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Interpreting female agency and responsibility in The Miller's Tale and The Merchant's Tale.


Geoffrey Chaucer frequently displays keen interest in questions of female agency and responsibility by rendering his female characters at key moments in silences, deferred answers, absences, and unexpected submissiveness. (1) Chaucer's interest in these moments is not to portray these female figures as merely passive recipients either of the forces that construct women in texts, or of our own critical constructions. Rather, at these crucial junctures where the tale requires but does not fully enable us to construct an interpretation, the poet invites us critically to examine the ideological and discursive assumptions and limitations imposed on the act of interpreting these figures in the textual traditions the poet incorporates into his works. Indeed, Chaucer's incompletely interpretable women--who often play the central, generative role in configuring the action and the very character of his poetic narratives--allow Chaucer's readers to think through the interpretive possibilities and problems that inhere in the processes by which a culture conceptualizes agency, accountability, and justice. Thereby, Chaucer, as we might expect, also broaches some of the larger possibilities and problems with the act of interpretation itself. In his more serious tales the poet frequently sets his women in urgent, dramatic predicaments in order to pose for his readers his interpretive and meta-interpretive questions. For instance, in his careful use of the public silence of Emelye--in contrast to the desires expressed in her prayer--in The Knight's Tale or in the astonishing, disturbing patience of Griselda in The Clerk's Tale--a feature the poet, almost exaggerates--Chaucer shines a bright spotlight on the potent anxiety that emerges from the tale's inquiry into what a woman can or will do, an inquiry conducted in these figures' silences or, as illustrated in Troilus and Criseyde, in their absences. Yet he explores in such situations not only the power that women wield as objects of desire, but also the kind of agency that becomes available to them through, for example, their power to defer making the choice that would fix them in the structures of accountability and, therefore, of interpretation, that typically govern such literary females--as we see in the formel's deferred response in The Parliament of Fowles or, as I have examined elsewhere, in Dorigen's deferral of submission (to death or adultery) through narrative in The Franklin's Tale. (2)

Chaucer also demonstrates a profound interest in these questions of female agency, accountability, and interpretability in The Miller's Tale and The Merchant's Tale, two tales which are ostensibly interested in mocking the conventions and pretensions that narratives such as Troilus and Criseyde or The Franklin's Tale employ to examine how we read the ways in which his female characters act and react to ethical conflicts and dilemmas. With resonance for the role that the reader plays in the interpretation of these tales, the poet sets his male figures' efforts physically and interpretively to possess and control the desirable female "object" as the dominant narrative focus for both tales. However, in contrast to many of Chaucer's other treatments of this theme, his interest in reading female agency here, though it emerges from these female figures' central place in the playfully-portrayed drama of male desire, is made even more acute by the way that Alisoun and May are conspicuously not at the center of the retribution games each tale plays. Retribution games drive each of these tale's plots. In fact, each tale's plot culminates in a precisely administered system of requital among the tale's male figures, leading many readers to call the punishments the tale hands out "poetic justice." (3) Yet both tales imagine exempting the female figures from retribution for their active complicity in adultery and deception, and thus, inquire with playful seriousness into the ways in which women thereby are or are not fully part of the systems by which we may conceptualize retribution and accountability for actions; that is, are or are not fully integrated into the structures of interpretation by which we imagine and determine the ends of human actions and stories.

When read together, both tales become a complementary inquiry into these questions--each a kind of retelling of the other, filling in narrative gaps that the other leaves, exploiting one strand of narrative logic that competes and coexists with others in the differing kinds of sexual desire and intrigue that Chaucer has in mind. (4) The Miller's Tale excludes Alisoun from its framework of retribution, despite her complicity in cuckoldry and deception, which forces us to interrogate the tale, its teller, and Chaucer himself for the reasons why she is thus excluded, with, however, no guarantee that this interrogation will prove conclusive. In situating interpretive closure in this inconclusive "why," the poet prompts us to explore the ways in which cultural notions specifically of female virtue and innocence, and more generally, of human agency and accountability, do and do not explain her role in the tale and, therefore, do and do not enable the reader to account for her, as we so easily seem to be able to do for the tale's male figures. The Merchant's Tale also allows May to escape punishment for similar crimes, yet this tale treats the issue of blame and innocence with more overt complexity, as we are given glimpses into May's responses to her predicament--hence into May's responsibility--and especially as the tale's teller himself more conspicuously produces and becomes implicated in the narrative's treatment of the issue. The Merchant ends his tale conspicuously blaming May while exploiting Januarie's pathetic state, and he even seems to have structured the tale to intensify the blame by first having accentuated our sympathy for the ways in which such female figures can be victimized by the lecherous, capitalistic males we so often see ridiculed in the fabliau, and by refusing initially to punish May even as the tale requites January with some precision for his arrogance and folly.

