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The Merchant's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

'The Merchant's Tale' in Chaucer's famous classic of a group's journey to Canterbury features a familiar story of marriage between an old man and a beautiful young girl. As usual, this arrangement has its problems.

The Proud and Successful Merchant
Merchant

The Merchant's Prologue

The proud and opinionated Merchant has only been married for a few weeks, yet he has already formed a clear opinion about marriage. Apparently, the Merchant's new wife is not of even temper, and gives the man a difficult time. You can well imagine that his company of travelers expect a negative tale about the institution of marriage.

The Merchant's Tale

And an unfortunate commentary about marriage is exactly what the Merchant delivers. The tale begins when a wealthy old Knight decides to marry, but only someone young. The village celebrates the union of the January/May couple. It isn't long after though that May and January's attendant, Damian, fall for each other. January goes blind, and May and Damian see an opportunity to meet in January's secret garden. Damian and May have a rendezvous in a pear tree, right under January's nose, taking advantage of the fact that he can't see. The god, Pluto, restores January's eyesight and he becomes angry with May. But goddess Proserpina gives May the gift of an explanation and blames what he saw on his faulty eyesight. At the story's end, she jumps from the tree and into January's waiting arms.

January Weds May
marriage ceremony

The Infamous Meeting Place
the pear tree

Analysis

The story of an old husband and a very young wife was a common one in medieval folklore, and probably quite familiar to the company of travelers. The modern reader may wonder why the girl would agree to such a union. After all, the elderly knight is either using her to amend his former wayward behavior or to produce an heir, or both.

The answer lies in the young bride's ability to fool her husband and take her own pleasure at his expense. Poor January is particularly vulnerable to difficulties in marriage because of the age difference between partners in his marriage with May. One motif in the Merchant's Tale is the folly of trusting a young beautiful woman, and the ridicule that can be expected. January's friend Justinius warned him of his possible problems, but January chose to listen to the soft-tongued Placebo.In this tale, at least for the moment, May seems able to fool her old dotard of a husband with the help of godly intervention.

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