The Merchant's Tale

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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.

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