Beginning with The Miller's Tale, I wish in this essay to explore how Chaucer draws our attention to the ways in which we may and may not impute accountability to Alisoun and May, while emphasizing the poetic exactness with which male actions are answered, in order to engage the complexities, vagaries, and constructedness of our interpretations of female agency and responsibility, of our sense of moral and narrative justice, and, thus, of our very notion of what constitutes the ends of reading. I would demonstrate in this reading that by inviting us towards a greater self-consciousness of the difficulties and the desires of interpretation, Chaucer will emphasize that the ability to discern such concepts as agency and justice in a narrative is informed by, inextricably linked to, but also hopelessly complicated by, the exercising of our own interpretive agency, our own sense of closure and, indeed, our sense of justice. Such interpretive tensions begin even before we come to the tale proper: Chaucer's famous injunction in the prologue to this "cherl's" tale not to look for seriousness where one should not--which seems to refer to The Miller's Tale itself--makes us persistently measure the ways in which this tale does and does not pursue its game earnestly. (5) "Game" and "ernest," like accountability and innocence, become, paradoxically, mutually exclusive and mutually enabling interpretive options and creative playthings in tales that themselves enjoy pursuing deceptions, schemes, and pranks not only with their pretentious characters, but also with pretentious discourses of high seriousness that require us to envision literary and philosophical significance, even if these tales ultimately wish to escape them.

Within these tightly strung tales, Alisoun and May separately and together become avenues through which Chaucer conspicuously attunes our reading to the interpretive processes by which we may discern agency, responsibility, and culpability in the narrative; by which we render our own readerly judgments, and by which we may ultimately discern and judge our own role in making the narrative's meaning. With both tales Chaucer perceptively recognized the possibilities for exploring the conceptual connections between accountability and interpretability in tales whose fabliau and mock-romance conventions rely on, as well as play with, the very notion of conventionality and, therefore, predictability in literature--generic expectations, stock characters and situations, etc. Fabliau conventions in particular allow Chaucer to frame the problems of both female figures' exemption from the expectations of narrative justice and closure in a special kind of literary landscape that alternately evokes and suppresses the structures of interpretation that his culture applies in order to explain, correct, and contain the sexual liberties and energies of youth, especially young women who have married, or been married to, foolish old men. To be sure, the fabliau qualities of especially The Miller's Tale resist the modes of reading we might apply, for instance, to the romance. But it is that very resistance that opens, rather than closes, interpretation. V. A. Kolve's attempt to identify what is "improper" to an interpretation of The Miller's Tale, and thus erect boundaries around the field of interpretation for the fabliau, misses Chaucer's creative impulse to explore the ways in which such interpretive boundaries are imagined and imposed, and the manner in which "proper" pathways are delineated within that field. (6) Kolve's unwillingness to recognize the play that Chaucer encourages in the narrative between such binary terms as "morality" and "amorality," "game" and "ernest," poses problems both to reading this particular tale, and also to the Canterbury Tales' larger interest in the ways that his culture's categories of interpretation--especially opposed categories--interact, take their being from each other, and thereby fundamentally configure the very possibility of distinguishing the categories in the first place. Yet of greater importance, such a reading underestimates Chaucer's ultimate focus on the complex, multifaceted relationship of interpreters, interpretability, and responsibility.

Alisoun and May each plays a distinctive role in Chaucer's meta-conscious engagement with the ways that ethical responsibility resides fundamentally within and because of interpretability. Alisoun functions in her tale as a text to be read and, indeed, a text we desire to read, in the first place, precisely because its interpretation eludes us. Chaucer clouds, but does not fully occlude, her motivation, and at tale's end, it releases her both from punishment and possession. Alisoun thus becomes the figure to whom her fellow characters, the poet, and the poet's readers all respond by wanting, but failing, to contain and control her for their own enjoyment and, indeed, enjoy by containing and controlling her. She becomes the figure whose response and responsibility to those who desire and would possess her stands as the ultimate, elusive interpretive treasure after which all of Chaucer's readers within and without the tale seek. To read Alisoun is to meditate on the way that Chaucer's age read: in the very colors he uses to create Alisoun's portrait (especially the imagery that evokes the Virgin Mary and the medieval bestiary tradition), Chaucer makes the process of reading Alisoun a confrontation with the narrative and ideological means by which his readers typically construct and impute significance. Conversely, May functions as herself a reader in her own text. Like Alisoun, May's desires are imagined largely as responses to the possessive desires of the males that inhabit the tale's world, and therefore, the desire to possess her response and responsibility to these males is fundamentally aligned with the desire sexually and interpretively to possess her. Both tales encourage our interpretive desires by teasingly denying us full access into the realm of female desire and agency. But where The Miller's Tale encourages our interpretive desires by almost entirely frustrating them, The Merchant's Tale encourages and provocatively indulges--at least in relative terms--our desire to discern how she reads her predicament and opportunities, and how she consequently responds to that reading. The tale and, conspicuously, the tale's teller allow us simultaneously to imagine the interior space in which she thinks through her responses to the males who desire her. Yet in this gesture, the Merchant emerges as a conspicuous narrating presence in his own narrative, manipulating both tale and reader to interpret her and judge her. This phenomenon (which also obtains, but to a lesser degree, in our sense of the Miller's narrative aims with respect both to the Knight and the Reeve) forces us to situate the very act of reading/judging her within an interpretation/judgment of the tale's teller and, in turn, within the distance we measure between Chaucer and one of his nastier tale tellers. Yet in forcing reading to be such a multi-layered act of judgment, Chaucer wants us to confront not only our own interpretive assumptions about the relationship of tale, teller, and Chaucer, but also our very impulse to interpret each and all as an act of judgment and evaluation.


