Chaucer: The Merchant’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE MERCHANT’S TALE
Part of the so-called Marriage Group, this narration clearly has the Wife of Bath in mind and possibly others like the Clerk. Fragment E pairs this tale with the Clerk’s and the two pilgrims are together in the order of the General Prologue with contrasts in clothing, horses, and concerns.
In the Prologue the Merchant speaks from experience instead of authority (vs. the Clerk). But he tells little about himself (similar to the secrecy of the General Prologue portrait).
The genre is fabliau: there are no heroes, but there is also no healthy animality as in the Miller’s Tale. The tale is frightening — from a soured individual, or the dark side of Chaucer.
Technicalities (1251, 1322, 1390) suggest that the tale was originally assigned to one of the religious men. (Baugh said the Friar; Garbaty said the Monk.) Or does it fit somehow in the objectifying, or is it self-condemnatory?
The themes include that of blindness. The “love is blind” aphorism is a premise here and the tale is Oedipus-like in its use of sight and seeing vs. blindness reversals. The moral? Be happy and blind (or stupid).
Perhaps the intention here is to show mercantilism. He created a mercantile world. January bought a beast and reacts as if she is nothing more than a beast.
Several controlling archetypal symbols are at work: the garden of terrestrial paradise (which warns a medieval audience immediately), serpent references, the fruit tree. For associations with pears, see Middle English Lyric #78 — it’s associated with cuckoldry and impregnation with a bastard child. So Robertson would align this tale with the fall of man (and perhaps parodic allusions to the story of Mary and Joseph).
The tale “quites” the Clerk’s idealism with cynicism. The Clerk had an ideal view of the past and an ironic view of present realities; the Merchant has contempt for ideals and a bitter view of realities. For the Clerk, the world may be in decline, but for the Merchant all is leveled to a nihilistic worldview. He’s even ready to sacrifice the fiction of his own dignity.
The Merchant perhaps reveals his own blindness, the limitations of his own understanding. The tale collapses. The point ostensibly is to show the evil of marriage, so January is intended as the victim, but the Merchant is so lacerating that January for considering marriage to begin with is necessarily a fool from the start. May is naturally unhappy. So it’s lousy for everyone, including us.