Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The purported theme of “The Merchant’s Tale” is the unfaithfulness of a wife, but the story centers more on the foolishness of January, the old man who presumes to be sexually virile but only succeeds in being cuckolded. Much of the comedy comes from the ridiculous—to Chaucer’s audience, at least—vision of an old man trying to hold on to his young wife’s faithfulness. The names of the Merchant’s main characters, January and May, reflect their physical and thematic contrast. January is unattractive and old, in the winter of life, and May is beautiful, young, and “fresshe,” an epithet used frequently (and with ever-increasing irony) to describe her.

Although sex with May becomes permissible in God’s eyes when they marry, January’s obsession with it even within wedlock would be inappropriate by medieval standards, especially for a man of his age. As he anticipates the wedding night, the old man is arrogantly (and comically) concerned that she may not endure his sexual passion, his “corageso sharp and keene.” The Merchant provides a ghastly and comic description of the old man on the wedding night. His skin is rough “Lyk to the skyn of houndfyssh, sharp as brere” and “He rubbeth here about hir tendre face.” The next morning he appears even more foolish when he begins to talk and sing like a young boy, except that “The slakke skyn aboute his nekke shaketh/ Whil that he sang, so chaunteth he and craketh.” May, however, is...

(The entire section is 596 words.)