Tuesday, 4 December 2007

A Head's Up Guide To The "Merchant's Tale" Part 1

This is a useful explanation of the first half of the Tale. It will help you understand the Tale as you read it in the original. It is by Dr. Dana Symons who has been credited below.

Heads up guide to the Merchant

Here's the interlinear translation, though by this time you should really be reading on your own! See the Harvard page on the Merchant for a very brief summary and links to many analogues of the tale (our course text includes only one).

This poem is rife with irony, double meanings, and sly messing about with the reader. It's among Chaucer's best poetry, so don't be put off by what may seem intially a dry discourse of "authorities" on marriage - if you've been following what we've read so far, you'll begin to have an insider's understanding of what Chaucer is doing in this poem, and that insider's perspective should make these passages anything but dry. Get into the spirit of it if you can and wallow in Chaucer's clever manipulations of his materials. Here the Merchant openly gives voice to the marriage debate, which has been raging quietly (or perhaps not so quietly!) among the Canterbury pilgrims through their tales.

Notice first the Merchant's response to the Clerk's Tale (like the Host, he doesn't seem to get it - or maybe he does...). This tale takes us back to the fabliau genre but is written in a much more elevated style than the earlier fabliaux in CT. Like the Miller, the Merchant tells a tale of an older man (a knight) married to a very young woman, in this case with the names "January" and "May" to emphasize the mismatch in their ages. The tale is further complicated in the second half by the interference of the gods Pluto and Proserpine, who are a married couple themselves and take sides (more on that in the next "heads up guide"). Much of the first half of the tale is devoted to a debate on marriage, opened by the narrator's own discourse on marriage, perhaps drawing on the Clerk's Tale for some of the idealized notions about wives, and then conducted by January and his two brothers, Justinus and Placebo. January tells them he wishes a young wife because young wives are malleable, unlike older ones who have been schooled by clerks and are half clerks themselves (!). Placebo, a flatterer, agrees with everything January says, while Justinus argues against January taking a wife (even at one point citing the Wife of Bath!).

Much like the Wife of Bath's Prologue, the first section of the Merchant's Tale consists of quoting, paraphrasing, and glossing various authorities, in this case for or against marriage, so think about the arguments outlined in light of the other tales we've read; in particular, how does having read the Wife of Bath's Prologue and the Clerk's Tale affect your understanding of the many arguments that are made in the Merchant's Tale?

What does Justinus's citation of the Wife of Bath do to complicate further the multilayered Canterbury Tales narrative (that Chaucer can't let us forget for an instant who's in control of this reading experience, can he?).

Towards the end of the first section you are reading, January and May's wedding feast is held, which has some of the most elegant rhetorical flourishes in all of Chaucer's work. It's at the end of the feast that Damian, a young squire serving in January's household, is introduced as a rival for May's affections (you know what's coming now, don't you?). Both men are "ravished" by their desire for May, but the narrator leaves Damian to languish in lovesickness while he follows January and May into their nuptial bed. There, January's rough beard scratches May like sharkskin, his neck-skin shakes, and he talks to her in many a double entendre before lustily "playing" with her throughout the night. In the midst of this, the narrator says, "God knows what May thought in her heart."

Much food for thought here - I leave you to it. There will be a separate "heads up guide" for the second half of the tale.

by Dr. Dana Symons of Simon Fraser University

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About Me

I teach Film, Media and English Lit.