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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Merchant’s Tale Summary

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The Merchant’s Prologue

The Merchant comments that he is fully familiar with the sorrows of marriage, for his wife is a cruel shrew. If he were free, he would not marry again, and he can say that after only two months of wedded life. The Host invites him to tell his tale.

The Merchant’s Tale

In Lombardy lives an old knight named January, who is sixty years of age but now has decided to take a wife. He thinks that married life will be pure bliss, easy and enjoyable, and that a wife will be his greatest treasure and help. January offers plenty of evidence from the Bible for this opinion, and one of his friends, Placebo, agrees wholeheartedly. Another friend, Justinus, however, cautions January to be careful. Justinus is married, and he knows the reality of things.

January insists upon finding a wife, and he chooses a young woman named May who seems perfect for him. He marries her quickly, against Justinus’s advice about the difficulties faced by an older husband and a much younger wife.

At the wedding feast, January’s squire Damian sees May and immediately falls in love. His unrequited desire makes him ill, and he takes to his bed. January exercises all his own desires on May on their wedding night. In a few days, though, he sends May to visit Damian, and the latter gives her a letter expressing his love. May decides that Damian is the right man for her, and her return letter brings the squire out of his illness.

Time passes, and January goes blind. Damian and May see an opportunity to consummate their love even though January keeps May close to him at all times. There is a garden that January likes to walk in, and May steals the key and makes an impression of it. Damian has a new key made and waits for May in the garden. January is with her, but he cannot see Damian up in the pear tree.

Pluto and Proserpine have been discussing the humans’ situation, and just as January is boosting May up into the tree to have sex with Damian, Pluto gives January his sight back. May and Damian are able to convince January that he did not see what he thinks he saw.

The Epilogue to the Merchant’s Tale

The Host exclaims over the tricks of women and the vices of his wife. He regrets being tied to his wife, but he hopes no one in the company will tell her what he has said.

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