Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Student Exemplar Essays: Chaucer's presentation of ideas about marriage

‘The Merchants Tale’ has been seen as presenting a ‘debate on marriage’. Explore Chaucer’s poetic presentation of ideas about marriage. Include an examination of lines 307-364

In lines 307-364 Justinus is voicing his concerns about the haste and sense of immediacy behind Januarie’s decision to marry a young woman. Using the wisdom of the Roman academic Seneca, Justinus argues that a man ought to consider carefully who to give his possessions to, and certainly to whom he gives his body to ‘for alwey’. Justinus is strongly advising Januarie against marrying ‘withouten avysement’ as it is not child play; a lady could be wise, sober, a drunk, a shrew, proud, whorish or a ‘wastour of thy good’. It is here that we start to hear the Merchant narrator’s voice coming through. From the Prologue we are already aware that he is subject to a bitterly regretted marriage with a wife ‘the worste that may be’, and despite the Merchant’s earlier promise not to let his soured feelings towards women influence the story this is clearly not to be the case. Only a few lines later does Justinus himself reveal that he ‘have wept many a teere/Ful pryvely syn I have a wyf’, and such a marriage has only brought him great financial cost, care and duties rather than the bliss and earthly paradises of which Januarie naively anticipates. Justinus has now become a vehicle for the Merchant’s voice which becomes increasingly negative towards the concept of marriage, and as such Januarie’s rose-tinted spectacles take a repeated bashing; unfortunately to no avail. Justinus confesses that, although man shall find nothing in this world which is entirely perfect (the Medieval world view maintained that such a being could only be God), a man should seek a woman with more virtues than vices. He points out that this takes time to discover (‘And al this axeth leyser for t’enquire) since his own wife seems ‘stedefast’ to most crowds of women however he has since discovered this is not true (‘But I woot best where wryngeth me my sho’). Justinus’ tainted ideas towards marriage foreshadow the violation of Januarie’s own marriage vows later on in the narrative, claiming ‘Ye shul nat plesen hire fully years three-/This is to seyn, to doon hire ful plesaunce’. Januarie’s many years and lack of physical appeal, in direct to contrast to Damyan’s youth and sexual allure, render him incapable of satisfying the young and vibrant May, and so she later turns elsewhere to quench her desire for ‘plesaunce’; a wife requires constant attention indeed! However Januarie, choosing to hear only what is agreeable to his desires, dismisses Justinus’ words of advice as foolery, and adheres to ‘wyser men’ and ‘auctorities’, with rhetorical declamation in the line ‘Straw for thy Senek, and for thy proverbs!’. Januarie’s blindness towards reality is further emphasised by his acceptance of Placebo’s comment that a man who hinders matrimony is cursed; Januarie hears what he wants to hear, believes what he wants to believe: in a sense he has already gone blind.

The decisive negativity and uneasiness towards both women and, therefore, marriage draws some parallels to Pluto’s speech later on in the narrative. Pluto speaks of all the treachery, deceit, faithlessness and frailty a woman has in her heart, claiming he can tell ‘ten hundred thousand’ tales famous for this. Such a declaration sheds a very pessimistic shadow over the nature of women, and therefore the bonds a man may try to tie with them. As Justinus used Seneca, so Pluto used Solomon to give such comments an authoritative weight, claiming that amongst a thousand men Solomon found one with true goodness (‘the bountee of man’), yet amongst a thousand women he found not one. This echo’s Justinus’ convictions of women often having many a vice and being untrustworthy, however the accusations here against women are even more extreme, and sadly there is no honourable character like Griselda within the ‘Merchant’s Tale’ to prove him wrong. Pluto speaks of womankind’s’ wickedness, harlotry and expresses his wishes for a wild fir and corrupt pestilence to ‘falle upon youre bodies yet to-nygth’. In the medieval world view women had little more rights than cattle due to their alleged ‘Inability to rationalise’, such slander such as this would have made union with such creatures intensely undesirable, as no man could wish for a woman or wife as terrible as those described by Solomon and Pluto. It is at this point Propespina decides to give a gift to all of womankind which, if man had knowledge of it, would push them further away from the desire to marry. She gives women the ability to deceive their husbands ‘Al hadde men eyn a thing with bothe his yen’ and excuse themselves from awkward situations so that men were as ignorant as geese. Such cunning and deceitful pragmatism reflects the nature of the Wife of Bath, and her methodical manipulation of men for her own (financial) ends.

