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An Analysis of Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Merchant's Tale"

Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Merchant's Tale"
Commentary by Karen Bernardo

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Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Merchant's Tale," one of the Canterbury Tales, has no moral value whatsoever; it is a fabliau, a ribald and bawdy kind of tale -- very popular in Chaucer's era -- in which women were generally portrayed as lusty wenches and men as eager but foolish partners. The fabliau prohibits any realistic relationship between men and women by restricting the characters to rigidly stereotypical roles.

In "The Merchant's Tale," for example, we have a number of characters who still populate comedies today: the street-smart lover (Damyan), the beautiful but unprincipled girl (May) and her duped husband (January). The fact that these characters are going to be stereotypes is indicated by their very names. May is young, just like everything in springtime. She is also fickle; and who has not started out on a lovely May day thinking it was going to be warm, only to wind up donning a jacket? January, her husband, has obviously lived many winters, and has now returned to his second childhood as far as his common sense is concerned.

January is absolutely determined to marry the much-younger May; he experiences no doubts or trepidations that would give depth to his character. May is lovely to look at but chronically unfaithful; she is the mainstay of today's afternoon soaps. And Damyan is the unscrupulous bachelor determined to figure out a way to enjoy May's favors without commitment -- another stereotype.

We can predict from the beginning that May will consent to Damyan's proposition, for that is in the very nature of her character type; indeed, she could do nothing else. We can also predict that January will be duped by these two young people, both because we understand the basic premise of a fabliau, and because he has been so absolutely blind to well-meant warnings. Even the gods have tried to intervene and show him his unfaithful wife's true colors, and he will not even believe the evidence of his own senses. It is no accident that he becomes physically blind for a short time, because he is permanently blind in his thinking; that is the whole joke of the story.

But the fact that the Merchant chose to tell such a tale in the first place is no accident either; the story can be read in terms of the commentary that the Merchant provides about his own experience with the opposite sex. Significantly, he tells the other pilgrims that he has had an extremely unhappy marriage; in fact, "For thogh the feend to hire ycoupled were, / She would hym overmacche, I dar wel swere" (For were the devil yoked to her [his wife], she'd overmatch him, I swear). With this attitude toward his own marriage, it should come as no surprise that he tells a story about a wife who always gets the best of her husband, as he believes his own wife has of him. There is no way this man could give us a well-rounded portrait of male/female relationships, for he has no positive life experience on which to base that kind of insight. He has carved out a role for himself and a role for his wife, and he expects everyone else -- including his fictional characters -- to fall into those roles as well.

This story can be found in "The Canterbury Tales."

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