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

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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.

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 becomes sick with love. May visits him—at the instructions of her husband—to comfort him. Damian gives her a letter professing his love; she reciprocates in a letter. A love triangle is formed, setting the circumstances for the primary action of the story.

In a cruel turn of fortune, January becomes blind and, as a result, jealous of his wife’s activities. The old knight has a beautiful garden built for only himself and May for summertime lovemaking. May enables Damian to make a copy of the only key to the garden, however, and she arranges for him to be there when January brings her one day. Damian hides in a pear tree, and May, feigning a craving brought on by pregnancy, asks January to let her climb on his back into the tree. She climbs up to Damian, and they immediately consummate their love sexually.

Meanwhile, the gods Pluto and Proserpina, themselves a thematic echo of January and May, have been watching. In January’s defense, Pluto gives the old man back his sight the instant May cheats on him, enabling January to see the lovers together in the tree. However, in defense of the feminine sex, Proserpina gives May a good answer for her actions; she explains to January that the cure for his blindness was for her to “struggle with a man upon a tree.” If she appeared to be doing anything else, she says, then was it because January’s sight had not fully returned at that moment. He accepts this explanation gladly, she and Damian are not found out, and the tale ends happily for all.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

“The Merchant’s Tale” conforms to a genre of narrative common to medieval French literature called “fabliau.” Such stories are usually short, comic, bawdy accounts of characters of the middle or lower classes, involving one man stealing another’s wife. The basic plot of “The Merchant’s Tale” fits this genre, particularly with the stock feature of the lustful elderly husband cuckolded by a younger man. Part of the comedy of a fabliau of this type is the folly of an old man to think he can sexually satisfy his young, attractive wife and keep her faithful to him. January may seem the victim of an unfaithful wife, but his foolishness and inappropriate lust would have aroused no sympathy from Chaucer’s medieval audience.

The tale is not pure fabliau, however. It also contains elements of courtly romance and sermon. The love triangle of January, May, and Damian in which the squire falls in love with his knight’s wife is patterned after the tradition of courtly love. Here, however, that noble tradition is mocked by January’s folly and sexual vanity, by May’s easy capitulation of Damian’s love, and by the absence of any tragic consequences for their sins.

The poem also contains elements of a homily or speech praising marriage. After introducing January and his intent to marry, the Merchant as narrator, for 125 lines, expounds on the virtues of taking a wife. However, January’s actions and the Merchant’s stated purpose of telling the story to criticize marriage tell the audience that all this high praise of marriage is not to be taken seriously. The sermonlike extolling of the virtues of marriage actually introduces great comic irony into the tale. The audience would have been amused to hear the narrator who at the beginning introduced the subject of marriage with “Wepyng and waylyng, care and oother sorwe/ I knowe ynogh,” later saying with mock seriousness, “How myghte a man han any adversitee/ That hath a wyf?” and that a man “Upon his bare knees oughte al his lyf/ Thanken his God that hym hath sent a wyf.”

In addition to this mock-homiletic style, the story employs a number of biblical allusions and examples, as a homily would. When January takes May to the garden, he invites her in with language from the biblical Song of Solomon. Earlier, the narrator cites Rebecca, Abigail, and Esther from Scripture as models of wifely virtue. Not surprisingly, however, what he says of them emphasizes what they did for others at the expense of their husbands.