A pervading pessimism and cynicism towards marriage is further enhanced throughout the narrative. Even the positive aspects are unconvincing since they are often under-cut by a sarcastic tone or irony. For example, at the start of the Tale the Merchant takes on the role as narrator, and voices many positive views on marriage through Januarie (calling it an easy and pure holy bond) He talks about a blissful life ‘bitwixe an housbonde and his wyf’, full of ‘joye’ and ‘solas’; an earthly paradise (‘That in this world is it a paradys’). However such virtuous and perfect impressions are ironic in light of the narrator’s true feelings as voiced in the Prologue; ‘We wedded men liven in sorwe and care’. In actual fact, marriage is not ‘honey-sweet’ but a snare which stops men from prospering. When the Merchant narrator, as Januarie, speaks of how quiet, obedient and loving a wife is, and defies the wisdom of Theofrastus to declare that a wife is an enduring ‘Goddes yifte verraily’, the other characters find this difficult to swallow. They know of the Merchant’s true feelings towards his shrewish wife of ‘hye malice’ who could drive even the devil mad (‘For thogh the fiend to hire ycoupled were/She wolde hym overmacche, I dar well swear’). The negative ideas these force into ones head from the outset turns a disbelieving ear on the next section of the tale, and ridicules the idea of a marriage being so pleasant as false and naively exaggerated. Such an idea seems foolishly divorced from reality, and as we discover the true, sordid nature of Januarie, who shares in such fantasy, we are further repulsed from maintaining such a view ourselves.

The use of Biblical quotes to justify a marriage may have an initial goodness, until one realises, as the Medieval audience would, the irony behind them. Januarie uses three biblical women as examples of perfect, supportive wives who assisted their husbands in some noble way; Judith, Abigail and Ester. However the irony is that each of these women actually achieved their ends by fooling their husbands, tricking and deceiving them, the extended irony being that May herself will also do this. This is an example of where Januarie uses scripture and ‘auctorites’ to twist and manipulate the wisdom and revelation to suit his own desires, even if he does not appreciate the true gravity behind them. His self-deception permits him to fester in a deluded marriage, transforming vice into virtue and perversion into purity (‘A man may do no synne with his wyf/Ne hurte hymselven with his owne knyf’).

The idea of marriage being animalistic and financially motivated is also presented. Januarie’s comment that if his wife were too old then he would little satisfaction in her and be forced to commit adultery (therefore risking hell) is a very primitive and unrefined belief. Surely marriage is for far loftier and spiritual purposes than casual sex? The marriage vows are even destroyed in a pear tree which, although humorous, has a very unsophisticated and devolutionary quality about them. Chaucer also used animal imagery in Januarie’s speech to emphasise his lack of respect for women as human beings, and indeed May would have had little more rights than Januarie’s own cattle. Januarie wants a young lady, with old fish and young flesh; he reduces such a woman to the animalistic metaphor: better is ‘a pyk than a pykerel/And bet than old boef is the tender veal’. The drinking of mulled wine, claret and hot spices ‘t’encressen his corage’ and the aphrodisiac on his wedding night put a very primal glare over what should be a joyful, loving scene, and reduces the marriage down to a mere question of sex, governed by desire and animalistic urgings. The listing effect in these lines speeds up the pace of the action and excites the audience’s attention in anticipation of the climactic moment. The wedding night its self contains more animal and financial imagery. The act of penetration is described to be like sharp briers to the skin of a ‘houndfyssh’ and the loss of May’s virginity as a labouring (‘Thus laboureth he til that the day gan dawe’). After this Januarie is frisky as a colt and ‘ful of jargon as a flekked pye’. Both May and Januarie have hardly married for love; this marriage consummates the want of an heir and care in old age, alongside May’s (presumable) desire for money (‘she was feffed in his lond/…hir riche array’). The blessing of the priest seems to make such motives acceptable, as Hussey noted; “Religion at heart allows him to remain a whoremaster, whilst ostensibly he is a truly married man”.

Chaucer does present a debate on marriage in the ‘Merchants Tale’; however it is a heavily one-sided one. Although some positive ideas about marriage are voiced, they are cut-down by the ignorance, naivety and repulsiveness of the character who utters them (i.e. Januarie) or they are made in an ironic or satirical light, such as Chaucer’s particular choice of Biblical examples. The Merchant narrator’s pre-disposed negativity towards the subject of marriage in general frequently infuses throughout the narrative, and generally make’s women seem like deceitful, cunning harlots and marriage as something animalistic and financially twisted. The fact that Chaucer wrote with such light humour and satire on the subject of marriage and cuckolding further denotes the more serious, divine, mutually loving and selfless side of marriage, which is barely even glimpsed at or mentioned within the ‘Merchants Tale’.
By Louise Flower

My students (two classes) applied Edexcel's grade criteria for this essay and awarded it a high B. They thought that it lacked the AO5ii (historical context) and relevance to the passage, particularly on "poetic technique" to grade it higher! Some thought, though, that it "dazzled" when it came to written style, even though a few thought that the sentences were staccato-like.

About Me

I teach Film, Media and English Lit.