The Canterbury Tales 16: The Merchant's Tale Summary and Analysis
by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download The Canterbury Tales Study Guide

Subscribe Now

16: The Merchant's Tale Summary and Analysis

Commenting that his wife is absolutely nothing like Griselda, the Merchant reveals that he is very unhappily married. The Host, who can sympathize, begs the Merchant to tell more. Saying he would prefer not to go on about his own troubles, the Merchant begins his story.

January is an Italian knight who has remained a bachelor for 60 years. However, he has recently become convinced that the married state is the happiest and has, therefore, decided that he will take a wife.

January calls in all of his friends and brothers and lectures them all on the bliss of the wedded state. He then begs them to help him find a young wife because he wants to marry right away. Some advise him against haste and others against marrying a young woman, but January's mind is made up on both scores.

Over the next several days, January imagines all the town's eligible women and considers their virtues and attractiveness. His choice finally rests on May, a girl of 20 who is poor, but very beautiful. He is overjoyed with his decision, but troubled because he has heard that man may be allowed true bliss only once. January is afraid that the joy he anticipates in marriage will prevent his enjoying eternal bliss in heaven.

The eager bridegroom's brother reminds him of the commentary of the Wife of Bath (it is unknown how she came to be in this story) and assures him that it is unlikely that he has anything about which to be concerned.

January soon marries May and commences his life of marital bliss. However, all is not well because, the Merchant tells us, January's handsome young squire, Damian, is so in love with May that he is nearly overcome with passion. He writes a love poem to the bride, puts it in a silken purse, and wears it next to his heart until the opportunity presents itself to give it to May.

Within a few days of the wedding, Damian takes to his bed. When May and her ladies visit him, Damian slips the love letter to May who hides it on her person. After reading and destroying the poem, May decides that she is in love with the handsome Damian. She declares her fondness and willingness in a secret letter which she gives him a few days later.

Meanwhile, January is foolishly happy. He has a secret garden to which only he has the key. There he and May frolic and frequently make love. One day, however, January is suddenly struck blind. From that point on, he becomes so fearful of losing May that he insists she remain close enough for him to touch at all times. After a short period of adjustment, January and May resume their lovemaking in the garden.

During the early days of her husband's blindness, May has secretly had a copy of the only garden key made and has given it to Damian. One day, Damian enters the secret garden before May and January arrive. When the couple enters the garden, May pretends to want a pear. Assuming them to be totally alone in the garden, January permits his wife to climb the tree to pick some fruit. Damian is already in the tree so he and May immediately begin frantic lovemaking there.

At that same moment, the King and Queen of Fairyland are debating about the situation going on under January's nose. The King resolves to restore January's sight so that he may witness and avenge the adultery. His Queen, however, assures him that she will give May the words to totally exonerate herself and dupe January even further.

Instantly, January's sight is restored. He looks up to find Damian and May madly making love in the tree. Enraged, he screams that he has been betrayed. May glibly...

(The entire section is 968 words.)