Merchant’s Tale, The

Merchant’s Tale, The
   by Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1394)
   The Merchant’s Tale is one of several CANTERBURY TALES in which CHAUCER explores the institution of marriage. The story follows The CLERK’S TALE of patient Griselda, and the Merchant narrator tells it largely to contrast the deceitful May, the “real life” spouse, with the saintly Griselda. The narrator, disillusioned with his own marriage after all of two months, presents a bitter and cynical look at marriage, though the effect of the tale is an indictment more of foolish attitudes and motives concerning marriage than of the institution itself. The Merchant’s Tale follows a FABLIAU plot involving adultery and trickery. Its style, however, is far more formal and elaborate than a typical fabliau, and its diction, aristocratic characters, and use of the supernatural are more characteristic of a ROMANCE. The ironic contrast between subject and style make The Merchant’s Tale one of the most striking of The Canterbury Tales.
   As the story begins, January, a Lombard knight who has lived a life of debauchery and lechery for 60 years, has decided it is time to marry. He wants an heir, but he also claims to be concerned about his mortal soul, and wants a wife so that he can allay his lust in a manner sanctioned by the church. He therefore determines to marry a young wife.He asks his courtiers to advise him on his proposal, and the flattering sycophant Placebo tells him he has made a wise decision, but Justinus calls it a foolish plan.
   Nevertheless January has made up his mind, and marries the youthful May. The Merchant narrator describes the wedding in gruesome detail, highlighting with disgust January’s rough whiskers and sagging neck.We are not told how May feels. However January’s young squire, Damian, is attracted to May, and passes her a note declaring his love. She begins to look for a way to satisfy him. January has a private garden built in which he and May can walk. In the course of time, however, he loses his sight, and May hatches a plot with Damian to meet him in a pear tree in the garden. As she and January walk in the garden, she feigns hunger for the fruit, and climbs the tree. She and Damian have sex in the tree above January’s head. At the climax of the tale, the gods Pluto and Proserpine come walking in the garden and witness the cuckolding. The indignant Pluto restores January’s sight, but Proserpine gives May the skill to convince January not to believe the evidence of his own eyes. She says that she was told if she “struggled with a man in a tree,” her husband’s sight would be restored. The tale ends with the willfully blinded January stroking May’s womb, believing he has begotten an heir.
   Scholarly comment on the tale has focused on the question of whether it was originally intended for the Merchant; since there are two lines that imply a clerical narrator, one conjecture is that it was initially meant for THE FRIAR’S TALE or THE MONK’S TALE. This has also led to a division of opinion as to the tone of the tale: If it is closely identified with the bitter Merchant of the tale’s prologue, it is a dark and heavy tale. But taken by itself, some critics argue, it is a lighter satire, like most fabliaux. The variety of genres on display and Chaucer’s generic experiments in the tale have also been of interest to scholars.
   ■ Brown, Emerson, Jr. “Chaucer, the Merchant, and Their Tale: Getting Beyond Old Controversies: Part I,” Chaucer Review 13 (1978): 141–156.
   ■ Brown, Emerson, Jr. “Chaucer, the Merchant, and Their Tale: Getting Beyond Old Controversies: Part II,” Chaucer Review 13 (1979): 247–262.
   ■ Edwards, A. S. G. “ ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ and Moral Chaucer,”Modern Language Quarterly 51 (1990): 409–426.
   ■ Hagen, Susan K. “Chaucer’s May, Standup Comics, and Critics.” In Chaucer’s Humor: Critical Essays, edited by Jean E. Jost, 127–143. New York: Garland, 1994.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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