance is there, she asks the sailor to take her. He says he'll take her if she'll have sex with him first. She asks the old man for advice, and the old man says that she should do whatever her heart tells her. So she has sex with the sailor, and then the sailor takes her to the other island. There, she finds her fiance and his friend. She decides to tell the fiance about the deal, and he rejects her. The friend offers to keep her warm until the fiance changes his mind.

We were then asked to rate the characters based on how much we liked them, and discuss why.

They really sound familiar, don't they?

And, being who I am, I was reminded again of Chaucer's "Franklin's Tale" which sort of reverses things and goes like this (in VERY short form):
A man and woman (Arveragus and Dorigen) are married, and deeply in love. Arveragus is a knight, and has to go overseas to serve his lord. So he takes a boat and goes, while Dorigen stays at home. She's worried about some nasty black rocks that might get Arveragus' ship when he returns, and spends a lot of time fretting and worrying about his safe return. A young squire (Aurelius) has been in love with Dorigen for a long time, and he takes the opportunity of her loneliness to offer his company. She finally accepts, but only if he can make the rocks go away (and thus assure Arveragus' safe return). Aurelius is bummed, and pines (so you KNOW he's in love!) and basically wastes away until his brother becomes worried and inquires. They go off to find a magician, and offer to pay him some gold if he'll make the rocks disappear. The magician accepts the deal, and works some magic to make a really high tide so the rocks disappear. Arveragus returns home safely. Dorigen tells Arveragus about the deal, and he says that honor demands that she keep her part of the deal with Aurelius. So she tells Aurelius, and he says that he can at least keep up with a knight's generous behavior, and releases her from the contract. Then he goes to the magician, explains the situation, and admits that he can't pay the agreed money. The magician says that he can be as generous as the others, and releases Aurelius from the contract.

The Franklin (telling the tale within The Canterbury Tales then asks the audience to decide which of the characters is most "free" (a word in Middle English with connotations not only of freedom, but of liberty, generosity, legal capability, and so forth).

It's astounding how similar in some ways these stories are. The first two are, I think pretty clearly, the same story with slightly different details. The third reverses the problem on some level, but has a lot in common.

A story told by a US male professor who teaches international and Japanese students. A story told by a Japanese man in an English club for discussion practice. And a story told by a Franklin as part of a story-telling contest in the 14th century fiction of The Canterbury Tales and retold by a US female professor to the male professor.

You can argue all day about who's most rotten or most free, but all three make some deep assumptions across the cultural divides.

All three assume heteronormative marriage in which sole access to the females sexuality is an important component.

All three assume that access to female sexuality is a commodity.

In the first two, there's an "advisor" who doesn't question the the commodification of female sexuality; in the third, the brother and magician aren't advisors in quite the same way, but the brother seems to serve a similar function.

In all three, the female figure is substantially isolated from other women, and thus at "the mercy" of male characters. Male dominance comes through numbers in a really overt way.

Which is to say, all three stories assume patriarchal power in very deep ways. We could try to tell the storis by reversing the gender, but they wouldn't make much sense. Patriarchal assumptions make it really hard to question the basic judgments we're asked to make. The stories resist letting us question whether men want sex or whether male sexuality is primarily a matter of morals rather than desire.

So, yay me, I've discovered that patriarchy reaches across cultures. Isn't that surprising?

I'm also fascinated that each of the stories involves a problem of crossing potentially dangerous water. Without going all Jungian and telling me that water represents female sexuality and that females have to be initiated into sexualy by males, what do you make of the water problem?

(When I read Chaucer, I think that worrying about ships makes loads of sense. But does it make quite the same sense in a modern setting?)


  1. The more I look at the first two stories, the more normal the second one seems. The desert island setting is a familiar way to ensure total isolation by means of a potentially dangerous natural barrier (reducing the number of complicating human interactions that would take place if, I don't know, the two groups were being held prisoner by an evil sorcerer or something). But a river full of crocodiles, with no other way to get across? And the husband-to-be couldn't just get across himself, the lazy bum? That's the kind of story that makes me frustrated with its not-quite-realism, as opposed to the totally abstract desert island scenario.

    So can I answer your water question? Not really, but it seems like the teachers were right to assume the stories would provoke conversation. :)

  2. They are interesting stories, and I can see why they're a good conversation starter. What struck me is that the old man and the friend won't tell her the truth: that the sweetheart will ditch her in a heartbeat if she gives in. Why wouldn't they tell her? Or is she already supposed to know that her virtue is above everything else, even the life of her beloved?

  3. That's a fascinating commentary. Another element the three have in common is that the woman feels obliged to take whatever risk to ensure that she'll be partnered with a man, rather than, say, just shrugging her shoulders and walking away.

  4. Anonymous4:03 PM

    I have nothing articulate to say, so can I just rant for a MOMENT and say I'm so SICK of women's hymens being so much more important than anything else about them in men's eyes!

    It's the feast day of St. Mary of Egypt in the Orthodox Church and that always unhinges me just a mite, I hate that story so much, grrr.

  5. Anonymous11:34 AM

    I really appreciate this post. The parables are great, I am memorizing them to pull out at my own dinner parties...kudos to Pilgrim/Heretic's comment--that's an assessment not usually noticed, nor spoken, i think.