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Last Updated on July 11, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 326

Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Merchant's Tale," a section in The Canterbury Tales, tells the story of an old knight who, in his lust, takes a young bride and is eventually cuckolded by a younger man. The story almost seems to present itself as a morality tale, despite the fact that the story contains no character who is morally above reproach. In a way, this is more accurate to real life than a simple allegory or parable. There are neither completely good nor completely bad characters; rather, everyone in the story is complex, allowing them to more truly mirror humanity.

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First of all, the story intertwines overt Christian themes and ideas with direct intervention from at least two Greek gods. Now, this is not entirely uncommon for the time period. In fact, the early rulers of France believed that they were descendants of Poseidon at the same time as they proudly built Christian churches. The story entwines the moralities of two different belief systems: the Greek gods in the story try to establish morality in its characters, and a Christian framework reinforces their choices in light of biblical stories and references, such as the Garden of Eden and the forbidden fruit.

A common debate about "The Merchant's Tale" is whether this story is a fabliau, which is a style of comedy involving frivolous sex. While many think that Chaucer's eloquence elevates the tale above this basic level, many critics have shown that there are clear characteristics of this genre within the story. This would be a very interesting choice—to combine what is ostensibly a morality tale with a fabliau, which commonly celebrates frivolous, wanton sex with multiple partners. The combination of elements elevates Chaucer's story above the basic versions of either of these genres, allowing it to place morality and lust in tension and perhaps underline the fact that these concepts are human constructions that too often seek to flatten complex interactions into simple right and wrong.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578

“The Merchant’s Tale” is the second of two poems in what is most commonly identified as fragment 4 of The Canterbury Tales. Each story-poem in the Tales is told by a different character in a group of pilgrims traveling to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury. The tales range from high romance to low comedy. “The Merchant’s Tale” is primarily among the latter, though it contains elements of poetry in the genres of courtly romance and homily as well.

Like most of The Canterbury Tales, “The Merchant’s Tale” is preceded by a prologue that links it to the outer frame of the story of the pilgrims on their journey. The Merchant—in response the Clerk’s tale of Griselda, the ultimately submissive wife—announces to the group that he and other married men have suffered much at the hands of their wives. He offers to tell a tale to illustrate a wife’s unfaithfulness.

The story is of an old knight, January, who has lived a life of sexual promiscuity but at age sixty decides to settle down and get married. He claims to desire marriage because of the many virtues of a wife and the beauty of the “blisful ordre of wedlok precious.” However, he insists on marrying a beautiful woman of no more than twenty years, and his motives are soon revealed as desiring a regular and lawful place to satisfy his sexual appetite. Prior to choosing a mate, January solicits his friends and brothers for advice but listens only to the advice from Placebo (whose name is Latin for “I will please”), which concurs with January’s own desires to marry.

January chooses a young, attractive woman named May. In the tradition of courtly romance, May promptly becomes the object of affection of January’s squire Damian, who...

(The entire section contains 1330 words.)

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