4: The Reeve's Tale Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 836

All the pilgrims have laughed and enjoyed The Miller's Tale, but the favorable reception has angered the Reeve, who is himself an aging carpenter. He says that he, like all old men, is motivated by boasting, anger, lying, and covetousness. When the Host tells him to quit philosophizing and get on with his story, the Reeve promises to get even with the Miller.

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Scornful Simkin is a wealthy miller who is armed to the teeth at all times and is very dishonest in his business dealings. No one dares accuse him, however, since he will immediately attack with one of the four weapons always on his person. Simkin has a wife with relatives among the nobility and a beautiful and desirable young daughter of marriageable age. They also have an infant still in the cradle.

One of the miller's most lucrative accounts is with the manager of the estates belonging to the college at Cambridge. One day, when he goes to collect the wheat and malt to be ground for the college, Simkin finds the steward terribly ill. He is delighted because it means he can cheat the college even more than usual.

The sick steward persuades two poor students to deliver the grain and to watch the miller to prevent his usual cheating. John and Allan, young and high-spirited, agree eagerly. They pretend interest in the milling process and position themselves to watch the miller's every move. Simkin, however, turns their horse loose and the young men must run away and try to capture their mount. The miller is then able to cheat unobserved.

When the young men return it is so late that they must spend the night. They offer to pay for a meal and a night's lodging. The miller goes to great lengths to fulfill his duties as a host. After eating a fine meal and getting drunk on ale, all of the characters retire to sleep in the same room. The miller and his wife are in their bed with the infant's cradle at the foot; the daughter is in her own bed; and John and Allan rest on an improvised cot.

Soon every member of the miller's family is loudly snoring and passing gas in their sleep. The young visitors realize they will not be getting a wink of sleep. Furthermore, they know the miller stole some of the grain in their absence. Allan decides he will sleep with the maiden daughter as compensation for his loss and discomfort.

As Allan is loudly making love to the girl, who is soon very cooperative, John determines that he, too, will retaliate. By the time the miller's wife gets up to relieve herself, John has moved the baby's cradle to the foot of his own bed. Missing the cradle at the foot of the marriage bed, the wife gropes in the dark until she locates the cradle. Satisfied, she climbs into bed with John. It is dark, so she eagerly responds to John's lovemaking thinking him her husband and delighted with his newfound energy.

At about dawn, Allan leaves the daughter's bed to return to his own. He avoids the bed with the cradle and climbs into bed with the miller whom he mistakes for his friend, John. Allan brags of his sexual conquest to the miller who immediately attacks him. Wrestling in the dark, the two fall on the miller's wife who thinks she is being attacked. She finds a stick and wacks her husband on the head, mistaking him for one of the students. Seeing the miller stunned and hurt, the students grab the advantage and beat him unconscious. They then escape back to Cambridge having made a complete fool of the deceitful miller.

Discussion and Analysis
The rivalry and dislike between the Miller and the Reeve is again obvious. The Reeve's tale promises to be an excercise in one-up-manship that will outdo the Miller's tale.

Like the tale preceding, The Reeve's Tale is a fabliau, centering on sex and trickery and practical jokes. However, true to the character of the teller, this story is all about revenge. Chaucer used both French and Italian models for this parody; the plot would have been familiar to readers of his day.

What is most notable about this tale is the way it is used by the Reeve on the pilgrimage to get back at the Miller. First of all, the central character in the story is a dangerous and dishonest miller, presented in the most unflattering light possible. Secondly, this time it is the miller who is cuckolded and who suffers the further indignity of having his virgin daughter deflowered. In The Miller's Tale, the carpenter, John, is cuckolded; in The Reeve's Tale, it is the student, John, who cuckolds the miller. Even the physical description of the miller in the story matches the appearance and the character of the Miller on the pilgrimage. It becomes obvious that the hatred between the two men is more than just an occupational rivalry.

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3: The Miller's Tale Summary and Analysis


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