The Canterbury Tales

Vision, Truth, and Genre in the Merchant's Tale

In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which gives them greater powers of perception but also causes their expulsion from Paradise. The story creates a link between clear vision and the ability to perceive the truthwhich, in this case, causes mankind to fall from a state of blissful ignorance to one of miserable knowledge. In the Merchant's Tale, vision and truth do not enjoy such an easy relationship. Vision is obstructed at both the metaphorical and the literal level, and the subversion of the fabliau genre challenges the idea of truthful representation. The Merchant's Tale destabilizes the notion of representation itself, problematizing man's relation to truth.

Chaucer uses a very strange metaphor to describe January's quest for a wife. The teller likens the old knight's mind to a mirror that has been set up in a common market, catching the image of every maiden who passes. January undertakes a near obsessive mental cataloguing of all eligible women:

Thanne sholde he se ful many a figure pace

By his mirour; and in the same wyse

Gan January in with his thoght devyse

Of maydens which that dwelten hym bisyde. (ll. 1584-7)

The more familiar the reader is with the...

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