Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" pivots on three stories that are born from (or end in) chaos. In what way is that chaos reflected in Chaucer's literary technique?
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Chaos or disorder is an important theme in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale,” and such chaos is emphasized through Chaucer’s heavily ironic style. Sometimes the chaos described in this tale is physical (as when Absolon kisses the rear end of Alison, or when Nicholas farts in Absolon’s face, or when Nicholas has his rear end scalded by Absolon’s burning hot poker, or when poor John comes crashing down in his tub). All the physical chaos, however, is ultimately caused by moral chaos, and it is this latter kind of disorder that is arguably most interesting to Chaucer. Thus, Alison’s adulterous affair with Nicholas, which begins long before they actually have sex, is a perfect example of moral chaos. Such chaos is reflected, for instance, when Alison swears
. . . by Saint Thomas of Kent
That she wolde been at his [Nicholas’s] commandement . . . (lines 183-84)
Saint Thomas (as Chaucer emphasizes in the General Prologue), was one of the great holy martyrs of the Christian church, willing to die for his faith. Thus it is highly ironic that Alison swears by him when she pledges to commit adultery. Likewise, Chaucer’s use of the word “commandement” ironically reminds us of the various Biblical commandments that Alison is violating by pledging to have sex with a man who is not her husband. Her values are chaotic and disordered, and so is her language.
Equally chaotic and disordered (from a medieval Christian point of view) is the later scene when Nicholas and Alison are actually having adulterous sex in John’s own bed. They are occupied there
In bisinesse of mirthe and of solas,
Til that the belle of Laudes gan to ringe,
And freres in the chancel gonne singe. (546-48)
Here again the religious language emphasizes, by irony and through contrast, the disordered, morally chaotic behavior of the two adulterers. Likewise, it does not seem a coincidence that Absolon is later literally on his knees, hoping for “grace,” when he gives Alison what amounts to a French kiss on her rectum. Few things in all literature are more disorderly and chaotic, in every way, than that kiss, and the same might be said of the near repeat-performance later when Absolon seems about to kiss Nicholas’s rear end as well but is instead greeted with a blinding fart.
Throughout the tale, therefore, Chaucer uses irony as his chief stylistic trait – a trait designed to emphasize and mock the moral chaos the tale describes.
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