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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Genre and audience response in the Middle English Pearl Amy, Roger Andrew


The following thesis, “Genre and Audience Response in the Middle English Pearl”, examines the problematic nature of generic definition of the Middle English poem Pearl. The anonymous poem, dating from the late 14th Century, concerns a "jueler" who has lost a precious pearl and given in to unseemly grief, denying his faith. In a dreamlike vision, he is led through debates by a mysterious Pearl Maiden who shows him the errors he has committed; he is privileged to a heavenly apparition of the heavenly Jerusalem and its divine inhabitants; finally, he is cast from the vision, reconciled to his loss and his faith. Pearl has resisted easy generic categorization. In this thesis, I argue that the indeterminability of the poem's genre is deliberate. Genre carries meaning; a reader, recognizing familiar generic aspects, expects the poem to progress in a certain manner. The poet carefully chooses elements of many familiar genres in order to manipulate the audience's reactions at crucial points in the poem. With these manipulations, the poet succeeds in making the experience of the poem personal for the reader, not merely literary. I begin my argument by postulating the existence of a generic tradition, a historically viewed body of works; genre is the synchronic cross-section of the generic tradition. Following Jauss, I propose that generic tradition shapes the expectations of a reader, and thus shapes the reader's response to a text. I then look at the various generic traditions which Pearl draws from: allegory and elegy, the consolatio, debate poetry, the dream vision, and the visual arts. Using a survey of critical literature and comparisons to other contemporary texts where applicable, I demonstrate how Pearl draws from the various traditions, and where it differs. I then examine the significance of the variations from the generic tradition to the reader's response to the poem. To conclude, I discuss the role of the retrospective look to the reader's understanding of the poem and to the reception and continuation of the generic tradition.

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