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Publication Date

2007-01-01

Availability

UM campus only

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

English (Arts and Sciences)

Date of Defense

2007-11-06

First Committee Member

Thomas Goodmann - Committee Chair

Second Committee Member

Pamela Hammons - Committee Member

Third Committee Member

Hugh Thomas - Committee Member

Abstract

Integrating chivalric romance narrative with complicated instances of pre-modern exchange, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight reveals the binding power of pledging one?s trawþe and the transformative power of exchanged objects in a gift economy. By reading the Exchange of Blows and the Exchange of Winnings according to the social demands of a gift economy and of a pledged trawþe, this thesis delineates the nature of Gawain?s failure to keep his word to his host. I offer my analysis of gift theory to suggest how the poem reveals the tensions between chivalric pledges of loyalty and nascent capitalist exchanges. R. A. Shoaf demonstrates the presence in the text of an emerging commercial economy, claiming the poem ?involves the transformation of Gawain?into a consumer and?into a merchant? (3-4). While Gawain behaves as a nascent capitalist, as evident by his passive reception of the exchanged items and his lack of generosity, the other residents of Hautdesert do not. The workings of gift exchange were first postulated by social anthropologists: Marcel Mauss focused on reciprocity, while Branislaw Malinowski, and later, Annette Weiner, argued that gift exchanges operate in a circular system, with repayment not necessarily directed toward the original donor. The exchanges between Bertilak and Gawain show elements of the requisite reciprocity of Mauss? formulation, yet the presence of Morgan le Fey and Lady Bertilak complicates the exchanges and suggests an economy of circularity. While Geraldine Heng and Sheila Fischer have argued that the women of the text exhibit agency?Morgan initiates the Exchange of Blows and Lady Bertilak gives kisses and the girdle?this project argues that it is the performative presence of the trawþe between Gawain and Bertilak that creates a male bond, ultimately denying the women authority. The trawþe circumscribes Morgan?s control and allows for the exchange of Lady Bertilak as an object. Richard Firth Green addresses the late medieval tensions in the semantic definitions of ?truth,? arguing that ?in an oral society the precise words of the oath?bind the speaker and listener by virtue of an inherent performative power? (60). While Gawain functions as a self-interested capitalist, keeping the girdle for its value to save his life, the chivalric trawþe ensures that failure to adhere to the terms of the agreement results not only in contractual liability but knightly disgrace. Gawain?s failure to reciprocate the gift leads to his dishonor, for the medieval gift that is not reciprocated ?would make the recipient dependent on the donor,? endangering ?his honour, freedom and even his life? (Gurevich 180). In medieval gift systems the values of exchanged objects are determined not only by their function within a competitive game about prestige and power, but also by their identification with the donors themselves. Annette Weiner?s articulation of the inalienability of certain objects?the possibility that some objects are ?kept? despite apparent exchange?is useful in explaining the significance of the girdle in Gawain?s failure. Weiner explains that what ?makes a possession inalienable is its exclusive and cumulative identity with a particular series of owners through time? (Weiner 33). The girdle presents just such an inalienable possession; Bertilak ?keeps? the girdle despite Gawain?s physical possession of it. Gawain remains indebted to his adversary, and although he is released from his trawþe, he will continue to wear the girdle as a sign of his failure and the bond with the Green Knight. Ultimately, the court of Camelot assumes the sign of the green girdle, a subtle warning by the Gawain-poet of the inevitable spread of un-trawþe in prioritizing the values of self-interested capitalist exchange.

Keywords

Sir Gawain And The Green Knight; Gift Exchange

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