How, in "The Miller's Tale" (part of The Canterbury Tales), does Chaucer use humor to make social criticisms?

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vangoghfan | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Geoffrey Chaucer uses humor frequently and in numerous ways to make social criticisms in his poem titled The Canterbury Tales. One of the tales, the one associated with the Miller, is especially funny and especially effective in its comic social satire.  Examples of the use of humor in this work include the following:

  •  In the "prologue" to the tale, the Miller is so drunk that he can barely sit on his horse. He is so much under the influence of alcohol that he speaks wildly, in a voice associated with madness, and refuses to show any respect to anyone else. He even takes God’s name in vain (3120-27). Chaucer thus humorously mocks drunkenness, pride, rudeness, and foolishness. Perhaps the most humorous moment of this whole episode occurs in lines 3136-38:

3136         "Now herkneth," quod the Millere, "alle and some!
                    "Now listen," said the Miller, "everyone!
3137         But first I make a protestacioun
                    But first I make a protestation
3138         That I am dronke; I knowe it by my soun.
                    That I am drunk; I know it by my sound.

The Miller, in other words, has just enough intelligence left to figure out that he is inebriated.

  • In the tale itself, Chaucer uses humor to mock crude sexual behavior, as when Nicholas grabs Alisoun by her “quente” (3276). Chaucer also mocks sexual desperation when Nicholas claims that he will “spille” if Alisoun doesn’t have sex with him (3278), and he satirizes irreligious vows when Nicholas claims that unless he does have sex with Alisoun, he will die, so “God me save!” (3281). The whole initial encounter between Nicholas and Alisoun is very funny because it is so very ironic. Each of them, for instance, refers to God and uses other religious terms while plotting the very unchristian act of adultery. Another especially humorous moment in this episode occurs when the Miller describes, in line 3304, how Nicholas says good-bye to Alisoun.  He

        . . . thakked hire aboute the lendes weel . . .
                    . . . well patted her about the loins


Here and throughout the tale, there is a complete – and very funny – lack of subtlety in the descriptions of sexual misconduct. The Miller’s approving description of Nicholas’s behavior here helps make the Miller himself seem as ridiculously crude as the people he describes.  Chaucer thus implicitly mocks the anti-social, irreligious attitudes of both the Miller and the people the Miller depicts.

  • When Absolon is first described, his obsession with mere material possessions, especially rich clothing, is implicitly mocked, but then the Miller offers this final tidbit of funny information:

3337         But sooth to seyn, he was somdeel squaymous
                    But to say the truth, he was somewhat squeamish
3338         Of fartyng, and of speche daungerous.
                    About farting, and fastidious in his speech.

These lines, of course, ironically foreshadow the later farting the tale depicts, but here the reference to flatulence seems hilariously unexpected.

In these ways and many others, then, Chaucer in The Miller’s Tale uses humor to mock his characters and their variously bad social behaviors. Irony is the main feature of the humor he employs, but sheer bad taste (no pun intended) also contributes to the hilarity of this particular tale.

Sources:

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