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Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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ONLINE STUDY GUIDE FOR THE CANTERBURY TALES

The Merchant’s Tale: Prologue

The Merchant says that he has had more than his share of weeping, worrying and mourning in his marital life. He rues the fact that his wife does not have Griselda’s patience. He has only been married for two months but his wretched wife had made his life thoroughly miserable. The Host requests the Merchant to share his sorrow with them. But the Merchant says that his heart was too sore to speak about his own sorrow any more. He says that his tale will be of wives of a different kind.


The Merchant’s Tale

Summary

There once lived a Knight named January in the town of Pavia in Lombardy. He had lived a life of wantonness for nearly sixty years and was suddenly overcome by a strong desire to marry. He believed that marriage was earthly paradise and wished to marry a beautiful young maiden who could beget him a son and heir. He accordingly began his search for a suitable wife.

The Merchant then sarcastically launches into an exaggerated praise of the divine institution of marriage. He ironically praises a wife as being a gift of God and then gives the examples of the wise counsel given by women such as Rebecca, Judith, Abigail, that had in actuality only caused destruction. While praising wives he ironically quotes Cato and Seneca.

January then discussed his problem with his friends and expressed his desire to marry a very young maiden of not more than twenty years old. This led to a great debate and a dispute between the Knight’s brothers named Placebo and Justinus. While Placebo told January to take his own decision without taking anybody’s opinion into consideration, Justinus counseled against marriage since women are fickle. January then decided to get married.


January looked over the young girls who lived nearby and finally decided to marry one of them named May. He again called his friends together and asked them something that had been troubling him since a long time. He asked them that it has been said that nobody is allowed perfect rapture on heaven as well on earth; and if marriage is perfect bliss would he be able to enter heaven after his death? At this Justinius disgustedly replied that God will ensure that he repents of marriage and married life before he dies. However seeing that he couldn’t dissuade January from getting married, he left. January made the preparations for the wedding and finally married May. There was a lavish wedding feast and began to get impatient for his first night in bed with his ravishing wife. The feasting gained momentum and the guests sang and danced in happiness. The Knight’s Squire named Damian was also present and he instantly fell in love with the young bride. He took to bed in despair of his unrequited love. Old January could not bear the waiting any longer and asked the guests to clear the house. After the priest had blessed the bridal bed everybody left the room and January clasped May in his arms and made love to her. At the approach of dawn he started singing with joy but May was not impressed and went off to sleep.

After the customary four days of solitary eating May joined January at the banquet table. It was then that January suddenly noticed Damian’s absence and inquired about him. He was informed that Damian had fallen sick and he decided to pay him a visit. He also told May to visit Damian along with the ladies of the Court after dinner to cheer him up. When May visited Damian he deftly slipped a letter declaring his love in her hand. After reading the letter May was overcome with pity and decided to reciprocate Damian’s love and gave him a letter telling him the same. Thereafter Damian recovered quickly from his illness and resumed his normal duties.

January’s happiness didn’t last long and unfortunately he suddenly lost his eyesight. He became very sad and forlorn but also grew increasingly jealous of his young wife and feared that he would be deceived. He grew extremely possessive of her and would not let her go alone anywhere. This upset May who could not only send messages to Damian. Finally May contrived to get Damian into the January’s personal garden and told him to hide in the pear tree.

In the meanwhile the God Pluto and his wife Prosperina were watching the entire scene from a far corner of the garden. There arose a dispute among them when Pluto denunciated the treacherousness inherent in women. Pluto resolved to restore the old Knight’s eyesight at the very moment that May betrays him while Prosperina resolved to provide May with the perfect answer for her misdemeanor.

May then climbed up into the tree herself to ostensibly pluck a pear. May and Damian then embraced each other and made love. At this moment Pluto restored January’s eyesight and he saw his wife embraced by Damian. He at once created a hue and cry. However May replied that she was only struggling with Damian since she had been told that by doing so she could restore her husband’s sight. When January said that it was more than a simple struggle, May told him that his eyes were weak and he had been deluded. January is convinced with May’s reply and fondly embraces her.

Notes

The Merchant’s Tale immediately follows the Clerk’s ideal delineation of Griselda’s patience. In stark contrast, the Merchant’s Tale takes into account the bitter realities of life. The Merchant is cynical, bitter and disillusioned by his two month long marriage. His tale reflects the disgust that he feels with himself for getting married and he heaps scorn on old January’s decision to marry after leading a carefree life as a bachelor.

The Merchant’s Tale like the Miller’s tale deals with the gulling of an old husband by a young wife. However one can notice the wide difference between their characters simply by the manner in which they deal with the same subject matter.

The Merchant’s Tale has often been denounced as a bawdy tale about the deception of a jealous husband. However it is a serious discussion of the problem of marriage. To the Merchant, marriage is an undesirable state. In the course of his tale the Merchant lists out some points in favor of marriage. It is a means of securing an heir; it is a divine state sanctified by God; it is a sacrament. A wife is God’s gift since woman was made for man’s help. But the Merchant directs intense scorn towards every favorable opinion regarding marriage. This reflects his own bitterness and unhappy personal experience. In his tale old January is betrayed by his young wife, May, who has an affair with Damian. At the end of the story the reader sees January as a gulled husband, May as a slut and Damian as a traitor. Pluto restores January’s sight and makes him see his wife’s betrayal but Prosperina endows May with the ability to satisfy January with her smart answer. The point that the Merchant makes is that marital happiness can only be achieved by self-imposed blindness. When January’s sight is restored, he allows himself to be blinded to the true facts. He can see May and Damian locked in an embrace and still lets himself believe that his wife is faithful. The resolution of the plot is thus ironic. The tale could have very well ended in a tragedy but Chaucer makes the conclusion comic. Chaucer allows January to live in a fool’s paradise.


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