Chaucer: The Reeve’s Tale
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
THE REEVE’S TALE
What is there to “quite” really? The Reeve seems to overreact to The Miller’s Tale based on the Miller having made his dupe character a carpenter and old. The Reeve seems to ramble a bit about being old and yet still having sexual desire, despite his supposed moral high horse. He offers an ad hominem attack unlike the Miller.
The Reeve’s Tale is another fabliau with students playing the joke on the buffoon character. (A similar story of the cradle mix-up can be found in Boccaccio’s Decameron.) But in most other respects, the pilgrimage is degenerating. The Miller’s Tale was ebulliant comedy; this is crabbed bitterness. In The Miller’s Tale, civility masked earthier motives; here civility masks meanness and guile. There’s no elaborate game here, just a seizing of vile opportunities.
Instead of wit, we get a mockery of dialects. It’s the first use of dialect in English literature: the northern Norfolk accent noticeable in the vowels of the two students.
Overall, the degeneration has taken us from the idealized distant Emelye in The Knight’s Tale to the sexpot Alisoun in The Miller’s Tale to the priggish, uppity, and stupid miller’s wife in The Reeve’s Tale and the fat, stupid, overprotected daughter. Neither woman getting “swyved” in The Reeve’s Tale is desirable.
Is there any reason to suspect that Chaucer is characterizing “O moral Gower” (TC V.1856) in the Reeve, who is supposedly moral, and an overseer, and so therefore maybe a moral overseer? John Gower (1325? – 1408) was the other significant court poet of Richard II, probably a little less than twenty years older than Chaucer. There’s no evidence of trouble between the two, but given their respective outlooks and Richard’s increasing moral prudishness in the 1390s, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Gower was a backstabber and partly responsible for Chaucer’s rough time in the last years. Possible reference to Gower also seems to be involved in The Man of Law’s Introduction.