What impressions of womanhood and of sexual behavior does Alisoun in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Miller's Tale seem to convey?
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Alisoun, the young adulterous wife in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale seems to be the subject of Chaucer’s comic satire. She is a satirical target because both her behavior in general and her sexual behavior in particular are immoral by almost any standard, but especially by the Christian standards prevalent in Chaucer’s day. Here are some specific reasons for thinking that Chaucer is satirizing Alisoun’s conduct:
- When Nicholas tries to seduce her, she briefly resists but soon agrees to have sex with him (163-83). Nicholas
. . . profred him [that is, proffered himself] so fast
That she hir love graunted him at laste . . . (182-83)
The words “at laste” here are especially comic and ironic, since her resistance has not lasted long at all!
- Next, Alisoun swears an
ooth [that is, oath] by Saint Thomas of Kent
That she wolde be at his [that is, Nicholas’s] commandment . . . (183-84)
This phrasing is highly ironic. The allusion to St. Thomas reminds us that he was a highly venerated Christian martyr who had been killed because of his Christian virtue. His example, then, contrasts strongly with the behavior Alisoun is now demonstrating. The use of the word “commandment” is also ironic, since Alisoun, by obeying Nicholas’s commandments, will be disobeying God’s.
- By deliberately planning to commit adultery rather than merely doing so impulsively (185-89), Alisoun misuses the divine gift of reason and is thus all the more responsible for her sin.
- Alisoun and Nicholas may assume correctly that they can deceive Alisoun’s husband (190-99), but all Christians at the time would have known that God can never be deceived.
- When Alisoun finally commits adultery with Nicholas, the setting is highly ironic and implicitly satirical. They have sex all night,
Til that the belle of Laudes [the church bell summoning people to praise God] [be]gan to ringe
And freres [that is, Christian friars] in the chauncel gonne to singe. (547-48)
Thus the adulterous sexual “melodye” (544) made by Nicholas and Alison is ironically juxtaposed with far more worthy kinds of music.
- Alisoun repeatedly alludes to God and takes God’s name in vain as she plans to commit adultery and as she actually is committing it, as, for example, in lines 601-03.
- Alisoun, when resisting the entreaties of Absolon, claims that she
“. . . love[s] another, and ells I were to blame,
Wel bet[ter] than thee, by Jesu, Absolon.” (602-03)
Absolon may think she is referring to her husband, but of course readers know that she is thinking of Nicholas. Nicholas, however, is morally and spiritually worse than John, not better, and in any case the person to whom Alisoun should be devoting her full love is Christ, not Nicholas.
- When Alisoun tricks Absolon into kissing her naked rear end, her words are almost blasphemous:
“Thanne kis me, sin [that is, since] since that it may be no bet[ter],
For Jesus[’s] love and for the love of me.”
In short, Alisoun seems is presented by Chaucer as a deeply deceptive and irreligious woman whose main interest in life seems to be cheap sexual self-gratification.
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