The Merchant in The Canterbury Tales: Character Analysis & Description

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  • 0:04 Deceiving Appearances
  • 1:14 Business Practices
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joseph Altnether

Joe has taught college English courses for several years, has a Bachelor's degree in Russian Studies and a Master's degree in English literature.

The merchant from Chaucer's 'The Canterbury Tales' is a shrewd and opinionated individual. He takes great care in his appearance with the intent of having others think him successful, but in this lesson we'll explore whether it's truth or deception.

Deceiving Appearances

A general conception regarding salesmen is that they are all flash and no substance. We see this all the time on television and the Internet. Someone with a bright, white smile; fashionable hairstyle; impeccable taste in clothes; and a hard body greets their viewers. They grab our attention, until, too late, we realize what they're offering is a sales pitch. They try to reel their customers in with a lot of pizzazz, in the hopes of captivating them to make a sale. To them, appearances mean everything. Chaucer gives his readers just such an impression with the merchant. He sits high atop his horse and makes sure that everyone knows how successful he is.

Looking at the merchant on his horse, he sports 'a forked beard, a many-coloured dress.' He definitely makes an impression sporting fashionable clothes and appearing neatly groomed. The multi-colored clothes likely help him stand out from others, which would be necessary as a salesman. He would want to make sure his clients remember him. Besides this, he also has 'boots with expensive clasps.' Everything on him is neat, clean, and helps him appear successful. But is he?

Business Practices

One would expect a salesman to know how to handle money. The merchant boasts that he is an expert 'at money-changing.' On financial and business matters, the merchant gives 'out his opinions pompously.' Based on this, it would seem that the merchant is familiar with how to handle business, which would lead one to believe that he is successful as a salesman. His clothes would also support this assumption.

However, this might be deceptive, since according to Chaucer's text, 'No one could tell whether he was in debt.' Despite his boastings and very nice clothes, the merchant seems to be in debt, meaning the merchant owes money to a lender or lenders. He covers this up in his clothes and appearance so that it remains unknown to everyone that he is carrying a lot of debt. If this were to be known, it could be disadvantageous to his business.

If his potential clients believe the merchant to be successful and doing well with sales, they will be more likely to believe that the products are reliable. This establishes confidence and promotes a greater possibility of future sales. If the merchant actually is in debt, he is either not selling his product or not collecting payment in full from clients. Either way, it signifies a bit of deception on the part of the merchant, at least in regard to how he appears to others.

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