16: The Merchant's Tale Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 968

Summary
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.

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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 tells him that the only way for his sight to be restored was for her to struggle with a man in a tree. When January says he knows what he saw, and what he saw was not a struggle but a passionate sexual joining, May contradicts him. She convinces January, who wants to believe her, that his state of blindness had made his newly restored vision a little out of focus at first.

May climbs down from the tree. January leads her back to the palace where they live happily ever after. What happens to Damian is not confided. The tale ends.

The Host comments that women are naturally deceptive. He adds that although his wife is faithful, she has many, many other faults which he will not list because someone in the group would be sure to tell his wife. That is how women are, the Host confides; they stick together.

Discussion and Analysis
This tale is another example of fabliau with its deceiving, tricking, and making a fool of a foolish man. The elements of the romance (i.e., the knight, the rituals, the gardens, the palace) are inserted to add humor and contrast to the tale of an earthy young woman who determines to enjoy her young lover and gets away with it.

As with many of the tales, the material for this story is drawn from many sources: Italian, German, and French literature, as well as English oral tradition.

The theme of blindness dominates this tale. January is too blind to see his foolishness in marrying such a young woman. After the marriage, his love and his desire to be happy blind him to May's infidelity. His physical blindness reinforces the theme.

The Merchant's Tale is also about marriage. It reiterates the message in earlier tales: men are always taken in and manipulated by their wives, suffering greatly in the process. Not only is this true for January, but for the Merchant and the Host as well.

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