The Canterbury Tales

Summary and Analysis of The Merchant's Tale

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Prologue to the Merchant's Tale

Following the Clerk’s pronouncement on marriage, the merchant claims that he knows all about weeping and wailing as a result of marriage - and so, he thinks, do many people who are married. Even if his wife were to marry the devil, the merchant claims, she would overmatch him. Having been married two months, and having loathed every minute of it, the merchant sees a “long and large difference” between Griselde’s patience and his wife’s cruelty. The Host asks the merchant to tell a tale of his horrid wife; and, though “for soory herte” (for sorry heart) the merchant claims he cannot tell of his own sorrow, he will tell another tale.

The Merchant's Tale

Once there was, dwelling in Lombardy, a worthy knight who had lived nobly for sixty years without a wife. However when this knight, January, had turned sixty, whether out of devotion or dotage, he decided to finally be married. He searched for prospects, now convinced that the married life was a paradise on earth, particularly keen to take a young, beautiful wife.

The narrator then defies Theophrastus, the author of a tract attacking marriage, arguing that a wife is God’s gift, which will last longer than any other gift of Fortune. There follows a lengthy passage extolling the virtues of a wife, and the virtue of marriage, citing many biblical examples.

January one day sent for all of his friends, telling them of his intent to marry, explaining that he was ill and old, and wanted a wife no older than twenty, which he could mold like warm wax in his hands. Various men gave him various advice about marriage, some praising it, some arguing against it, and the altercation continued all day. The core of the argument was between Placebo and Justinus. Placebo cited Solomon, advising January that it would be excellent to marry a young wife, and telling him to do exactly as he pleased. Justinus cited Seneca, arguing that January should be more careful and more thoughtful before taking a wife, warning that a young wife was like to cuckold an old husband.

“Straw for thy Senek!” January responds, agreeing with Placebo’s response that only a “cursed man” would argue against marriage; and with that word, they all arose and January began to prepare for his wedding. Fair women and fair bodies passed through January’s head like images reflected on a mirror set up in a market-place – but eventually, January selected one women from the many available to him.

Calling his friends to him again, January asked them not to make any arguments against what he had resolved to do, and voiced his only concern - that a man who finds perfect happiness on earth, as he would with his wife,would never find a similar happiness in heaven, for one must choose between one perfect happiness and another. Justinus, furious with January’s foolishness, advised him that God sent a married man more reason to repent than a single man, and so, married, he might be more likely to get to heaven – even suggesting that marriage might be January's purgatory.

The narrator then, by way of an occupatio leaves out the wedding ceremony, but tells us that January married his intended, May, in a lavish and joyous ceremony. Venus, the goddess of love, laughed at all of the guests, as January had become one of her knights: when tender youth has wedded stooping age, the narrator continues, there is such mirth that it cannot be written.

At the end of the feast, the men cast spices around the wedding house, and everyone was full of joy –

except for Damian, the knight’s squire, who was so in love with the lady May that he was almost mad. The men rode home, and said their farewells and thanks to January, who then decided he would go to bed. He drank strong spiced and sweetened wines, and many a medical mixture, before taking his fresh wife in his arms, rocking her and kissing her often, his bristly beard scratching her tender skin. January made an apology for the offense he was about to do her, but reminding her that legally, he could do whatever he liked to her body. The two then had sex until the day began to dawn, at which point January awoke, drank some bread in wine, and sang loudly, sitting upright in his bed. Quite what May thought of all this, only God knows, the narrator comments – though she thought his sexual exploits absolutely useless.

However, Damian, had written a love letter to May that he pinned in a silk purse next to his heart. One day, Damian was not attending January, and to cover for him the other squires told January that Damian was sick. May and January sat at dinner, and January decided to send May to visit Damian, to tell him that January would soon visit soon, after he had rested. May went straight to Damian, and, secretly, Damian slipped his letter into her hand: knowing that she could not afford to have it discovered, May hid the letter in her bosom. Reading it later, she tore it up and cast it in the toilet so as not to have it discovered.

May had already decided to return Damian’s advances, and replied to his letter telling as much –

taking her letter to his bedroom, putting it under his pillow and giving him a secret handshake. Damian awoke the next morning, his sickness all vanished, and returned to serve January humbly. January's house had a garden so magnificent, the narrator now continues, that even he who wrote Romance of the Rose could not describe its beauty, nor could Priapus accurately describe its art. January loved this garden so much that only he possessed the key to it. In the summer he would go there with May and have sex. January had also, in this time, become blind and became increasingly possessive of his wife, which caused Damian great grief – and May too wept very often, for January was always in her company. However, May and Damian kept in touch via letter, and by various secret signs.

May imprinted January’s key to the garden in warm wax, and Damian made a secret copy of the key. The eighth of June came round, and January decided, thanks to the incitement of his wife, to go and have sex in his beautiful garden. He sang a beautiful song to awake his wife and tempt her to the garden, and eventually, January, blind as a stone, and May, unlocked the gate and stepped into the garden.

Damian had already entered the garden, as May had made signs to him to do so, and now she signaled to him to climb up a nearby tree, full of fruit. At this point, the narrator makes an unusual departure from the supposed realism of January’s story to narrate the descent of Pluto and Proserpina into the garden, who have a long argument about marriage, citing various classical sources. Pluto, feeling pity for January, wants to restore January’s sight so that he can see the villainy about to be done behind his back; Prosperina rejects his argument, telling him that the classical sources which proclaim the evil of women missed out the evil performed by men. Proserpina wants May to have sex with Damian; Pluto wants to restore his sight to prevent it - and Proserpina forcibly ends the argument.

