Chaucer’s Red Right Hand – Vengeance, Sin and the Plague

Often, I do this thing where, when I’m recommended a piece of music that I end up liking, I’ll deep-dive through that musician’s catalog for a while until they’ve become one of one of my favorites. I think plenty of people do that–how else should we appreciate a person’s music for ourselves?–and for me, over the past week, that’s been Nick Cave’s music. Cave is a musician from Australia who rose to prominence at the tail end of the post-punk movement; forming The Bad Seeds in the mid-1980s, the group has released 17 full-length albums as well as a handful of live recordings. This week, I’ve been listening to a track called “Red Right Hand” on repeat, and, in preparation for this assignment, considered analyzing it alongside the Canterbury Tales as a way of engaging the latter work through comparison. I know it’s a bit silly, but I have my reasons for drawing these–admittedly a little contrived–connections between both works. The first reason is that I haven’t had the chance to engage in any piece of media for a while, so I wanted to use this assignment as an opportunity to focus on a few things about the song and the Canterbury Tales together. The second reason is that, the way I chose to analyze it, I found more than a few similarities between the Tales and “Red Right Hand,” and that a record of my observations might help someone re-evaluate or reinterpret these works. Regardless, I felt that it was a unique opportunity to have some fun with this post while also fulfilling my academic responsibilities!

In short, “Red Right Hand” is a song about a mystical encounter with a mysterious figure. I say “mystical” here because the song possesses a slightly unnatural quality to it that’s a little difficult to describe. Sonically, the music sans lyrics sounds slow and menacing, rooting the audience in the dark world that Cave and his band create. Meanwhile, the central figure, (“a tall handsome man… with a red right hand”) of the song resembles “characters” from other Bad Seed hits like “the Carny.” In both songs, the role of the Carny and the Man are symbols: personifications of a moral (Sorrow and Greed, most likely) more than they are realistic portraits of people who might exist in our world. Cave’s lyrics offer a more convenient summary of this idea to his audience: “he’s a god, he’s a man / he’s a ghost, he’s a guru,” and the power of this conflicting image coupled with the strange and ambiguous detail about his hand automatically conjures an image of something otherworldly and evil. It reminded me a lot of the character Judge Holden from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian; even at a glance, the physical description of the Judge (and Cave’s “tall, handsome man”) tells you that he is unambiguously nasty. The audience knows not the trust these men, and in Cave’s case, it is a good instinct to follow: verses 3 and 4 show that the Man is trying to broker a deal with the narrator wherein he trades money (“stacks of green paper”) for unspecified favors. This, we figure, can lead to bad places, and of course, that is something that the “Pardoner’s Tale” examines as well.

An overwhelming number of internet scholars never fail to observe that the phrase “red right hand” originates from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The term in the original context represents an act of vengeance perpetuated on Heaven’s disobedient angels by God himself, and was a translation of a Latin phrase attributed to Horace. Therefore, there is another level of religious symbolism present in Cave’s creation. The Man’s motivations are shady; for him to possess a “red right hand” is unsettling and clearly a great turn of phrase, but the exact meaning here is unclear. Perhaps the Man is motivated by greed, or out of a perverse desire for power over other people, but one can’t really call these motivations “vengeful.” On the other hand, I believe that the Pardoner’s Tale contains its own version of the “red right hand” that might constitute a thematic similarity between it and Nick Cave’s song. I only began to research this after I had heard the song, but I had the idea that medieval plagues would have been seen as godly acts of vengeance in predominately Christian societies. When we discussed the bubonic Plague and Boccacio, we understood that the Decameron was written at a time where it was easier for people to interpret the plague as an act of god rather than one of natural circumstances: our Decameron introduction noted that some thinkers, like Konrad von Megenburg, “concluded that society itself had caused the plague by its sinful behavior,” leading Boccacio (and presumably Chaucer) to insert similar views into their most prominent works.

I’ll use this assumption to begin into my analysis of the “Pardoner’s Tale,” and make several observations about the tone of the story in my continued effort to compare it to “Red Right Hand.” Plague imagery is prevalent throughout the Pardoner’s Tale, where gluttony, drinking, and gambling all become explicit targets in the Pardoner’s Tale as examples of dangerously sinful behavior. Moreover, these actions accordingly serve as the pretext (i.e. all that is required) for Death to seek out and dispose of the sinner; I think we can agree that Death, whether an independent entity from or a servant of the Christian God, is a believable extension of God’s wrath or righteous anger: his “red right hand”. Furthermore, Chaucer’s version of vengeance interests me a great deal because of other ways it is explored in the “Pardoner’s Tale.” The three main characters of the “Tale” are miscreants-turned-murderers by the end of the tale, and they, like Milton’s angels, are lured to rebellion against the word of God by their desire for earthly/material favor: Wealth and Power in Chaucer’s case. Their disobedience incurs a very specific and classical form of punishment, fitting more in line with Milton’s “red right hand” than Cave’s chosen symbol for a “Faustian” contract.

However, I also believe that Cave’s subject matter, which exaggerates the characteristics of a corrupt or evil negotiator, remains a relevant source of comparison for other key reasons. In the “Pardoner’s Tale,” the three criminals originally set out to kill Death after losing a close friend. Along the way, they encounter a mysterious Old Man, who advises that “you shall [Death] find” at the base of a nearby oak tree. Instead, they are led to an enormous cache of gold coins. The “righteous” people of Chaucer’s time rightfully would have seen this scenario as something to avoid, the same way that any Bad Seeds’ listener begins to feel unsettled by the subject of Cave’s song. We see in both cases a figure who disguises a negative outcome as a positive one, ensnaring a number of unlucky and unwilling participants. In Chaucer’s case, the Old Man has often identified as a figure of Death because of his motivations for leading the three men to their demise, but there are numerous other interpretations as well. Alternatively, I would propose a possible reading in which the Pardoner inserted himself into his tale as the Old Man/Death. It’s an unflattering assumption, but Chaucer’s portrait of the Pardoner makes him out to be a man who constantly tries to profit from the Christian belief in sin and Death; who better to play a character who profits off of human ignorance than a person who does so professionally in Chaucer’s world? In any case, the character is just ambiguous enough for us to identify the threat, but not so specific that we can agree on a definite source for its malice.

I’ve already discussed how the same idea applies to Cave’s character, and I think its an applicable comparison here because of their respective significance in both stories. All in all, there isn’t much more that I think I can say about the two together! I wish there was a little more that I could have read by way of comparisons between the song and the “Pardoner’s Tale,” but I still believe that it was a fun way to draw connections between things I’ve read and listened to!