The Merchant’s Tale in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Updated September 10, 2022

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The Merchant’s Tale in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales essay

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During medieval times, men were always known to have power over women, especially within their marriages. However, the depiction of power and marriage is challenged through Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which is a collection of stories told by pilgrims traveling to Canterbury on a religious pilgrimage. One of the stories, The Merchant’s Tale, follows an old knight named, January, who seeks marriage with a young lady named, May who lead a tainted marriage. The Merchant demonstrates the rhetorical devices of metaphors, personification, and irony in his tale to unveil the harsh truths of male power and marriage during this time.

Medieval views on marriage have a tendency to perceive women as sexual objects. Traditionally, many viewed the female body as an object, valued for its sexual allure, and their capability to have children. As a result, women were treated and objectified because of their physicality. In this tale, the Merchant applies metaphors to evoke the objectification of women within this time period. As the old knight, January, yearns for a suitable bride, he discloses his desires, saying that “she shall not be over twenty, for certain;/ [he] would very willingly have old fish but fresh meat./ A pike is better than a pickerel, he said,/ but tender veal is better than old beef” (173-176).

January describes his ideal wife as an edible object. He promptly compares the female body with meats, including “fish” and “beef.” In another metaphor, it displays a continued use of metaphors to depict January’s view of women. The merchant describes him as “a bachelor for sixty years,/ and all that time followed fleshly pleasure/ in women wherever his appetite led” (4-6.) When the two metaphors are paralleled, we can recognize how the Merchant continuously compares January’s appetite to meet with his desire for women, making them interchangeable. This rhetorical device is used to illustrate how January objectifies women as objects and how he enlists authority in his marriage.

In the Merchant’s tale, the merchant personifies the deadly sin of lust into the characters of January, May, and Damian. January embodies lust when he decides to marry May and take advantage of her when “he asked her to strip naked;/ he would, he said, have some pleasure from her” (716-717). January’s lustful desires towards May outline the flaws of marriage and the abuse of male authority used. It also maintains the continued disgraceful behavior towards women. Lust is also manifested by May and Damian when he “pulled up the smock, and in he thrust”(1109).

This occurs while May deceives January, revealing the infidelity of May and her unfaithfulness toward January. The fornication between the two exposes the lust within these two characters and how pleasure influences them into making ruthless mistakes. Influenced by his own experiences of marriage and his crushed hopes of an obedient wife, The Merchant’s personification of lust in these characters present the prevailing corrupt realities of love, relationships, and marriages.

The Merchant’s Tale in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales essay

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The Merchant’s Tale in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. (2022, Jan 11). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/the-merchants-tale-in-geoffrey-chaucers-canterbury-tales/


How did Chaucer feel about the Merchant?
Chaucer uses irony and cautious juxtaposition of key points to the Merchant so that, rather than gaining our sympathy, which is what the character craves, we despise him for his harsh language, his arrogance and his hypocritical, blasphemic state of mind.
How does Chaucer present marriage in the Merchants tale?
The Merchant continues to degrade the value of marriage and makes the impression that married men must unite as one in their emotional turmoil, evident through Chaucer's use of inclusive address when the Merchant says “we wedded men” . This suggests that he feels more united with other married men than to his own wife.
What happened in the merchant's tale?
The story draws on a folktale of familiar theme, that of an old man whose young wife is unfaithful. Old Januarie is deceived by his young wife, May, and her lover, Damyan, after Januarie suddenly goes blind. The lovers sneak up to the branches of a pear tree above Januarie's head and begin to make love.
What is the message of the merchant's tale?
to Regard the Merchant's tale simply as a conventional piece of anti-feminist literature, exemplifying the faithlessness of married women, is to overlook the Merchant's simultaneous concern with the role of the husband in matrimony and with his joint responsibility for the success or failure of his marriage .
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