Chaucerians have long noted the structural complexity and ingenuity of The Miller's Tale's as central to the interpretive work the tale demands. Scholars have rightly tended to focus especially on the literary and, for some, the moral significance in the "justice" that artfully emerges from the games played by and/or on each of the tale's male figures. (7) Our attempts to discern in the tale's final moments the ways in which the theme of justice, of social and sexual balance (whatever that means), has been pursued to some kind of satisfactory conclusion resonate with the very interpretive work of discerning ends of plots from their beginnings and middles. Moreover, in the structural means by which the tale invokes the concept of justice and in the allusive, intertextual gestures the tale makes with its plot and its characters, especially Alisoun, the tale toys with sacred structures (the Annunciation, the Deluge, and the beloved in the Song of Solomon) in ways that invite readers to probe for, if not see, metaphysical significance in its narrative, as well as its thematic, machinery, even to those readers who explore the tale's moral significance in order finally to deny it. At the same time, the tale's conspicuous investments in its structural sophistication has led many readers to conclude that metaphysical or moral significance is neither achieved, nor perhaps even attempted. To Robert Jordan, for instance, it is the superabundance of form over substance generally throughout the tale that signals its moral vacuity. (8) But Alisoun's escape from retribution poses for most scholars the central question regarding the tale's morality. The solution to the problem for many has been to claim that the tale does not mean to be moral. Thomas D. Cooke plainly states that "there is a balance between action and reaction in the story, but it is aesthetic and structural, not moral: if it were moral, Alison would have to be punished, and she isn't." (9) But for Morton Bloomfield, the tale's apparent refusal to punish Alisoun has larger implications. Bloomfield asserts that the tale presents a world that is deeply irrational and unjust, in short, "not Boethian." (10)

Alisoun is a problematic, if not troubling, figure for any argument that wishes to discern poetic justice, or for that matter, any kind of justice in The Miller's Tale. As readers know, John, Nicholas, and Absolon receive symbolically fitting punishments for their crimes. John receives a cuckolding for his foolish marriage and selfish confinement of Alisoun, along with the ridicule of his neighbors for his gullibility. Absolon's "kiss" fittingly unmasks his pretensions as a courtly lover and repays his foppish fastidiousness. And the hot "kultour" suits Nicholas' cunning adultery and irrepressible one-upmanship in the jest. (11) Alisoun alone receives neither punishment nor ridicule, though a few critics have attempted to prove otherwise. (12) While close scrutiny of the tale's treatment of each of its male figures suggests that these males are not equally punished, (13) the rapid, comic pacing of its conclusion seems to work hard to create a neatly, if not perfectly, packaged sense of commensurate requital and retribution in its male community. Indeed, the tale envisions something like a Dantean sense of contrapasso, the apt term James H. Morey uses to set up his analysis of Absolon's use of the "kultour" to generate "what is perhaps the most famous and well-crafted scene in all of Chaucer's poetry." (14) The Miller's Tale contains something like the structure, though not necessarily the spirit and certainly not the divine supervision, of the Inferno. (15) The tale has a finely tuned sense of humor and fun, especially because Chaucer so cleverly intertwines the two fabliau plots, "the misdirected kiss" and "the second Deluge," in their sudden and partially accidental resolution; chance, more than necessity, arranges an unimagined fulfillment of forces that the characters set in motion. Moreover, we can laugh at these characters for their faults, at least in part, because we believe that their "self-esteem" and their bodies probably will, as Kolve argues for John, not only "survive the event," but also "heal." (16) But at some level we sense that the identities and the pleasures of these male stock-figures of the fabliau are, in fact, frozen within a world of all-consuming, yet unconsuming, aggression and pain, perpetually reenacting the actions and the punishments that define their very being. As types, they will reappear in other fabliau that reenact the cycle, a degenerating cycle, as Chaucer himself demonstrates with the very next tale, that doesn't stay fun or innocent for very long.

Certainly, however, the tale's overt evocation of fabliau conventions makes punishment in the Miller's narrative world easier and more attractive for the reader to find than Dante does by making it to be temporary and part of the mortal, not the eternal, nature of our existence. Neither, of course, is the Miller's world the world of the Purgatorio, for actions and their results exist fully in the here and now. Pain and, for that matter, pleasure, in fact, seem to be of little or no consequence in comparison to cultural notions of significance. In this phenomenon Chaucer appears to renew his warning that in this world we are not to make earnest of game, knowing, again, that the interpretive impulse tends towards finding the serious everywhere, even in, and perhaps especially in, the unserious. The fun and the freedom of human action in a fabliau told by "a cherl" argues for the separateness of its world with respect to the meaning of human behavior--a world in which the agency to change is not inscribed. (17) Characters in this world negotiate accountability only by coming up with better ways of doing (and better ways of explaining) why one does what one has always wanted, and will always want, to do. The Merchant's Tale, as we will shortly see, keeps this structure, but strips the fabliau world of the Miller's fun.

