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10 Aug 2008 this essay was written when page-length requirements were shorter
It is a known fact that humans are not perfect. Often throughout history, when people try to fulfill unrealistic societal ideals and standards, they are subject to temptation and utter failure. Bill Clinton was a man who was seen by his constituents as a model citizen who embodied the values of integrity, honesty, and moral character. However, as a result of being tempted by physical desires, he failed to uphold the perfect image that society required.
On January 17, 1998, the scandal of Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s sexual relations broke out and while under pressure, Clinton forcefully denied the claim stating, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people. Thank you” (Phillips). However, on August 18, 1998, Clinton admitted on national television that he had an “improper physical relationship” with Lewinsky. Once seen as a perfect leader, he failed to uphold the ideal qualities of honesty, integrity, and moral character that had been so apparent to the American people when he first became elected to office. He had failed to live up to the symbol that had so strongly defined him. Realism had won over idealism.
Just like how Clinton was presented to the United States as a model citizen, Sir Gawain is presented as the most noble of knights in the beginning of the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. However, as the story unfolds, Sir Gawain is faced with temptation, and the reader sees that his chivalry and righteousness do not render him impervious to faults.
The poet’s introduction of the hero sets the framework for Gawain’s character. He produces the positive image of an honorable and noble knight embodied by the qualities of chivalry. As a symbol of his knightly character, the pentacle on Gawain’s shield is representative of the five virtues that he follows as a honorable knight. Gawain’s clean image is shown only to later contrast his perfection with his failure. His “goodly” and “noble” image is further enforced when he is the first of King Arthur’s court to accept the Green Knight’s invitation to play his beheading game. As a knight with extreme loyalty to the ideal he serves, he stands on a higher level than other men.
An important theme in the poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is Medieval society’s symbolism of Sir Gawain as the embodiment of purity and goodness and how the pure knight chooses to uphold his virtue when tempted by both physical and worldly desires. The Green Knight tests Sir Gawain’s virtue which epitomizes the ideals of truth, honor, and fidelity.
Bill Clinton’s temptation of physical desires parallels both Sir Gawain’s lustful temptation and his temptation to accept the green girdle arising from the fear of losing his life. Gawain is forced to make difficult choices throughout his journey confronted by his conflicting courtly obligations, knightly decree, and mortal thoughts of preserving his own life. Henningfield examines his confusion over decisions that he must make:
When he leaps to chop off the Green Knight’s head, he believes that he is demonstrating chivalric courage; what he demonstrates is rashness and a lack of Christian charity. When he allows Lady Bertilak into his bed, he believes that he is honoring the code of courtesy; he violates, however, the chivalric response to the hospitality of his host. When he accepts the green girdle, he believes he is saving his own life; but the gift marks his fear of death and his lack of faith. Finally, when he does not give the green girdle to Bertilak at the end of the day, he breaks his promise.
The author uses Gawain’s inner conflicts and failure to follow all codes simultaneously to emphasize that even the best of men are mortal and subject to flaws and imperfection. As a symbol of his downfall, the girdle that Gawain accepts from Lady Bertilak emphasizes that he is no longer a knight of perfection. Gawain accepts the gift in order to avoid death, demonstrating that he values self-preservation over knightly righteousness.
Though a symbol of perfection in King Arthur’s court, Gawain fails to remain pure and without fault. The story reveals that even “flawless” men such as Gawain who are imposed with strict societal expectations are subject to temptation and sin just the same as modern men like Bill Clinton. As humans, we must realize that no one is perfect and everyone makes mistakes. According to Markman,
Gawain, to be sure, is something more than a glittering symbol of perfection. He is a man. One of the marks of genius in the romance is the deliberate care which the poet took to make his hero human. His acceptance of the Lady's lace, of course, is the most notable incident in the romance which illustrates his humanity. But his behavior throughout is distinctly human.... His trials and joys are made to seem real enough. Who could doubt that the young knight, so relieved at finding unexpected comfort in Bertilak's castle, so sincere in both his moments of elation and concern, is a human being?
By telling Gawain’s story of his fall from perfection, the author emphasizes that no mortal is perfect. Revealing the “best” knight’s flaws shows that even the purest of knights are not impervious to mistakes and that the balance between selfishness, courtliness, and knightly morals is easily broken.
Both Gawain and Clinton are models that their respective societies trust to represent “the best man” who carries out “ideal human behavior” in every task that he undergoes. However, when these men stray from their expectations, society is shocked. It is important to realize that these “models” have been raised on a pedestal, and that in effect, they have been dehumanized. Society has to grasp that this idealized “perfection” is realistically unattainable, and the characters Gawain and Clinton are no less mortal than the rest of mankind.
Works Cited MLA requirements have changed since this essay was written
Henningfield, Diane A. "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." Masterplots II: Christian Literature (2008). Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Collin County Community College, Plano, TX. 9 Aug. 2008 .
Markman, Alan M. "The Meaning of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight." PMLA. 72.4 (1957, Sept.) 574-586. World Literature Criticism, Supplement 1-2: A Selection of Major Authors from Gale's Literary Criticism Series. Ed. Polly Vedder. 1 (1997): 574-586. Literature Resources from Gale. Gale. Collin County Community College. 11 Aug. 2008 http://go.galegroup.com.library.ccccd.edu/ps/start.do?p=LitRG&u=txshracd2497>.
Phillips, Andrew. "Clinton Admits to Affair." Historica Foundation.11 Aug 2008. .
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Ed. Lawall, Sarah. New York: W.W. Norton& Co. 2002: 225-529.