The Merchant's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Prologue & Summary

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 tells his tale about love in Chaucer's ''The Canterbury Tales''. The tale delves into a general reflection of love and marriage as the merchant describes an older gentleman who seeks a younger woman to be his wife.

January Wants to Marry

The time arrives for the merchant to tell his tale. Before he begins, he takes a moment to discuss how miserable he finds marriage. According to the merchant, the problems lie with his wife 'and of her diabolical shrewishness'. The crux of his tale will come back to this point, in which he explains how women have become so conniving.

The tale opens with an older gentleman named January, who enjoys the intimate company of women. Now he finds himself at an age where he considers marriage because he wants to end his life in compliance with God's laws. Being with women outside marriage is seen as sinful. So January asks his brothers Justinus and Placebo for their advice. Placebo tells January what he wants to hear, since his name derives from the Latin for 'pleasing'. Justinus advises January to with caution and don't hasten into marriage. January follows Placebo's advice.

January Finds May

January decides to marry, and begins his search for the perfect woman. She must be young and beautiful, no older than 20 years of age. Anything older, and January believes the woman will not be as compliant in fulfilling his needs and wants. He has all these components for his ideal bride, yet mentions that 'love is ever blind, and cannot see'. After much searching and watching people pass by on the streets, January finds May. He asks his friends to help settle the matter so she will agree to marry him.

January and May marry. After the ceremony, they entertain guests and provide a feast, all the while January is anxious for night to come so he can take his bride to bed. January enjoys her company, but May 'didn't think his antics worth a bean'. She then remains in her room for the customary four days after the wedding, and when she finally appears, January's squire, Damian notices her. Venus leaves her mark on him to the point where he falls physically ill from his love for May.

Marital Bliss?

January notices Damian's absence and makes mention for his staff to visit Damian and ensure that he is ok. This includes May. May visits and raises his spirits and his health returns. He then writes a note to May explaining his feelings that he hides in a purse. After reading the note, May reciprocates and expresses this in her note by requesting a secret rendezvous. May begins her betrayal of her husband. But before any plans can be put in motion, January is suddenly struck blind.

It would appear that January's words about love being blind have now come true. Except January is not in love, but overcome with jealousy. He does not let May move away from him but rather keeps in constant contact with her. January has an enclosed garden which is only accessible by key. May and Damian make copies of the key and plan to have a secret meeting in the garden. January is only too happy to walk with May in the garden, away from prying eyes.

Damian sneaks into the garden just prior and when May enters with January, she indicates that he hide in the pear tree. May tells January that she must have some fruit from this tree, and since he is blind, he assists May into the tree, where she and Damian engage in an adulterous act. This deception does not go unnoticed. Both Pluto and his wife Proserpina observe May's actions.

Pluto and Proserpina Intervene

Pluto takes pity on January, and indicates that he will return sight to January's eyes so he can see what his wife is doing. Proserpina tells Pluto that she will counter this act by providing May the means to explain her actions 'and all women after'. Here is the reason why all women are able to sufficiently explain their actions, and make it seem that their words are duplicitous. The gods intervene and grant gifts that cause more harm than good. True to his word, Pluto restores January's sight, and he sees May in the tree with Damian.

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