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

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In this lesson, we will analyze 'The Reeve's Tale' from ''The Canterbury Tales''. We will look at the theme of quitting and the moral of the story and analyze these themes within the context of the story.

The Reeve's Tale Theme: Quitting

The stories the pilgrims tell continue to get more and more offensive as we go along. We start out with a sweet tale from the Knight about two men who fall in love with the same woman and what they each do to vie for the woman's attentions. Then the Miller tells a version of this tale that is less like a fairy tale, where one of the men gets slighted and is embarrassed in the end. The Reeve then takes this theme, of men doing whatever they can to get the woman, even further by making it about rape and assault. 'The Reeve's Tale' is not a nice story, and is not one you'd want to tell to children. It starts out light-hearted enough but ends very dark.

One theme in The Canterbury Tales that you will see is that one tale is a retelling of the previous tale only with a repayment to the teller of the tale. This is referred to as quitting the tale. The Miller had told his tale to quit the Knight's Tale. In 'The Reeve's Tale', he was upset with the Miller's Tale because it made the carpenter look foolish, and as the Reeve had once been a carpenter he felt as though this tale was meant to make all carpenters look foolish. So he decides to repay the Miller with a tale of his own.

Evil Cannot Beget Good

'The Reeve's Tale' tells the story of a miller who is dishonest and proud as a peacock. Two students decide to outsmart the Miller and ensure that he does not cheat them out of their grain. When they realize that they have failed in this mission, they then decide to get back at the Miller. In the end, one student sleeps with the Miller's daughter and the other with his wife, and they leave the Miller badly beaten and unconscious (knocked out by his own wife no less!).

This Miller is not a good man, and as such, the Reeve ends this tale with the moral of the story that you can't hope for good if you do evil. This is what the Reeve calls justice as he has now repaid the Miller. However, we must wonder if this has gone beyond justice. In this story, the students don't even try to use nice words to seduce the women, but simply jump on them or trick them into sleeping with them. And after the wife (unknowingly) knocks out her husband (she thought she was knocking one of the students out), the students continue to beat him senseless. We need to wonder if the Miller really deserves all of this based on his pride and dishonesty.


Usually stories such as these please us because we like to see the bad guy lose; we want the bad guy to be humiliated. But by the end of this story, are we laughing? In the next story, we can see that some people (such as the Cook) believe that the Miller got what was due to him and find this story incredibly funny. And although the students were simply meting out justice, do we really view them as the heroes? Or have they also turned into villains through their actions? As we read this story, we are forced to critically think about to what extent revenge is justified.

If we do view the students as villains by the end of the tale, then can we really say that the moral of the story is that those who do evil cannot expect any good to come to them? The students seem to end up with everything going their way. They are able to have their women, they get their grain back, they get their revenge, and they don't even need to pay for a meal.

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