Damian sat high in the pear tree, and May told her husband she longed to pick and eat one of the pears. January bent over so that May could stand on his back to climb the tree - she grabbed a branch, and climbed up into the tree with Damian, who pulled up her dress and began to have sex with her. But, when Pluto saw this, he restored January’s sight – and January, seeing his cuckoldry, let out a huge roar and asked his wife what she was doing.

Without missing a beat, May responds that she had been told that the best way to restore January’s eyesight was to “struggle” with a man in a tree; January responds that she was not struggling, but having full penetrative sex. In that case, May continues, her medicine is false – January clearly isn’t seeing clearly, she argues. And when January asserts that he can see perfectly, May rejoices that she has restored her sight, and persuades January that he did not see her having sex with Damian. January is delighted, kisses her and hugs her, and strokes her on her stomach, leading her home to this house.

Epilogue to the Merchant’s Tale

“Goddes mercy!” said the Host, praying God to keep him from such a wife, and noting that clever wives easily deceive foolish men by ducking away from the truth. “I have a wyf”, the Host continues, who, though she is poor, is a shrew, always blabbing – and she has several other vices too! The Host then cuts himself off again from discussing his wife, as he worries that someone in the company will report his doing so back to his wife. He is, he claims, clever enough not to reveal everything, and therefore his tale is done.

Analysis

There is a real sense in this tale of goodness slightly gone bad, ripeness becoming slightly rotten. This starts, perhaps, with the opening paean to marriage and the description of January as a worthy, noble knight. It is only as we read on that we realize that, in fact, this apparent positivism is flecked with a bitter irony. January, the noble knight, is also portrayed in unforgiving detail, even down to the scratchy bristles on his neck, and the loose skin on his aged body. We, like May, recoil at the description – there is nothing, for example, of the comfortable, stylized presentation of (for example) the Nun’s Priest’s Tale here. The narrator is unstinting when he wants to focus our attentions on something unpleasant.

The authorial condemnation of May also departs from the other fabliaux of the Canterbury Tales. Like Alison of the Miller's Tale, she is crafty, but May is also wicked. She escapes without punishment from her husband, but unlike the Miller's Tale this is not a satisfactory conclusion. While the Miller's Tale prized cunning and crafty behavior, the Merchant's Tale adheres to more traditional values. Therefore, May's escape from punishment is a dissonant element of the story, for she behaves contrary to the established values that the Merchant has set for his tale.

May, unlike her husband, largely escapes from the spotlight of the tale – it does not have access to her thoughts (only God knows, at one point, what she thought of her husband) nor does it really describe her body in anything like the detail it lavishes on her husband’s. What we see of May is largely a matter of her secret signs and cunning behavior: and the only lengthy description of her, significantly, is given in the context of presenting her as a good option for January to marry. What appears beautiful on the visible outside is clearly rotten in the middle.

This too is represented in the strand of Biblical imagery throughout the tale. It is rather obvious, perhaps, to see May’s infidelity with Damien (whose very name, some critics argue, means “snake”) as a version of Eve’s transgression with the snake – both, indeed, take place in a beautiful garden, though the Bible’s Adam does not share the physical disgust of January. Characteristic of the Merchant’s apparent bitterness, perhaps, is the remark which follows January’s really rather beautiful pastiche (calling May to awake and come into the garden) of the Song of Songs: it refers to them in a blunt, dismissive phrase as “olde, lewed words”. In this tale, beautiful women are really venomous, malicious tricksters - beautiful, lyrical poetry is really only old, obscene words.

May, however, despite her low blood, proves herself hugely more intelligent than her noble husband: we might also find analogues for this (at least in sympathy, if not in intelligence) in Griselde of the Clerk’s Tale. There is nothing of the indulgent, joyful trickery of the Miller’s Tale in the Merchant’s Tale, but instead a return to the signification of the Reeve’s Tale - the moment of sexual intercourse is presented with the same unflinching, uneuphemistic detail, and the preceding action between the illicit lovers in both tales is largely a matter of signs.

Secret signs are everywhere in the Merchant’s Tale: things which, like the mirror in the common marketplace (the metaphor for January’s pre-wedding fanciful mind), leave a certain impression on the mind. From the letter that May reads and then casts into the privy, to the secret handshake between May and Damien, to the impression of January’s key which allows Damien into the garden, this tale is focused on tricky actions rather than words, secret, illicit events rather than open actions.

The bitterness of the Merchant, trapped in his unhappy marriage, can be felt, then, coursing through the veins of the Merchant’s Tale at various points; but particularly in its bitterly unhappy (happy) ending, in which blind January is entirely gulled into believing that he has not been made a fool of. Moreover, when we consider that January happily strokes his wife on her “wombe” (“stomach”, but also “womb”) at the end of the tale, the Merchant might even leave us with a taste of what would happen next: has May just become pregnant with Damien’s baby? The suggestion is not as ridiculous as it initially sounds - particularly when you consider that the pear (it is a pear tree in which the couple have sex) was a well-known remedy to help fertility in Chaucer’s day. Perhaps May – at the end of this tale – has actually got something (someone!) rotten growing inside her.