3: The Miller's Tale Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 999

Summary
The pilgrims congratulate the Knight on a wonderful story. The Host invites the Monk to tell another uplifting story, but the drunken Miller interrupts, insisting that he can match the Knight. The Host tries to stop the Miller, but the Miller will not be stopped. When he says he will tell a tale about a carpenter, the Reeve loudly objects; but it is to no avail. Chaucer warns the reader that the story may be coarse, but if the reader finds it offensive, he may choose another tale.

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The Miller tells the story of a wealthy carpenter named John who has a very young and beautiful wife named Alison. Nicholas, a poor scholar of astrology, boards with John and Alison. Nicholas is young and lusty and covets the lovely Alison.

One day when John is away, Nicholas makes advances to Alison. She at first resists; however, Nicholas is persistent and Alison soon succumbs to his charms. She worries that her husband will kill her if he finds out, but Nicholas assures her that he will plan their time to make love so that the carpenter will never guess.

In the meantime, a lively parish clerk named Absalom also falls in love with Alison. Having an affair with her becomes his obsession and he makes a complete fool of himself in wooing her. Alison rebuffs him continually, but Absalom persists in his vain efforts to win her love.

Shortly after Alison and Nicholas fall in love, the carpenter goes away for the day again. The young lovers plan a way to complete their tryst. When John returns, Nicholas pretends to fall into an extended trance. When John finally succeeds in awakening him, Nicholas reveals that the stars and God have made known to him that within hours the world will again be destroyed by a great flood. Nicholas tells the carpenter that he, Alison, and Nicholas are to be saved if John will follow Nicholas' instructions.

John, who is incredibly gullible and desperate to save Alison, complies. As instructed, he suspends three large tubs from the beams in the ceiling and loads them with food and water. He puts in an axe to free the tubs when the water reaches ceiling level and chops an opening in the wall for the tubs to float through when the house fills up with water.

That night, Alison, John, and Nicholas climb into the tubs to sleep. Completely exhausted by his preparations, John falls into a dead sleep. The young lovers get out of the tubs and spend the night making love in the carpenter's bed.

That same night, Absalom determines to get Alison to at least kiss him. He stays awake all night and goes to her window when it is pitch-dark, just before dawn. Absalom begs Alison for a kiss and she finally agrees. However, instead of leaning her head out the window, Alison hangs her bare backside out, unbeknownst to Absalom. Absalom enthusiastically kisses her rear end. He is horrifed and infuriated when he realizes he has been duped.

Determined to take revenge, Absalom rushes to the blacksmith's and borrows a hot poker. He runs back to the window and begs Alison for another kiss. This time, to further humiliate Absalom, Nicholas hangs his bare behind out the window, loudly breaking wind to complete the insult. Absalom applies the hot poker, nearly killing Nicholas with pain.

Nicholas begins to scream for water. His shouts waken John. Hearing only the word "water!" John assumes the flood has begun and chops the cords attaching the tubs to the ceiling. Everything crashes to the ground below and John is knocked unconscious in the fall.

Of course, all the neighbors are alerted by the racket and the chaos. They are hugely amused by the whole situation, and John is made a laughingstock in the community for the rest of his days. Both Nicholas and Absalom are humiliated, and the Miller concludes his tale, making the point that the gorgeous young Alison has made fools of them all.

Discussion and Analysis
The Miller is coarse and common; the reader is warned that his tale will reflect his personality. The Miller and Reeve are rivals, possibly even acquainted on a personal basis. This tale is obviously written to contrast dramatically with the elevated tone of The Knight's Tale. The Miller's Tale is an example of the fabliau: set in contemporary times; peopled with everyday characters; dealing with one of Man's most basic functions, sexual appetite; concerned with cunning and folly; and meant to be funny.

These features contrast sharply with The Knight's Tale, which was a romance featuring a setting in the distant past "aristocratic characters," concern with ideals and idealized love, a focus on the naure of good and evil, and which was meant to extol virtue.

The Miller's Tale is based on the traditional plot of a lovers' triangle, common in the French models with which Chaucer was familiar. It is also loaded with details which relate the tale to the medieval town of Oxford. For instance, Nicholas is the typical poor scholar who needs lodging; and John is the successful carpenter who has grown wealthy working on the cathedral being constructed nearby at Oseney. John's wealth enables him to have a house large enough to accommodate a boarder and to get a much younger woman to marry him. These factual details help make believable what is actually a fantastic story.

If this tale can be said to have a theme, it is probably the admonition at the beginning of the story: "men should marry women of their own age, for youth and age are often at odds." John has married the young Alison mainly as an object; she is young, beautiful, and seductive—which makes him look good. He has acquired her to show her off, as a trophy of sorts. These are the wrong reasons for a man to marry, Chaucer seems to be saying; and John should have known better.

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2: The Knight's Tale Summary and Analysis

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4: The Reeve's Tale Summary and Analysis