But conspicuously, the tale sets Alisoun--the one who will prove to be the most separated both from the tale's world and our own--as the receptive center of its action, as the text sets her apart for her suitors and her readers to read and to control, but also as the text no one can fix interpretively. Chaucer not only exempts Alisoun even from any consideration of accountability and change--despite her willing submission to Nicholas and her active participation in both the scheme and the adultery--but also excludes her from the kinds of interpretation we must pursue with her male admirers who rotate around her. The tale does not precisely frustrate, but rather prevents in order to frustrate (which is more frustrating to many readers) our ability to interpret her actions. On the one hand, it seems to render her alone as ultimately harmless in this world and, therefore, in no need of being harmed for correction or for requital. As such a figure, on the other hand, Alisoun seems to generate, more than she effects, the tale's plot, which nevertheless grants her a kind of power in the tale. Consequently, it becomes difficult, but still tempting, to discern Alisoun's agency because her place in the narrative is largely to respond to John, Nicholas, and Absolon, who each attempt, in William F. Woods' words, "to create for himself a private world with Alysoun at its center." (18) To this end, much, though not all, of Alisoun's characterization renders her in the text as the object of desire, whom we see being pursued, acted upon, etc. (19) We see her already married to old John, but do not know whether she had a voice in making the union. We see her pursued, cajoled, and groped by Nicholas, and though they seem to take a great deal of pleasure in each other, she seems no match for Nicholas's scheming intelligence, nor, certainly, his learning in "astrologye" and in "derne love" (3192, 3200). Before we see them together we have heard much about what Nicholas knows and does, but we have only seen Alisoun--outlined in an extensive effictio full of complex, suggestive imagery, to be sure--but nevertheless drawn to be looked at (a phenomenon I will examine shortly).

For all of Absolon's conceited foolishness, the manner in which he reads her becomes almost unavoidably the way we tend to read her: as a specific instance of a general type of desired object:
   This Absolon, that jolif was and gay,
   Gooth with a sencer on the haliday,
   Sensynge the wyves of the parisshe faste:
   And many a lovely look on hem he caste,
   And namely on this carpenteris wyf.
   To looke on hire hym thoughte a myrie lyf,
   She was so propre and sweete and likerous.
   I dar wel seyn, if she hadde been a mous,
   And he a cat, he wolde hire hente anon.


In a few lines, Alisoun goes from being one of the wives Absolon "sensed," to being the "one and only," and in one line, from being "propre" to being "likerous." Nevertheless, Chaucer concludes this picture with his famous "cat and mouse" image, which situates desire and, indeed, this model of reading Alisoun in a paradoxical world animated by predatory, aggressive behaviors that nevertheless begin and end with apparently unremarkable consequences. (20) I wish to examine below a fuller sense of the implications of Chaucer s appeal to the natural world in his characterization of Alisoun, but perhaps most immediately in this scene, his use of the cat and mouse image conveys the impersonal and automatic character of both Alisoun's desirability and especially Absolon's desire, which is implicit in the way he casts "many a lovely look" at many women: cats do this to mice, any and all mice, just as foppish, pretentious clerks in the fabliau do this to pretty young women.

Yet Alisoun's response not only to Absolon, but to Nicholas as well, suggests that there is room to discern something of action, negotiation, in her reactions. The pace and focus of the Miller's narration tends to accentuate a spontaneous, responsive character in her actions, as she immediately resists Nicholas's initial, crass approach, then seems just as suddenly to submit to Nicholas's gentler, but still insistent, overtures (3288 ff.). At the same time, she is also a relatively stable and, with Absolon, a disinterested presence in a storm of testosterone that swirls around her, apparently unimpressed with the diverse ways in which men reconstruct the significance of their sexual desire. She simply dismisses, then mocks Absolon's ridiculously "lyrical" courting ritual, in which he, with thinly veiled aggression, imagines her as an object to be captured and consumed--"What do ye, hony-comb, sweete Alisoun, / My faire bryd, my sweete cynamome?" (3698-99). But the picture of her complex response to Nicholas's sudden, frank, and aggressive overtures of lovesickness is much more ambiguous. In her short speech she indignantly demands her freedom from Nicholas's coarse grasp "by the queynte"--the ultimate object of which, therefore, seems starkly obvious--with what seems to be in this immediate context a strikingly innocent response: "I wol nat kisse thee, by my fey" (3276, 3284). This response could prompt us to read the outrage of an innocent, even uninitiated young woman into her subsequent demand to "Lat be, Nicholas, / Or I wol crie `out, harrow' and `alias'! / Do wey your handes, for your curteisye!'" (3285-87), yet our generic expectations--set up very nicely by the opening portrait of an old carpenter who marries and holds "narwe in cage" a "wylde and yong" woman (3224-25)--point us instead to the role that she does indeed end up playing in the plot. However, Chaucer first portrays her, even before he tells us what she says, as acting out her initially insistent demand for freedom with the image of a "springing" colt: "she sprong as a colt dooth in the trave / And with hir heed she wryed faste awey" (3282). She becomes here a young, undomesticated animal who responds instinctually to a controlling, imprisoning gesture. But in the full logic of this image, she is also destined to be broken and tamed. This image primes us to read her sympathetically as innocent victim, as one who is not fully cognizant of sexual artifice, of sexual games, as one whose wildness incites a form of desire that ultimately finds its fulfillment in containing her natural energies for the male's use.

