Tuesday, 4 December 2007

A Head's Up Guide To "The Merchant's Tale" Part 2

This is a useful explanation of the second 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, part 2

Here's the interlinear translation and the Harvard page on the Merchant.
The first half of the Merchant's Tale generates sympathy for May through a detailed description of how January was rough in bed with her, including the narrator's comments that "The bryde was broght abedde as stille as stoon" (1818) and "God woot what that May thoughte in hir herte / Whan she hym saugh up sittynge in his sherte, / In his nyght-cappe, and with his nekke lene" (1851-53). We also don't have a very high opinion of January; he's gullible, but he's also overly concerned with his own desires. How does the narrative encourage us to respond to the characters in the second half? Is this a tale of a "wicked wife"?

How does Damian compare to other lovers we've seen? (Palamoun, Arcite, Nicholas, Absolom). Are we supposed to feel sympathy for him? And when January expresses concern over Damian's "sickness," does it make January seem more likable or sympathetic? Should we feel sorry for him? Or does it simply increase the irony of the situation? Later on, how should we interpret January's blindness? His jealousy?

Even more than in the first half of the tale, we get details about May's thoughts and feelings: though the narrator sometimes coyly says he can't say what she thought, on other occasions he gives us explicit details. What effect does this have? How does this treatment of a female character's desires and thoughts compare to the portrayal of other women in the Canterbury Tales? What does the fact that May reads Damian's letter in the privy, January's insistence on always having a hand on her once he's gone blind, and January's locked garden suggest about privacy in the tale?

Notice that line 1986, "Lo, pitee renneth soone in gentil herte!" is almost exactly the same as line 1761 of the Knight's Tale, "For pitee renneth soone in gentil herte." Why the echo? How should we interpret this?

When January and May are in the garden near the end of the tale, Pluto and Proserpina intervene. Pluto, like many other men in CT, rehearses a number of negative stereotypes about women gleened from various "auctoritees," but his wife Proserpina counters him by arguing that there are indeed many virtuous women too.

What does the debate of the gods here add to the tale's treatment of marriage and gender issues?

Finally, what was your reaction to the end of the tale?

by Dr. Dana Symons of Simon Fraser University

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About Me

I teach Film, Media and English Lit.