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Last Updated on July 11, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 300

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"The Merchant's Tale" in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is a tale of morality, love, and lust that is told with bawdy realism and using strange combinations of mythological and religious characters.

The Consequences of Lust

The evils of lust is a theme in the work that is prevalent throughout and explored in many ways. Initially, the knight, Januarie, explains that—because of his rampant lust and desire—he wants to take a wife to allow him the chance at free, moral sex. This is frowned upon by the morally upstanding character Justinus, but Januarie goes through with the marriage anyway. Additionally, the increasingly perverse acts Januarie undertakes with May are implied to lead to his blindness. May and Damyan, too, fall victim to their lust, and their affair is revealed—though without real consequences.

Love and the Nature of "True" Lovers

Initially, Januarie marries not for love but to satiate his lust. Eventually, however, it seems that he grows to love May, as his speech becomes more ornate and flowery, showing metaphors of love as opposed to those of carnal knowledge. Damyan initially professes deep love for May, but they engage in a purely carnal affair. Ultimately, the pair of May and Januarie end up together because they, apparently, are the true lovers. Chaucer takes care to show the vacillations between lust and love and the ways in which relationships can slide between these two spaces.

Gaining Morality Through Experience

The characters frequently act immorally, and gods like Pluto and Justinus reprimand their actions. There is no clear moral police, much less moral improvement. However, the story's undercurrent is that, through the experiences in the story, the characters might became more moral people and began to live in a more upright manner. The journey helps them to become better people and partners.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596

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 not as enamored with him as he is with himself, as revealed in the marvelously comic line, “She preyseth nat his pleyying worth a bene.”

January’s blindness establishes another thematic pattern in the tale. When seeking advice from friends about whether to marry, January is blind to all but the advice he wants to follow. After he marries, his own self-flattery about his sexual prowess blinds him to the possibility of May’s unfaithfulness; he never suspects she will choose to love Damian when he sends her to comfort him. When fortune turns against him and he becomes physically blind, the narrator even articulates the connection between his moral and physical blindness in one of the poem’s several apostrophes:

O Januarie,For as good is blynd deceyved beAs to be deceyved whan a man may se.

When he regains his sight, it is only to the grief of seeing May’s adultery, but he regains his bliss when he returns to moral blindness through her deceptive explanation of her actions.

Ultimately, despite its stated purpose, the tale is more critical of the old knight and his folly than of his wife. May, though unfaithful, outwits her husband—albeit with the help of a goddess—setting the precedent for all wives after her, the narrator says. None of the characters suffers for his or her actions in this comic tale. “This Januarie, who is glad but he?” the narrator asks in the closing stanza. He has regained his physical sight, and he trusts his wife’s faithfulness and believes she is pregnant with his heir.

In the end, this foolish, immoral old man is only happy when he is blind to his wife’s unfaithfulness and his own folly. As noted above, all the praises of marriage and the scriptural allusions are filled with irony. Though May is not as strongly condemned as the prologue would lead the audience to expect, the tale does present the ideal of marital joy as either an unattainable fantasy or a bliss gained (and maintained) only through ignorance.