The Poem

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“The Miller’s Tale” is a comic narrative of lust, deception, and infidelity. The second of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it follows directly upon the tale of chivalry told by the Knight. Although the Host expects to call upon the Monk to tell an edifying tale, the Miller, by now quite drunk on the “ale of Southwerk,” thwarts Harry Bailly’s plans, insisting instead on telling his story, much to the irritation of its intended target, the Reeve.

Over the Reeve’s objections, the Miller begins his tale of John, a prosperous but gullible carpenter; his young, robust wife Alisoun; and her two admirers—the fastidious clerk Absolon and the clever Nicholas, also a clerk. John and Alisoun have enterprisingly rented their upstairs room to Nicholas, a student of astronomy, who has outfitted the chamber with sweet-smelling herbs, his favorite books, and his “gay sautrye” (a harp-like instrument). Nicholas is understandably attracted to Alisoun, a licorice-eyed lass of considerable charm. Bored with John and feeling trapped by his jealous vigilance, Alisoun soon succumbs to Nicholas’s amorous overtures, and the two conspire to find a time when they can be alone.

Their relationship and their plans, however, are complicated by the presence of Absolon, a parish clerk, also in pursuit of Alisoun. Absolon is an accomplished dancer who emulates the refined manners of the court. Like the courtly lovers whom he admires, Absolon woos Alisoun with sweet songs and gifts. However, Alisoun prefers Nicholas.

One Saturday, when John has gone off on business, Alisoun and Nicholas hatch a plan that will provide them the privacy they desire. When John returns, he is surprised to learn that Alisoun has not seen Nicholas all day. By Sunday evening, worried that some accident has befallen the clerk, John and his servant break down the door to Nicholas’s chamber and discover Nicholas recovering from a kind of trance in which he reports he has discovered through his astrology that a recurrence of the great flood is due the following Monday. He then advises John on how they might escape drowning. John is to fasten three large tubs—one each for Nicholas, Alisoun, and himself—to the rafters. There they will wait for the rain, ready to cut themselves free and float safely on the flood.

When Monday comes, the three climb up to their tubs and settle in to wait for the rain. John goes quickly to sleep, and Alisoun and Nicholas go just as quickly to the bedroom. That same day, Absolon appears under Alisoun’s windowsill, serenading her and begging for a kiss. Annoyed, Alisoun decides to reward him appropriately. Thrusting her naked buttocks out the window, she invites his kiss. Appalled when he discovers her trick, he rubs his lips vigorously. Then, bent on revenge, he secures a newly forged metal blade from his blacksmith friend, and returns to the window. There he requests another kiss, promising Alisoun a ring if she will grant his wish. This time, Nicholas goes to the window, presents his behind, and lets “flee a fart.” Ready with the hot iron, Absolon brands Nicholas’s bottom. Smarting with pain, Nicholas cries, “‘Help! Water!,’” awakening the carpenter who, thinking the flood has come, cuts the rope holding his tub and crashes to the ground. All John’s neighbors come running. When John tries to explain what has happened, the lovers drown out his explanation. The tale ends with the laughter of the townspeople, who continue to think that John is mad, despite his oaths to the contrary.

Forms and Devices

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For the Miller, Chaucer chooses a fabliau, a...

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form of comic or satiric verse narrative that he composes in iambic pentameter couplets. Bawdy in subject matter, the fabliau was popular in twelfth and thirteenth century France and flourished in England in the fourteenth century. Early examples of this form could be quite obscene, dwelling on the misadventures of lecherous clerics, wayward wives, and jealous husbands. Often the fabliau portrays the cuckolding of a rather stupid husband by a clever wife. This form seems right for the Miller, who is known as a teller of lewd stories. Chaucer would use the form again for the Reeve, Cook, Merchant, and Shipman.

In Chaucer’s hands the fabliau rises from a bit of verse to brilliant portraiture. Characters in “The Miller’s Tale” are so highly individualized that, as one critic said, the characters seem to motivate the plot, creating a tale bursting with vitality, a far cry from the simple vulgar stories from which it derives. Absolon, the parish clerk, whose name suggests the biblical figure known for his beauty, is notable for his feminine ways. His hair is carefully parted and dressed, his stockings are elegant, and his shoes are elaborately carved. Chaucer adds that he is squeamish of vulgar manners, preparing the way for Alisoun’s infamous kiss—the ultimate vulgar act—perfect in its ironic suitability.

Alisoun finds Absolon’s fancy city ways unappealing. She is a country girl, portrayed by Chaucer as a healthy young animal—her body as small and gentle as a weasel’s, her song as loud and lively as the barn swallow’s, and her play like that of a kid or calf. A foil for Absolon, she much prefers the direct country ways of Nicholas to the sophisticated wooing of Absolon. Much of the action involving Alisoun and Absolon is motivated by this country-city contrast.

In Nicholas, Chaucer creates a unique character, individualized by the accoutrements of his apartment and further delineated by the repeated use of the adjective “hende” (handy), a word with several meanings: courteous, clever, near at hand, lecherous—all of them applicable to Nicholas’s behavior at various points in the story and capable of moving the plot to its hilarious and inevitable end.

Such careful use of language, especially in the form of the pun or play on words, is a hallmark of Chaucer’s fabliaux, many of which hang humorously and meaningfully on one or two of these well-turned phrases. Such is the case when the Miller lectures the enraged Reeve on “good wives” in the prologue to his tale, reminding him that “A husband should not be inquisitive/ About God’s secrets or his wife’s.” In the tale, John’s ignominious crash occurs because he has foolishly attempted to penetrate the secrets of the heavens and to restrict his wife to the narrow confines of the house, where ironically he thinks he can watch over her chastity. By using these words even before the tale begins, Chaucer cleverly prepares the way for the two plots—the Carpenter’s attempt to avoid the flood and the lovers’ tryst interrupted by the misdirected kiss—to intersect at the tale’s climax. Upon Nicholas’s pained cry for water, John cuts the rope holding his tub and falls to the ground to become the butt of his neighbors’ laughter, bringing the two plots together in a master stroke of timing and humor.