But within a few lines Chaucer will change course, seem to fulfill our original expectations, and sketch her as someone who can be persuaded, who can "graunt" her love. Yet Chaucer will go beyond evoking the willingly seduced young woman of the fabliau, presenting her instead as one who becomes a fully complicit, if not a full, participant with Nicholas in an elaborate game of deception. We might still see her as acting out of a simple kind of self-centeredness deriving from an instinct, as it were, for pleasure and game. However, she pursues her pleasures with enough rational complexity to suggest that she is no innocent, for hers is the kiss that "suits" Absolon's overtures, and she is "acorded" with Nicholas in the scheme to fool John so that "She sholde slepen in his arm al nyght, / For this was his desir and hire also" (3402-07). Alisoun and Nicholas do not seize the immediate opportunity to consummate an uncontrollable passion; together they wait, watch, and plan for an entire night of love-making. Nor does she simply fall for Nicholas immediately: "she hir love graunted atte laste" to Nicholas, not when he "catches" or "holds" her, but when he persuades her (3276 ff). In these moments, Alisoun appears to be a full participant in this self-pleasing, competitive world.

It is in such discordances in her characterization that Chaucer incites an interpretive interest in Alisoun, ours as well as that of her male devotees. Nevertheless, despite the interpretive paradoxes that envelop Alisoun, she becomes the tale's agent, as it were, for its system of precise retribution that has, however, no precise sense of agency behind the very system itself. Moreover, she comes to function also as an agent for the tale's ironic treatment of its males and of the literary and social structures incorporated into each male. In fact, as such an agent/facilitator of the tale's ironic movements, she becomes arguably the best player at the tale's game of requiting actors for their folly and pretentiousness. We come to see Alisoun in dualistic terms--as one who seems simply to be the tale's tool for setting the plot in motion, but also as one who gives as good, or better, as she gets in ways that suggest her own participation in the narrative's logic of commensurateness. Alisoun becomes an interpretive paradox. Chaucer imagines her in details that derive from interpretive categories that do not necessarily coexist comfortably with each other. The poet colors her in black and in white; she is animal and human, innocent and "likerous."

But ultimately, the paradox in which Alisoun's interpretation resides centers itself most profoundly not in what she does, but in a textual absence. Though the text depicts Alisoun as active in diverse ways, it grants her no internal language of reflection, no private space, within which the tale might suggest or make explicit her motivation. Indeed, the disjuncture between the desire and the ability to interpret Alisoun emerges in the very logic that rules the Miller's world, where one learns not to inquire into God's or a wife's secrets (3164-67) by reading tales that open and close the very possibility to read either or both. So that we may see what we cannot see, Chaucer places Alisoun, for the one act that she herself conceives and executes--the kissing joke on Absolon--conspicuously in the dark: "Derk was the nyght as pich, or as the cole, / And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole" (373-132). (21) Chaucer conspicuously keeps hidden what Alisoun intends and even does here. Elaine Tuttle Hansen's interest in which "hole" this is nicely shows this issue to be a "particularly rich case of semantic and structural ambiguity," but her and our curiosity itself is telling. We are intensely interested to see Alisoun, whether naked or clothed in the poet's imagery, but this is precisely what Chaucer obscures both to arouse our interest and reveal that interest to ourselves.

Alisoun's silence about herself highlights not only the cooperative relationship we share with the elusive poet (and perhaps the even more elusive fictional tale teller) who made her, but also the essentially responsive nature of interpretation, which begins and ends in the silences that both demand and let us hear our responses without validating them. The most richly resonant instance of this is Chaucer's initial portrayal of Alisoun, rendered in an effictio of patterned, objectifying imagery that speaks for her. In this move Chaucer invites us to participate in the game of constructing and imputing significance to the desire to possess Alisoun. Conspicuous in this imagery, as we see elsewhere in the tale's treatment of her, are objects taken from the natural world, vegetable and animal. Though each image has multiple possibilities for interpretation, this pattern of natural imagery functions collectively for many critics. The Miller has made the animals either small or young (weasel, wether, kid, swallow, colt), emphasizing in the use of this imagery, it would seem, that Alisoun's responses, impulses, and motivations can neither be praised nor blamed because animals--especially baby animals--cannot be held to moral codes. In such a reading Alisoun seems to become a liberating, innocent force of nature, which gives her a kind of power in the narrative that, however, only emphasizes the otherness of the narrative's world. Moreover, this reading posits that the tale deploys the apparent innocence that informs Alisoun's capacity for agency only to neutralize the rules that govern actions and consequences in our own world, and therefore contains and neutralizes the meaning and significance of the agency the tale grants her. Some feminist critics have justifiably questioned the implications of this reading and the pleasure critics have taken in such a characterization. (22)

