week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

Number of replies: 14

The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's final unfinished work, is a creatively inflected compendium of contemporary genres set in the framework of a tale-telling game. The telling of an individual story relates in a complex way to the character of its narrator: the relation can be smooth ('The Knight's Tale') or tensioned ('The Prioress' Tale') and the matter is further complicated by moments in which Chaucer the narrator seems to take over from the narrator proper, or rather, seems to lend that narrator his "literary expertise" - referencing other texts - and his often ironic voice.

'The Merchant's Tale' can serve as an example of such complex telling. Part of the so-called 'marriage group', it ostensibly reflects, in its disillusioned perspective, the Merchant's own negative marital experience. At the same time, there are many 'generic' voices in the tale: romance, liturgy, Ovidian allusions, fabliau.
I suggest you look at and try to analyse the interplay of romance (here specifically the 'courtly love' variety) and fabliau elements in the tale and comment on the result. You might wish to ask what this combination says about the narrator's attitude to his subject-matter and the discourses he employs. Do you think the tale offers a critique of romance - or not?

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Re: week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

by Valeriia Kliuieva -
"The Merchant´s Tale" I would argue reminds me less of a romance, than, for example, "The Knight´s Tale".
It also resembles a lot some of Boccaccio´s "Decameron" stories (what makes sense). It is indeed an interesting symbiosis of the romance and fabliau, with some speaking names.
The desire of January to marry definitely a young woman, the way she is described by him, the entire one-side situation is interrupted by the comic scene on the wedding night, where the narrator concludes the entire whatever that was with the words:
"God knows what May was thinking in her heart,
Seeing him sit there in his shirt apart,
Wearing his night-cap, with his scrawny throat.
She didn't think his games were worth a groat".
It is amazing that the 60 years old January jumping previously from one bed to another suddenly decides to marry a woman under 20 and the only argument somebody might have against it is that Seneca told to think twice and that there is a danger that the chosen woman might not be as virtuos as supposed.
I would say, it read for me as if the romance parts would be interrupted by the lewd fabliau parts, almost feeling sometimes out of place, which had the comical effect and I believe, it is certainly a critic of romance. The courtly love with its secluded burning desires is turned here into a farce of a pear scene, which probably is more realistic than any idealized romance, though exaggerated. It rather starts with marriage and an imitation of the courtly love and goes beyond the line of it being platonic, and giving the reader a vivid description of the possible development of the sexual life in the marriage like this with all that courtly love might become or grow into. Narrator, on my opinion, is bitterly disappointed in the marriage, and his expectations of it never came true; whereas it seems to me, that the author laughes at it and is very ironic.
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Re: week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

by Liana Marie Ellegate -
I agree with some of the points Valeriia makes, especially the last point that the text offers a cynical spin on idealized aspects of the romance genre. To do this, it takes real issues that interrupt the idealized romantic notions, exaggerates them in a lewd way, and inserts them into the story to highlight the critique. The tale employs some elements that we would recognize from a traditional romance - the ideas of looking for salvation in a holy wedding, begetting an heir, looking for a virtuous woman to serve her knight/king, seeking redemption in a significant behavioural change, etc. - while interspersing lewd fabliau elements in such a way that throws off any attempt at keeping the tale seriously in the romantic genre. Some of the targets of critique that I noticed include the depiction of relationships, the depiction of love, the virtue/nature of women, and both the virtue and intellect of knights/other ‘honorable’ characters - all things that can be found in an idealized way in many romance narratives. The interruption of the romantic tropes pokes fun at the original genre. Finally, I also agree that the style of storytelling in the text portrays a feeling of disappointment/suffering of the narrator, and the sarcastic amusement of the author.
In reply to Liana Marie Ellegate

Re: week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

by Helena Znojemská -
A response to yours and Valeriia's comments: you seem to agree that the basic mode in the tale is romance, which is punctured by the realistic / fabliau elements inserted in it. This question - which genre is primary - is something we will definitely return to in the session.
Liana, thanks for the comprehensive list of both the more narrowly social (love-based marriage, the family line) and the generic themes of romance offered for critique in the tale. These again are worth further looking into.
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Re: week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

by Jáchym Hájek -
I agree with my colleagues and would like to add that I frequently thought to myself that had Damien been the hero of the story, then the lady seeking his company instead of her husband's may not have been seen as that reprehensible. His writing of the love letter to May would then be a bit similar to the tradition of sonnets, where they would often be addressed to an already married woman, and were often part of courtly culture. But because Damien and May haven't kept to love letters only... well. I would then agree that it is a critique of romance, mostly because even though January is described as kind and nice, his actions were not the nicest, either, and his love seemed at first more like a personal whim than a pure feeling, whereas Damien and May did commit a sin and a socially unacceptable thing, but their feelings seemed more true ("seemed" may be the key word here, however).
In reply to Jáchym Hájek

