The Merchant's Tale

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 470

"Noon oother lyf," seyde he, "is worth a bene,
For wedlok is so esy and so clene,
That in this world it is a paradys."
Thus seyde this olde knyght, that was so wys.

In deft strokes, Chaucer's merchant lays out the life of the old knight who wants to wed at sixty. We learn he has never married before, though he has had sex with many women. The desire to marry has suddenly seized him; whether this is out of a desire for holiness (to keep sex within the bonds of matrimony) or because he is becoming senile is impossible to tell. Whatever the reason, he prays ceaselessly now to God for a wife.

In the passage quoted above, we are privy to Januarie's interiority: he thinks no other life is worth a "bean" than marriage. He has a very idealized view of marriage and lacks the pragmatic cynicism of the merchant who tells the tale. The old man thinks marriage is easy and pure. He even goes so far as to imagine it as paradise. By having such views, the old knight is setting himself for disaster, and we as readers are primed to anticipate that: nothing, as we know, is paradise. The passage ends on the ironic and wry word "wys" (wise): we know Januarie is anything but wise.

And trewely, it is an heigh corage
Of any man that stapen is in age
To take a yong wyf; by my fader kyn,
Youre herte hangeth on a joly pyn!

We see how Chaucer characterizes the fawning Placebo, a courtier to the powerful, whose role in life is to be a sycophant (flatterer). He falls all over Januarie as the old knight foolishly insists he must have a young wife. Placebo tells him he is very courageous and will be jolly.

Beyond being deluded that marriage will be paradise, Januarie believes that older wives, being more worldly, are more likely to be unfaithful. He doesn't realize that it doesn't take much to figure out how to cuckold an old man. However, while seeming to agree with Januarie, Placebo's words are also double edged: the "high courage" of the act of marrying a younger woman implies Januarie is living (too?) dangerously, and the "joly pyn" on which his heart will hang on is one that could stab him badly.

Beth war, I prey yow, for by hevene kyng,
Ful many a man weneth to seen a thyng,
And it is al another than it semeth.
He that mysconceyveth, he mysdemeth.

The story ends happily, but May, addressing Januarie, adds a warning note, telling him that a man who has been blind is not going to see clearly all at and that he must beware, for he may still misinterpret. This could be a kindly warning or could foreshadow more adultery.

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