Chaucer: The Miller’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE MILLER’S TALE
The ideal order breaks down into realistic randomness and the interplay of characters when the Miller intrudes on the Host’s intended introduction of the Monk as the next teller of a tale. But the Host also instigates competition immediately, and one wonders what was it about the Knight’s Tale that seems so necessary “to quite” (3119), and, if it concerns any degree of elitism — note the emphasis on the reception of “the gentils” (3113) — how the Miller is likely to take the Host’s insistence that “Som bettre man” (3130) tell the next tale. Is it truly liquor that has the Miller “al pale” (3120) and barely able to sit on his horse (3121).
Note the assumptions and antagonisms. The Reeve has moral objections in advance, already seems to hate the Miller, and may have a certain degree of occupational sensitivity. But everyone, including us, makes assumptions about the nature of the Miller and the coming tale.
Note the poses and disclaimers. The Miller admits he’s drunk; but, slyly, whom does he implicate in that fault involving “the ale of Southwerk” (3140)? Then our narrator apologizes too (3167-3186) — all this before the tale has even begun! Naturally no one takes the narrator’s advice to “Turne over the leef and chese another tale” (3177).
A student once wrote accidentally but aptly: “The whole tale is a love triangle between three men and one woman.”
The genre of tale is known as the fabliau. Fabliaux often do involve triangles between a wife, her lover, and a cuckolded husband, and they usually do amount to a sexual joke. The basic plot is familiar and the fabliau always compact — nearly every line sets up the joke. Between 200 and 300 of these survive in French; in English, only a handful, and half are Chaucer’s (the Miller’s, the Reeve’s, the Friar’s, the Shipman’s). But the fabliau is a courtly form with an aristocratic perspective that finds itself amused by rubes; it is not really common people’s entertainment (just as The Beverly Hillbillies was not designed to target the Appallachian demographic). Part of the joke sometimes is that the low-class buffoons are cast into roles in which they attempt to imitate the manners of the court.
John the carpenter is old, we are told, and has married the now 18-year-old Alisoun: “Jalous he was, and heeld hire narwe in cage” (3224). We can buy into this cliché wholeheartedly so that the cuckolding remains delightful, but a possible problem is that we never get any evidence confirming this prejudgment. John travels to Oseneye, apparently often (3274, 3400), with no metaphoric “caging” of his wife; and even when Absolon signs love songs outside their window at night, John’s reaction is weary rather than homicidal (3366ff). John is concerned for “hende” Nicholas when the clerk locks himself up as part of the cuckolding plan, and his first reaction is one of concern for his wife when Nicholas tells him a second Noah’s flood is coming (3522ff). So how funny is this joke really going to be?
Also bizarre perhaps, the first time John is away and Nicholas is grabbing Alisoun “by the queynte” (3276) and has “thakked hire aboute the lendes weel” (3304), they do no more than plan to make a plan. They even have time to kill afterwards, and Nicholas strums on his “sawtrie” (3305-3306). The next time John is gone on a business trip, they spend the entire time making the plan.
An odd moment occurs when John decides to break into Nicholas’ room to find out what has happened to him.
“Get me a staf, that I may underspore,
Whil that thou, Robyn, hevest up the dore.
He shal out of his studiyng, as I gesse.”
And to the chambre dore he gan hym dresse.
His knave was a strong carl for the nones,
And by the haspe he haaf it of atones;
Into the floor the dore fil anon.
But didn’t we hear that the Miller’s name is Robyn (3129) and that one of his talents is for knocking doors off their hinges (550-551)? Is this some kind of autobiographical cameo? What seems to be the case is that Chaucer is experimenting here with an impulse that will quickly become more sophisticated and natural: the inhabiting of a character in the tale by the pilgrim narrator him- or herself.
So, with John in a tub in the rafters of the barn, “Doun of the laddre stalketh Nicholay, / And Alisoun ful softe adoun she spedde; / Withouten wordes mo they goon to bedde” (3648-3650). Along comes Absolon, “And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole” (3731). The kiss is weird to him “For wel he wiste a womman hath no berd” (3737). “‘Tehee!’ quod she, and clapte the wyndow to” (3740). Absolon shifts drastically to extreme disillusionment and bitterness, humorlessly devoted now to “quyting.” He gets a hot poker, returns, and Nicholas takes a turn at the window, adding a fart (3806). The poker is applied. When John hears the cries, “Help! Water! Water!” (3815), he cuts the rope “And doun gooth al” (3821) — a quoting if not quyting of the Knight in his tale.
If this slapstick were accompanied by nothing other than some cartoon noise, it would be hilarious. So why does Chaucer add the fact that “with the fal he brosten hadde his arm” (3829) — a singularly unfunny detail that did not need to intrude upon the joke? Nicholas and Alisoun tell the townspeople that he’s insane (3832f), and no one will listen to him subsequently. They have prejudged him and merely laugh at his expense (3840).
How does the tale really fit the teller?
Much of the perspective on the tale comes from Dr. Daniel Kempton, formerly of Vassar College, subsequently at SUNY New Paltz.