What is Chaucer trying to say about marriage in "The Miller's Tale"?

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"The Miller's Tale"is a wonderfully bawdy comic creation, featuring naked bottoms, wind breaking, and an adulterous liaison. It also provides another take on the subject of marriage extensively dealt with elsewhere by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales.  But the vision of married love set out here is...

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"The Miller's Tale" is a wonderfully bawdy comic creation, featuring naked bottoms, wind breaking, and an adulterous liaison. It also provides another take on the subject of marriage extensively dealt with elsewhere by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales. But the vision of married love set out here is far removed from the more elevated, romantic notion shared by the Wife of Bath.

John the carpenter seems to have done rather well for himself. As well as having a nice house and all the other trappings of wealth, he has a young, attractive wife named Alisoun. In recounting his tale the miller tells us that John loves Alisoun more than his life. But only a couple of lines later, he goes on to says John is jealous of her and keeps her "in a cage." He does not mean this literally, of course, but the implication is clear. John may say he loves Alisoun but we get the impression that she is nothing more than a trophy wife to him.

"The Miller's Tale" demonstrates the belief that the main problem with having a trophy wife is that, sooner or later, younger men will want to have her. And that is precisely what happens in the story. Not one, but two young upstarts try to have their way with the comely Alisoun. First on the scene is Nicholas, an astrology student who lodges with John and Alisoun and has more on his mind than the course of stars and planets.

Then there is Absalom, a merry scholar with a fine voice and a gift for music, who lusts unsuccessfully after Alisoun, ending up with little more than a fart in the face for his troubles.

Beneath all the bawdiness, bottoms and broken wind, Chaucer makes a serious point about marriage. He puts forward a conventional understanding of what marriage meant in the Middle Ages. For medieval folk like Chaucer, marriage was a true union of spirit and flesh, part of the much larger, cosmic marriage between Christ and his Church.

Clearly, the marriage between John and Alisoun does not in any way live up to this noble ideal. All of the characters in their own individual way violate the sanctity of marriage, and all of them eventually come to grief in some way or another. "The Miller's Tale" is essentially moralistic and didactic in its purpose. But as Chaucer is so skillful at getting his point across with humor, we never feel that we are being preached at.

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Several of the characters in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales tell stories that poke fun of several aspects of marriage. "The Miller's Tale" is one of those stories. The story satirizes the standard thought that men should pursue and be allowed to marry a woman much younger than the man. In the story, the carpenter marries a woman much younger than he is. She's eighteen and very attractive. To many men that might sound great, but the story is a warning. The carpenter lives in constant jealously. He's incredibly protective of his wife, and feels threatened by any man that even looks at his wife. He's not living in a happy marriage with a partner. Instead, he's trying to hold on to a prize. Chaucer's tale shows this is not the basis of a healthy marriage.

The story also suggests that women are not typically given equality within a marriage. The story supports the idea that women should be given this equality. The wife in the tale is young and beautiful, but she is treated like a possession instead of a partner. Her role in the marriage is strictly for sexual pleasure. Chaucer shows the danger of this kind of relationship by having the wife cheat on her husband. It's her way of getting revenge against her husband and taking control of a relationship of her own.  

All in all, I would say "The Miller's Tale" argues marriage should be about equality between two partners. I'm not saying both partners should be the exact same age, but they usually shouldn't be decades apart, either. Similar ages will put both people at similar maturity levels, which should lead to increased respect between partners. The increased respect will likely cause the marriage to have more equality between the two partners. I believe equality between partners in a marriage is Chaucer's main point.

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