Re: week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

by Hana Hájková -
I agree with most of the things said by my colleagues as well. To react to Jáchym's comment, for me, there was no hero in this story. Still, I somehow agree that the love (or lust) between May and Damien was purer than the one between January, mostly because there was love only from the January side. His love was probably based on loneliness...after many wild years as a bachelor and need for redemption in the eyes of God, and also lust for a young and beautiful girl (despite the age, January is a perfect bachelor who wants to settle down and his behavior is mostly knight-like...however, the foolishness and blindness make him somehow ridiculous --- perfect critique of romance). The love letters were perfect for romance, and even the idea of blind love (January) and love at first sight (Damian). It gives a hope that someone might actually find love, but also it is somehow doomed from the beginning because January desires to marry a young woman...well, he is 60 y.o. so nobody can really believe that there will be a happy end based on true love between them. Then we get May and Damian and their letter-love... But instead of the sweet end, we get trickery and cheating basically, and the scene in the tree does not look very chivalric as well. I completely agree that this story humourizes and somehow ridicules the honorable knight and romance genre in general.
And the ending? Simply fantastic and humorous; the youth makes a fool out of the old --- January stays incredibly blind.
In reply to Jáchym Hájek

Re: week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

by Helena Znojemská -
With your comment on the shifting perspective on the characters in the triangle and the issues of "genuine feeling" and morality negotiated, it seems you see the "critique of courtly love romance" more as an exploration of some of its premises - is that so?
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Re: week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

by Simona Sailerová -
It seems surprising that January is repeatedly described as a knight, even a "worthy knight", but there is nothing else that would identify him as one. Perhaps the tale suggests how knights change when they retire from active knightly life and the pursuit of courtly love. At the age of 60, January has abandoned (previously held?) chivalric values in favour of comfort, security and prosperity and he resembles the merchant rather than a knight. (The merchant claims he could speak of his wife's cruelty but when asked, he tells the tale instead.) By choosing a knight who is long past his prime and no longer capable of or interested in chivalric feats, the narrator replaces chivalric values with his own. This is seen in the debate on the economy of marriage, contracts and other practical matters. For January, a wife is a possession which he wants "to last him to the very end" [1354] and the bliss of marriage is his wife's obedience. The choice of wife is very much a rational consideration.

There is no courtship, nothing he would need to do in order to get a wife. If anything, he "courts" his friends and brothers, trying to make them agree with his intentions. While there is no need for January to prove himself before the wedding, there is some it afterwards, in marriage itself: "And Venus smiled on everyone in sight, | For January had become her knight | And wished to try his courage in the carriage | Of his new liberty combined with marriage." [1723-26] With a surprising amount of self-reflection, he describes his passion as a weapon with which he offends May (to prove himself a champion?): "And yet he felt strong qualms of pity stir | To think he soon must do offence to her, [...] | Alas, God grant you may endure the nature | Of my desires, they are so sharp and hot." [1755-58]

The attitude towards courtly love is perhaps best summarized by Damian's poem, which is one of the few courtly elements in the tale. It is courtly love performed through writing and it ends up in the toilet. The tale could be a critique of romance in the sense that it is its counterpoint or complement. It supplies the down-to-earth things that were removed from the idealized, lofty romance.
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Re: week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

by Adéla Zeimannová -
I cannot but agree with others, the tale presents some romance motifs – Damian as the squire falling in love with the unavailable lady, becoming love-sick, love letter, winning her love despite her guarding husband etc., May does not pay him any attention at first, but soon feels pity for him, shows interest after reading his letter, etc. – but much of this becomes satirized. Their love consummation is not in line with the conventions of a romance tale, they are driven by lust. They are not the romance lovers they seem, but adulterers in the final scene, in which January gains sympathy instead. Even the aristocratic pair representing the conventional romance relationship offers fabliau instead of romance. January is described as a knight, but as has been pointed out, he is old, driven by lust and need for redemption, he does not show chivalric behaviour or values, does not court his lady etc. May is no noble lady, no lady in distress. She has to do whatever January says at first, but in the end, she has the upper hand and fools her husband, he is easily deluded by her.
The tale seems to greatly criticize the ideals of chivalry and offers social commentary on how nobles can be blind and weak, the fabliau elements are put in stark contrast to those of romance, criticizing its idealizations, bringing reality into the tale.
In reply to Adéla Zeimannová

Re: week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

by Helena Znojemská -
I may be wrong in thinking that, unlike most of your colleagues, you see the fabliau as the basis of the tale, with romance providing the false appearances?
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Re: week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

by Dominika Kecsöová -
Upon first reading this tale, I admit, it did not strike me as a romance: while January is ostensibly a knight (and many parts of the tale highlight this fact) and the plot is romantic in nature, the tale does not spend much time upon either Damian, May, or their love. The tension seems to be more between married love and unfaithfulness: my theory is that the tale contains many elements of romance, but they are ordered as to create a comedic effect. On the other hand, many previous romances contained comedic elements, but they were ordered to create a romance.

