Themes and Meanings

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“The Miller’s Tale” is an outstanding example of medieval humor. In addition, it is a story told to “quyte” or match “The Knight’s Tale.” Unlike the highly civilized, artificial, formal world of “The Knight’s Tale,” which is regulated by law and tradition, the world of “The Miller’s Tale” is unrestrained, and individuals work out their destinies with little reference to larger patterns of meaning. Deprived of a guide like Theseus in “The Knight’s Tale,” the characters in “The Miller’s Tale” are left to their own devices in a natural state and succeed in bringing chaos down upon all. This naturalness is best seen in the characters of Alisoun and Nicholas, who are most at home in such an atmosphere. Alisoun is described in terms that link her with nature and the senses. Her portrait, with its animal imagery and references to “morning milk,” “coal-black silk,” “licorice eye,” and a mouth sweet as “a hoard of apples,” evokes all the senses. She is a perfect match for “handy” Nicholas, responding quickly to his plea for mercy.

Nicholas is what one might call a master of the direct attack. He responds spontaneously to Alisoun’s animal magnetism; his behavior is a far cry from the studied, chaste courtship of “The Knight’s Tale,” or even from the more formal wooing style of Absolon.

In this world Alisoun and Nicholas are free to pursue their own ends, unimpeded by anyone so formidable as Theseus. They have only Alisoun’s old husband, John, to contend with, and he is as gullible as Theseus is wise, believing the story of the flood and following Nicholas’s instructions to the letter. Adultery and falsehood are not in the lovers’ vocabulary. They act on instinct, giving in to every impulse; and it is this which proves to be their undoing, or, at least, Nicholas’s undoing. When he offers Absolon the infamous kiss, he has been “handy” just once too often and suffers the consequences.

By placing “The Miller’s Tale” in juxtaposition to that of the Knight, Chaucer offers the reader the opportunity to reflect on the values that inform middle-class and aristocratic culture in fourteenth century England. If “The Knight’s Tale” is about order, hierarchy, romantic love, and divine providence, “The Miller’s Tale” celebrates opportunity, appetite, youth, and cleverness. In this fabliau, Chaucer begins to round out his depiction of the world inhabited by medieval men and women, reminding his readers that these men and women were creatures of flesh and blood who did not always obey the rules set out for them by society.

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