However, Chaucer seems to ensure Alisoun's containment and objectification in the imagery he provides for her in a way that invites a meta-critical engagement with the processes that create her. The natural imagery with which she is associated may, on the one hand, posit her innocence, but on the other hand, it places her in a world that is read in the Middle Ages for its significance, as, for instance, the bestiary tradition exemplifies. In Kolve's reading of the tale, he is especially aware of the medieval impulse to read meaning, especially moral meanings, in the natural world, but he finds that Chaucer invokes the moral and the sacred only to declare that "the Miller's preferred vision of the world" is free of the metaphysical. (23) Yet Chaucer does not show that the Miller's world is "free" of metaphysical modes of reading, but that the very impulse to interpret the tale in this way depends on the complicated and dubious act of freeing the narrated world of such meaning. (24) Kolve's own reading demonstrates that Chaucer's text and his own, reading must make amply available the multiple ways in which the Middle Ages organized the world so that he may identify the "radical disjunction" Chaucer introduces into the tale between God's and our world. (25) Alisoun, crucial to the way that Chaucer "disjoins" The Miller's Tale from our world, is, in fact, the conduit through which the poet responds to and negotiates the medieval modes of meaning that confine or direct the way we read her. For that matter, "nature" imagery is an important, but not the only, palette that Chaucer uses to paint her. After surveying criticism on Alisoun, Thomas W. Ross observes in his Variorum edition of The Miller's Tale "that there are almost as many allusions to man-made objects in the [effictio]," and that "Chaucer uses similes involving artificial objects as well." (26) And, of course, as scholarship has shown, Alisoun is aligned with Biblical modes of reading through the Annunciation and Flood narratives, and the Song of Solomon. Alisoun attracts many patterns of imagery that are "appropriate" to moral uses. Paul Olson argues with insightful precision that "Alysoun becomes what each of her lovers wants her to be"; (27) this seems to be true as well for her readers because there are so many things she could be. In the sheer abundance of imagery that The Miller's Tale gives us as the material for Alisoun's characterization, the tale forces us to organize it, make it all cohere in structures that enable adequate and, again, appropriate interpretations.

In particular, the tale makes a typological reading of Alisoun, the creature of nature, conspicuously available; it casts her, in fact, in terms that derive from texts one reads typologically, for instance, the Bible and the medieval bestiary. (28) Chaucer, of course, plays with such readings, both to parody and to frustrate them, but his playfulness relies on his making such readings available, though not necessary or, finally, adequate to an interpretation of Alisoun. Multiple modes of reading converge on Alisoun, each available, each dependent on the other, each representing a different way the Middle Ages desired to read women. And each of these modes of reading, especially the parodic mode, depends on constructing an ordered sense of human action and agency. For the sake of concision, I wish to explore only the very first image Chaucer uses in Alisoun's descriptive effictio--the weasel--to illustrate the jostling, but also mutually enabling, discourses that intersect in the images that effectively construct Alisoun throughout the tale. Indeed, as the images accrue, what they cumulatively display is a kind of phenomdnology of increasingly paradoxical terms and categories of interpretation, which invite and resist the very kind of interpretive ingenuity and neatness that the tale's larger structure incorporates. In the medieval bestiary tradition, weasels were remarkable for the way that they conceived and bore their young. In some versions, the female was believed to conceive her young through the ear and bear them through the mouth, a belief which connected to the patristic belief that Mary conceived Christ through the ear, making the weasel, then, an image of the Virgin. Perhaps for Chaucer questions of authenticity and correctness in the interpreted order of the phenomenal world are less urgent than they might be for theologians, but they are questions with which he does play. There are, in fact, contradictory accounts in the bestiary tradition of how weasels conceive and bear young, a fact which leads collectively to conspicuous moral ambiguities. The bestiary that T. H. White translates observes that some writers claim that the weasel conceives through the ear and bears young through the mouth, but some say the opposite. This text goes on to moralize them thus: "Now these creatures signify not a few of you fellows, who willingly accept by ear the seed of God's word, but who, shackled by the love of earthly things, put it away in the wrong place and dissimulate what you hear." (29) In the weasel this bestiary finds an expression of those whom Jesus refers to in his parable of the sower, who hear the word of God and believe only for a short time, due to temptation (Luke 8:6, 13).

Whereas this text finds the insemination to represent the "planting" of the word of God, The Physiologus finds the order of the weasel's conception and birthing (here, conceiving through the mouth, birthing through the ear) to convey the conception and birth of "wickedness":

The weasel has this nature: the female receives the seed of the male in her mouth and, having become pregnant, gives birth through her ears. If it happens, however, that she gives birth through the right ear, the young will be male, and if through the left ear, female. Wicked things are engendered through the ears.

There are those even now eating the spiritual bread in church. When they have been dismissed, however, they will cast the Word out of their hearing. (30)

Almost apart from the diversity present here in moral application is the structural diversity made available in the physical facts of the weasel's being. There is an order to the weasel's birthing processes that the text notes for its own sake: right ear, male; left ear, female. Taken collectively as a tradition, the physical diversity available to the textual weasel becomes conspicuous. The weasel of the bestiary is morally ambiguous partly, at least, because it is ambiguous physically and, therefore, interpretively. This diversity of description is inherited: the world as text is read in light of other, authoritative texts. When one sorts through all of the texts the Middle Ages had at their disposal to find the unity of God's world, one discovers, as, for instance, St. Thomas Aquinas showed so thoroughly, that interpretation itself is the negotiating response to the texts that diversely envision and map out the complicated field of interpretation.