There seems to be a curious combination of “high” and “low” culture: for example, January´s “lewd old words out of a book” are based on the Song of Songs. The tale thus describes elements of “high” culture as low and vice versa. Yet to state that it is simply a fabliau feels simplistic: there are quite complex allegories at play (such as garden as both a sexual space and locus amoenus – Damian violating both the space of the garden and May) and references (the plethora of Greek Gods and authorities, among them, funnily enough, Priapus as god of gardens). I would argue that this confusion of genres maybe plays into the whole marriage debate, because the Merchant´s stance on marriage is not as clear as it may seem based on his prologue: May is very far away from a “shrew” and her only fault is falling in love with/desiring Damian (which is being due to the age difference between her and January). In the end, no damage has been done: the tale really dwells on the fact that May is safely pregnant by the time she has some fun in the pear tree and that thanks for her divinely inspired cleverness there are no consequences for either her or Damian. The reader (or maybe just myself) is not sure whether to side with January or with May - the text supports both stances.
In reply to Dominika Kecsöová

Re: week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

by Helena Znojemská -
Thanks for placing the fabliau/romance aspect in the larger context of the consistent interplay and juxtaposing of "high" and "low" literary/cultural forms in general. This provides a more comprehensive perspective and we will definitely get to this in the session.
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Re: week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

by Danila Gudkov -
To me it seems that the Merchant Tale is primarily a fableau, though the one that is related to the romance genre. None of the characters are shown in a positive light: hypocritical January chooses May not out of love but out of desire to save himself from hell, Damian betrays his master and May lies without shame while also cheating on her husband. The story is down to earth with the references to sex and toilet activities and women are treated with justified suspicion. Even the January's desire for a young and beautiful maiden whom he can dominate is something that happens in the real world quite a lot. On the other hand, January is presented as a blind fool in more ways than one, so perhaps the story supports the "like should marry like" aspect of romance. After all, if January was in his prime, then May would have had her hands full with him, leaving her no reason to fancy Damian.
If looked from the perspective of Damian, then the plot of The Merchant's Tale does resemble a romance with him as a protagonist, in that he successfully overcomes trials to win the heart and body of a beautiful damsel held imprisoned by a tyrant. The elements of courtly love are there as well, because Damian, out of pure and adulterous love, does whatever May asks of him, such as climbing in a tree to cuckold his nearby master, nobly sacrificing his honor in perilous service to his fair lady. The deconstruction of the concept is shown in the fact that Damian and May, unlike someone like Gawain, are not content in a purely spiritual relationship and go to some lengths to arrange satisfying level of physical closeness, obligations be damned.
In reply to Danila Gudkov

Re: week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

by Ivana Turusová -
I do agree mostly with Danila. From the perspective of Damien, the story might resemble romance more, however I think we are dealing with fabliau with elements of romance. The tone of the story is mostly comedic, it presents an old man's folly and I believe that is the core of the whole narrative. Some aspects try to imitate romance environment, such as knightly characteristic of January, a beautiful damsel that becomes the prize, love between young people that fall in great love at first sight that needs to overcome obstacles to make them be together.
The criticism I see is definitely aimed at relationships. By presenting a comic and bold cheating of May criticizes married women, especially those young one who happened to be married to old men and naturally seek adventure with younger. Criticized are the reason for January's marriage in the first place since they originated in his lustful desire and wish to look God in society and in front of God's eyes.
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Re: week 11: The Merchant's Tale - genre, narrator and the context of the Canterbury Tales

by Kateřina Mudrová -

Between a romance and a fabliaux, the Merchants tale seems closer to the later (but mixes both to prove the author’s point); in its central characters (the aged husband/young wife/ love triangle) and central theme (humorous critique of the realities of married life), but possibly it lacks some of the harshness and vulgarity of the fabliaux humour (except for the tree scene). The story jumps from a harsh critique of wives to utter idealization, which likely suggests that both should be read with a dose of sarcasm (why would a man who has condemned marriage in the prologue now praise it? Etc.) Chaucer’s characters are portrayed by with a greater deal of realism then in romance (character faults and weaknesses). In the beggining, May is presented as young and naive, (her fault is her youth and goodness, she tries to please both her husband and the „ailing“ knight), however, as the story develops, she turns into the unfaithful wife the reader has been warned against, and January, formerly a plotting, lecherous old man, is now the foolish husband whose being cheated on.

Concerning the criticism of romance, I think it could be read as such. We are told that January changes him mind at a rather late age and decides to marry after a life of extra-marital activities. We are told he expects “a very paradise on earth “ brought on by the wife’s perfect faithfulness to the duties of the God blessed state, yet in turn we are shown that the believes to be very reasonable in his pursuit. In his words, he discredits romantic love as a childish vanity of the pre-married life, instead he claims that now he deserves a young wife thanks to his wealth and status, as a mother to a heir and potentially also a care-giver, and who by the means of the marital sacrament, would deliver him from his previously sinful life. He asks for a young wife who would be easy to control. Yet at the same time we are told that he engaged in all sorts of fantasies, his reason is nowhere as clear as he might’ve expected (He chose her on his own authority, For love is always blind and cannot see etc.). It is after he is struck with blindness, he seems to gain some humility and his love for May gains more romantic qualities, when he is „cuckolded“. In the case of the young lovers, their romance love affair leads to sin. In generall, Chaucer’s seems to mock the traditional romance by the use of vulgar fabliaux motives (May’s disposal of the love letter, all three lover’s seem to be motivated primarily by lust).