Student Question

What values does Alisoun's character in Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" display and does the tale endorse or criticize these values?

Quick answer:

In "The Miller's Tale," Chaucer uses the fabliau form of comic tale to poke fun at some traditional aspects of his time that would have been easy targets for mockery. Alisoun's character is presented as a young, yet beautiful and vibrant woman. She is described in an almost pastoral manner that suggests she is very much at home in the natural world. Despite being a wife, she seems quite careless with her husband—she does not pretend to be what she is not, that is refined or loving like Griselda. She's portrayed as very down-to-earth and natural, which seem characteristics most appealing to her husband John who loves her for it.

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In Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale," from The Canterbury Tales, the author presents a story that would have been very entertaining to his modern day audience.

“The Miller’s Tale” is an outstanding example of medieval humor.

It is a bawdy (vulgar) tale with several important characters: John (a carpenter), his young wife (Alisoun), Nicholas (who rooms with them), and Absolon (a clerk).

The story is a "fabliau," which is...

...a form of comic or satiric verse narrative

that [Chaucer] composes in iambic pentamter couplets.

Other examples of the fabliau of that time included the lecherous, the unfaithful and the jealous—and often these adventures included stock characters whereby one spouse (usually the husband) is portrayed as a stupid who is the brunt of his spouse's unfaithful behavior with another. Chaucer uses this form several times in this "recounting" of a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. However...

In Chaucer’s hands the fabliau rises from a bit of verse to brilliant portraiture.

It has been noted that Chaucer's characters are so brilliantly portrayed that they galvanize the plot forward, and the end result is a far more sophisticated tale than the early examples of the fabliau.

Though crude, some of the comedy of this piece comes from timeless humor. For example, when John, sleeping in the tub that Nicholas and Alisoun have tricked the gullible man into with warnings of cataclysmic flooding, the cry of "Help! Water!" provides slapstick absurdity when—believing the flood is at hand—John cuts the ropes expecting to fall into rising water, but crashes through the floor onto the lower room, seeming a madman when he tries to explain.

Alisoun, though an unfaithful wife, is presented by Chaucer as a lovely young woman who is very desirable. She is a woman in tune with nature itself: she is grounded to the earth. Unlike Absolon and his fancy, even dainty and contrived, upper-class mannerisms, Alisoun is very much at home in the natural world.

Though critics note that this tale strongly contrasts with the previous chivalric tale from the Knight, it does not criticize country ways as much as point them out and draw a comparison. In fact, Chaucer's descriptions of Alisoun do not, in any way, seem to criticize her as much as praise her for the straight-forward country manners and appearance. She does not pretend to be what she is not (perhaps something that refers directly to Absolon.) Chaucer concentrates on how natural Alisoun is, with delightful imagery:

For she was wild and young... (39)

Fair was this youthful wife, and therewithal

As weasel’s was her body slim and small. (47-48)

Far brighter was the brilliance of her hue

Than in the Tower the gold coins minted new.

And songs came shrilling from her pretty head

As from a swallow’s sitting on a shed.

Therewith she’d dance too, and could play and sham

Like any kid or calf about its dam.

Her mouth was sweet as bragget or as mead

Or hoard of apples laid in hay or weed.

Skittish she was as is a pretty colt,

Tall as a staff and straight as cross-bow bolt. (69-78)

Few of the author's descriptions discredit the young wife. Nicholas has much more in common with Alisoun, in terms of his "country ways," however the actions of the two create chaotic results—and Nicholas is punished. The gullible husband, John, is seen as a laughing stock. Absolon is no hero either, but Alisoun fares well enough.

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