Not only the multiple modes of reading Alisoun, but also the contradictions that inhere within single modes of reading her, are responsible for rendering her capacity for agency ambiguously. Invoking the terms and tradition of the bestiary, Chaucer forces us to interpret in Alisoun what is conspicuously already an interpretation, thus, his tale offers us a layered, and potentially contradictory, set of assembled interpretations. As the tale begins to sketch the physical details of her beauty, inviting us to visualize her delicate and slender form in the weasel, it teases us simultaneously with the transcendental implications of that beauty in the weasel's referentiality to Mary, the paragon of physical and spiritual (physical, because spiritual) beauty. The lure to transform her thus is echoed and perhaps reinforced in the tale's use of the Annunciation motif and in Absolon's use of the Song of Solomon to court her. Chaucer, however, uses this lure, as many readers have pointed out, to effect parody. (31) In fact, it is with the ridiculously vain, self-inflated Absolon--in the Song of Solomon passage he echoes and in the "cat and mouse" image--that Chaucer has the most fun with this desire to allegorize oneself for love. But the weasel is the first in an impressive string of imagery from divinely and humanly created sources. We read Alisoun in light of the weasel image and see the interpretive diversity available: she is innocent, but she is also the Virgin, perhaps to reenforce her innocence, perhaps to sketch an ironic distance between her and the Virgin, or perhaps even to suggest a more subversive undercutting of the age's notions of women, innocence, and sexuality. Taken collectively, however, the imagery--of which the weasel is a part--attracts attention to the processes by which we may read her as we would read a bestiary, attuned to the work of ordering the physical details of the phenomenal world, in all its diversity, according to a received sense of the metaphysics that govern order itself. That is, we respond to Alisoun not precisely as an animal, but rather as if she were the kind of natural object we encounter in the bestiary--one that needs to be understood, controlled, appropriated, and one, therefore, who won't complicate things for us by having the capacity to act in contrast to our interpretive desires for her.

Chaucerian ambiguity forces interpretive choices, and therefore, draws from his readers both a self-conscious engagement with the processes of interpretation and also, more importantly, a self-undeceiving confrontation with the assumptions we make, the risks we take, and the responsibilities we must accept in our interpretive acts. Thus, despite and because of the laughter and play that explicitly mark the tale's reception in Chaucer's pilgrim community--"Diverse folk diversely they seyde, / But for the moore part they loughe and pleyde" (3857-58)--Chaucer's choice to explore the complex interrelations of interpretive means and ends by which Alisoun's culpability or innocence is constructed, and by which our own agency to interpret is constructed as well, has deceptively high stakes. The invitation to join the tale in constructing her innocence is particularly complex and resonant precisely because the act both of constructing and of interpreting Alisoun within the tale's world and within the frame of the Canterbury Tales is not an innocent one. Innocence is the very quality that humankind lost at the Fall, which at least prevents innocence from being easily imputed either to the textual world of human action that Chaucer's readers enter, or to the world in which they engage in the act of reading. To harm someone, at least in our own world, is, as the Reeve tells us before we hear the tale, "a synne and eek a greet folye / To apeyren any man, or hym defame, / And eek to bryngen wyves in swich fame" (3146-48). Even though it is the Reeve that says this, in full display of the irony that frames his hypocrisy and misogyny, he gives voice to attitudes that undergird our world's social responses to injury and defamation of character. Moreover, the tale does not only catch us between our world and the tale's in its parodic gestures, but also in its brief moments of pathos. These moments occur not necessarily when the three males have been repaid for their "sins" and "follies," in the Reeve's terms, but perhaps when characters reveal at least the rudiments of self-awareness and love--when John, gullibly believing Nicholas' dire prediction of the world's impending destruction, immediately responds, "'Allas, my wyf! / And shal she drenche? Allas, myn Alisoun" (3522-23); or Chaucer's image describing the humiliated Absolon "weep[ing] as dooth a child that is ybete" (3759). Though these moments reenforce these characters' foolishness, they also cast a quick glance toward the sympathy that we mortals might feel in recognition of our own capacity for foolishness. These moments might cast an even quicker glance at the possibility of Alisoun's culpability, just as in The Merchant's Tale Januarie's pathos becomes the enabling backdrop for our ability to implicate May for her treachery. But again, when Chaucer closes the tale, conspicuously excluding her from the expected ends that typically await the culpable and forcing us to situate such an exclusion in some kind of interpretative closure, the poet invites us to cast our own glance most keenly at ourselves, enmeshed in the problems and possibilities of interpretive choice and responsibility.

The Merchant's Tale shares with The Miller's Tale similar characters, which derive, at least in part, from the stock character-types of the fabliau (foolish old husbands, lusty young wives, etc.). They also share similar relationships between the characters (young wives set upon by young men who are trusted members of the old husband's household), and similarly formulaic situations in which those characters negotiate socially sanctioned and unsanctioned sexual relationships. Both the similarities and the differences between the tales are essential to understanding the ways that each tale complements the other in the questions it asks about female agency, human agency, and about both the writer's and the reader's desire to perceive significance in their respective activities. The Merchant's Tale, perhaps more than The Miller's Tale, is a generically complex tale, especially as it mocks, yet paradoxically aspires to, "higher" genres and modes of discourse (the Romance in particular). The Miller's Tale--with its large, phallic "kultour" and the "misdirected" kiss--playfully mocks the ways in which such genres and discourses disguise the physicality, and inflate the metaphysical significance, of desire in their stylized forms and lofty language of desire. The Merchant, on the other hand, seems darkly preoccupied with and repelled by those physiological realities (Januarie's vividly repulsive "assaults" on May, May's reading of Damyan's note in the privy, the urgent and crude coupling of Damyan and May in the pear tree, etc.). The Merchant's attempt to create a nobler, more rarified environment for his narrative of desire is, therefore, complicated and conflicted, and one that exposes us to both sides of that ambivalence.

