“Hotel receptionist who takes the journey with them.”

No, this is not some new job opportunity or luxury-tour feature.

This is part three of the response to a short-answer exam question.

The question (or, more accurately, the “challenge”): Name three of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales.

This student’s answer: “The Wife of Bath, the Miller, and the hotel receptionist who takes the journey with them.”

Yes, the pilgrims did gather at the Tabard Inn. Yes, Harry Bailey was the Host of the Tabard Inn. Yes, the medieval Inn was more or less the equivalent of today’s Holiday Inn (etc.).

But no, Harry did not stand behind a counter, consult bookings on a computer, hand out room keys, mention the Continental Breakfast, or provide travel brochures. He mixed with the guests, made sure they were drinking their ale, actively presided over the comings and goings, kept an eye on the cook and tapster and hostler and other staff…and owned the inn. On the pilgrimage he served as judge and moderator in the story-telling competition, and in his own establishment too he was the boss.

The Wife of Bath, from the Ellesmere ms.

No matter how many pictures the texts offer, how many sites we refer students to for background, how often (in this case) I pass around my Ellesmere Manuscript pamphlet with its centerfold of the manuscript’s illustrations of the pilgrims, the actuality and completeness of life in an earlier time never quite gets through. The Middle Ages are not the only times my students don’t seem to be able to imagine; I’ve had students wonder why Desirée, of Kate Chopin’s “Desirée’s Baby” (set in antebellum Louisiana), would not simply drive up North and get a secretarial job instead of drowning herself and her infant son when her husband accuses her of having Negro blood. Someone will inevitably wonder why characters insist on driving around in horse-drawn carriages instead of using their cars. This kind of dyschronicity coexists with a cartoon version of the past where, as we all know, NO women had ANY rights and ALL women felt oppressed by their husbands, NO women could read or write, and in the U.S before 1865 ALL Africans and their descendants were slaves. Lest anyone think I’m claiming that ALL my students are like this, let me hasten to say that some do have a more informed and nuanced view of the past and many are capable of imagining lives that differ from their own. But just when I begin to let myself think that one year’s students are all of this latter type, along comes another remark in a paper or on an exam or in classroom discussion that shatters my illusions yet again.

Could my “hotel receptionist” student really have imagined the pilgrims to Canterbury traveling along the road, some on foot and some on horseback, some roughly clad and some more elegantly got up, and jogging along in their midst someone like the hotel receptionist who greeted me at the Omni Shoreham last summer, an elegant and sleekly coiffed young woman in a dark-blue business suit (with short pencil skirt and very high heels, I discovered when she stepped from behind the counter to speak with a porter), speaking with warm politeness and an Indian accent?

Harry Bailey of the Tabard Inn . . . or the receptionist at the Swiss hotel in "The Bourne Identity"?

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

One response to ““Hotel receptionist who takes the journey with them.”

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    Freud is said to have asked what women want. (Presumably, he thought he knew what men want. ) I haven’t looked at Chaucer in many years, which is as shocking to me as it is to you. I loved Chaucer. And I happily remember “informing” my husband that The Wife of Bath’s Tale had as its “moral” that women don’t want to be the boss, they just want to know that if they did want to insist on something, their husbands would give way to them. They didn’t want to exercise the power, necessary, just know that it’s there in all its infinite possibility. Now I feel I need to brush off my books from graduate school. There are certain things I will never forget about Chaucer–the great laugh Troilus has at the end of “Troilus and Creseyde” when he looks down from above at the serious strife we mortals indulge in, and how seriously we take our own passions. That is one of the high points of English literature for me. Need to go back to him.

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