Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Millerís Tale: Prologue


When the Knight had concluded his tale everybody agreed that it was noble story worth remembering. The Host then jovially called upon the Monk to tell a tale that would surpass the Knightís. However the Miller who was very drunk protested that he had a splendid tale for the occasion and one that would match the Knightís. But the Host seeing that the Miller was tipsy tried in vain to dissuade him. The Miller was adamant and proclaimed that he would narrate a tale about the deception of a carpenter by a scholar. The Reeve who had been a in his youth objected vehemently on grounds of obscenity. But nobody was able to stop the Miller from telling his vulgar tale. Chaucer apologizes to the readers for including it in his book but reminds the reader that he is bound to tell all the stories since a prize is involved.

The Millerís Tale


There once lived a rich old carpenter in Oxford who also took in paying guests. He had a lodger named Nicholas who was a student of astrology. This young scholar was able to forecast the weather conditions. Nicholas was very clever and wily and fond of playing the harp and singing songs. He was nicknamed Fly Nicholas because he loved pleasure in and out of bed.

The carpenter had married a pretty 18 year-old girl named Alison. He was very conscious of the vast discrepancy in their ages and kept a close eye on her since he was afraid of being deceived. One day when the carpenter had gone to Ossney, Nicholas started flirting with Alison and declared his love for her. At first Alison protested and vowed to scream to gather the neighbors. But she gradually relented. She confided to Nicholas that her husband was very jealous and that they should wait for an opportune moment for the sake of safety.

One day when Alison went to the parish church a young clerk named Absalon saw her and fell in love with her. The Miller describes Absalon as being very stylish and lively. The overall impression that the reader gets of him is of an effeminate and prim person. Absalon was so overcome by Alisonís beauty that when he went around with the collection plate he refused to accept any money from the women out of good manners. That night Absalon went to the carpenterís house with his guitar and sang entreaties to Alison to accept him. The carpenter awoke from his sleep by the noise but to his relief found that his wife was indifferent to Absalon and his protestations of love. This state of affairs continued for a long time. Alice turned Absalonís desperate efforts to woo her into a big joke.

It transpired that one Saturday when the old carpenter had gone to Ossney on some work Alison and Nicholas hatched a plot to sleep together at night. Nicholas carried enough food and drink to last him two days to his room and instructed Alison to tell the carpenter if he should ask for him that she hadnít the faintest idea where he was. The carpenter noticed Nicholasís absence and surmised that something might be wrong with him and even feared that Nicholas might have died. The carpenterís servant went to check on Nicholas and found him sitting bolt upright and motionless with a gaping mouth on his bed. Thinking that Nicholas had an attack of fit the carpenter shook him hard by the shoulders to bring him to his senses. Nicholas then pretended to come out of his stupor and tricked the carpenter into believing that he had a vision that Noahís flood was about to recur in less than an hourís time. Nicholas advised the carpenter to hang three boat-like tubs by the rafters and to stow them with a dayís provisions and an axe for cutting the ropes to allow the tubs to float in the flood. Further, the tubs are to be hung far apart from each other and nobody is to talk or look at each other during the flood.

When the carpenter told his wife about the flood she put on a good act of being frightened to death. The foolish carpenter then fastened the three tubs to the rafters. At night the carpenter, Old John, his wife and Nicholas entered into their respective tubs and prayed. In a short while the carpenter fell into a troubled slumber. Soon Alison and Nicholas got out of their tubs and quietly went to bed.

In the meanwhile when the amorous parish clerk Absalon heard that the carpenter had gone out of town on business he hurried to declare his love to Alison. He positioned himself under Alisonís window and begged her to give him a kiss. Alison refused to do so but Absalon was adamant and refused to budge. Afraid that the neighbors might get up by Absalonís entreaties, she relented to his demand. But deciding to humiliate him she thrust her backside out of the window, which Absalon kissed. But he soon realized that he had been tricked and went off vowing to take revenge. Absalon then went across the street to a blacksmith and borrowed a red-hot iron. He returned beneath Alisonís window and begged for one more kiss. This time Nicholas decided to trick Absalon and extended his posterior out of the window to be kissed. Absalon asked Alison to speak to him and Nicholas thunderously farted. This upset the prim Absalon who branded Nicholasís buttocks with the red-hot iron. The noise of Nicholasí agonized screams startled the carpenter out of his sleep who cut the rope suspending his tub from the ceiling and plunged down to the floor. Nicholas and Alisonís screams for help brought the neighbors to the house. The carpenterís fall had resulted in a broken arm. Nicholas slyly told the that the carpenter had gone mad and was convinced of the recurrence of Noahís flood and had tied three tubs to the ceiling for safety. The laughed heartily at the carpenterís lunacy and refused to take his version of the story seriously. The whole affair turned into a hilarious joke.


The plot of the Millerís tale is incredible and bizarre. It has many points of absurdity. For instance, it is incredible that Old John readily believes Nicholasí story about the recurrence of Noahís flood and following his directions hangs tubs from the ceiling. He appears to be quite daft. This contributes to the humor of the story. One must remember that Chaucer wrote the Millerís Tale as an example of the practical joke. Although its theme is adultery, Chaucer emphasizes on the aspect of the joke. The comic spirit pervading the Millerís Tale redeems its worst faults.

Chaucer has drawn excellent character portraits in The Millerís Tale. Old John remains a shadowy background figure as the jealous and foolish husband. Nicholas, the Clerk, is of course, smart, lecherous, and devious. Alison is not simply the lascivious and fickle wife. Undoubtedly she is beautiful but Chaucerís description isnít that of a conventional beauty but that of a village wench. She is amusing and her high and mighty airs when she first rejects (pretends to reject) Nicholasí advances contributes to the humor of the story. Her quick reciprocation of his love is also funny. Absolonís portrait is also drawn with an eye for individual detail. He comes across as a character who is foppish in his attire but at the same time he is effeminate in his character and considers himself as the ultimate Don Juan.

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