How does Chaucer visualize the physical beauty of Alisoun in The Miller's Tale?
There’s not much mystery to the manner Geoffrey Chaucer adopted in describing the woman at the center of The Miller’s Tale. On the contrary, very early in his story, Chaucer provides physical descriptions that leave the reader free to visualize a woman with an unsophisticated or unrefined beauty. She is beautiful and sexy -- maybe even erotic -- but is a product of her environment and, as such, knows nothing of the more refined ways of upper-class society.
Soon after his prologue, the author begins his tale, part of The Canterbury Tales, providing the Miller’s perspective, having heard already from the knight. This eclectic group of travelers entertains each other by telling stories, and each participant’s story reflects that individual’s unique perspective and temperament. Chaucer clearly intends for the Miller to represent the more unrefined and graceless of the group of travelers united only by their common destination. He repeatedly refers to this character as churlish – at one point he writes “the Miller is a churl, you know well” – indicating that the tale that follows can be expected to be more ribald than those of other, more educated or sophisticated members of the group. As the word denotes, the Miller is a spiteful person given to the most derogatory of descriptions. Chaucer’s narrator suggests that the tales are being told second-hand, so there is room for interpretation on the part of the writer and reader alike. As such, the description of Alison provided in the text is one of beauty tinged with promiscuity despite her marital status. In one passage, the Miller describes Alison as follows:
“This young wife was fair, and her body moreover was as graceful and slim as any weasel. She wore a striped silken belt, and over her loins an apron white as morning’s milk, all flounced out. Her smock was white and embroidered on the collar, inside and outside, in front and in back, with coal-black silk; and of the same black silk were the strings of her white hood, and she wore a broad band of silk, wrapped high about her hair.”
To reinforce the notion that Alison is a major player in the sexual and political intrigues to come, the storyteller adds:
“And surely she had a lecherous eye . . . In all this world there is no man so wise who could imagine such a wench, or so lively a little doll. Her hue shone more brightly than the noble newly forged in the Tower.”
Alison, as described by the Miller, is a tease and an adulteress. Alison’s husband, the feeble, older John, is the butt of her humor and escapades, and she toys with other men, including Nicholas, as much for sport as for sexual gratification. Infidelity is her hobby, and the Miller’s tale is decidedly unattractive in its presentation of this young woman.