In fact, the Merchant will ultimately undercut his own attempt to rarify his narrative by confronting us with how things "really" begin and end in the world. Thus, in the ways through which the Merchant plays with causes and effects of action, especially in the tale's conclusion, we see how the laws of cause and effect dominate his attention in the first place. The sudden twists of fortune (Januarie's blindness, for example), and particularly the Merchant's acrid attempt at playful suspension of consequences of human action at the tale's end, suggest a narrative consciousness deeply interested in, but also ambivalent about, consequence, result, return on investments. The idea of giving innocence a durable place in his narrated world seems thus at odds with the Merchant's narrative project. By tale's end, the three fabliau-type characters have each been viewed with cynical scrutiny. As the Miller does in his tale, the Merchant gives us characters who are prominently self-centered, who are driven solely by self-gratification, which can occur either by their own pleasure or another's pain. But the Miller allowed some of the pain, though not all, that inhabits a world of self-pleasers to be incidental and even accidental to the pursuit of pleasure. The Merchant, on the other hand, almost seems to render pain as the necessary outcome of the pursuit of pleasure. The characters follow their desire, knowing that their actions work to the harm, confinement, and/or deception of another who exists in a relationship of special, exclusive trust. It almost seems, then, that to act in this world is to invite blame. The tale seems to work hard at ensuring that we come away from it with a bitter taste in our mouths for its characters. For most readers this feeling extends to the tale's teller. (32) As scholarship on this tale has amply demonstrated, the role that the tale's teller plays is deeply problematic and one, therefore, that needs to be sorted through for any interpretation of the tale. Clearly, the Merchant's place in his tale produces many of the differences we perceive between his and the Miller's world. The Miller is in his tale, "quitting" the Knight and baiting the Reeve, but the Miller's requital of, for instance, the Knight depends both on his tale's comic inversion of the rarified environment of The Knight's Tale, and also on his remaining remote from the world he constructs in order playfully to reproduce the Knight's interest in a world governed by seemingly impersonal, inscrutable forces. However, the Merchant, like the Reeve, is conspicuous in his aggressive uses of narrative as he appears to imagine something of himself and his world in his narration of aggression and injury; in the Merchant's case, he provides both an incarnation of himself and a version of the hostility towards women and wives that he first relates in his prologue to the tale. (33)

Nevertheless the Merchant does not tell a tale that culminates in acts of punishing the figures towards which the Merchant is hostile; consequently, his tale does not focus on punishment per se the way The Miller's Tale does. In The Miller's Tale punishment is the means to facilitating the tale's sense of comedy (its humor and the character of its conclusion), especially in the way that it is systematically, neatly, accidentally carried out. Furthermore, the comedy is only possible by confining cause and effect within the tale's narrative world, where the actions and the results that make that world go round begin and end. Such a logic of causality may perhaps invite us to rewrite our own transcendental logic of causality, but such an invitation--because it makes us aware of what we are revising--therefore cannot completely succeed in releasing us from our investment in the causal world outside of the narrative. Nevertheless, while we are within the narrative we can perceive and accept that the Miller's sense of comedy ultimately derives from an overarching sense of immateriality, and with Alisoun, the possibility of inconsequentiality, in human behavior--a sense that actions in the narrative world don't have durable consequences because they don't really cause anybody durable harm. Of course, within the Miller's narrative world the obverse of this logic becomes true, too: the pleasures, as well as the pains, of the narrative world are mutable and of little or no consequence. This logic of pleasure and pain is perhaps itself a source of pleasure and pain for mortal readers looking in.

Conversely, The Merchant's Tale uses punishment to create a world of arbitrary cause and effect, rather than one which invites us to suspend our own logic of consequentiality. Punishment for Januarie derives from a fairly precise sense of requital, but this precision contrasts with the way the Merchant treats May, who escapes not only unscathed from an affair for which she is knowingly responsible, but also with power, despite the speciousness of her "explanation," to manipulate the system of reward and punishment to her advantage. The contrast between not only Januarie's and May's fate, but also their power to negotiate their worlds, focuses on the absence of forces that govern the administration of rewards and punishments in the Merchant's world. In fact, the tale's structure is so deeply defined by changes and reversals that its world seems to reward those who live by opportunism, who take advantage of this world's "logic" for their own benefit. The first portion of the tale goes to great lengths to portray an apparently innocent May caught in the repugnant clutches, figuratively and literally, of old, lecherous, self-deceived Januarie. The second portion turns the tables on both characters, Januarie becoming a pathetic, vulnerable victim of deception, and May becoming the orchestrator of an adulterous affair that turns grotesque in fulfillment.

Januarie is initially the interpretively vulnerable figure as the tale discusses his indulgent bachelor life and his selfish, mercantile motives for marriage; portrays in detail his flabby, wrinkled lust; depicts his lovemaking as toil, despite Januarie's express intent to "pleye" (1832 ff.); and imagines in his lust a power that threatens May physically and emotionally:
   But in his herte he gan hire to manace
   That he that nyght in armes wolde hire streyne
   Harder than ever Parys dide Eleyne.
   But natheless yet hadde he greet pitee
   That thilke nyght offenden hire moste he,
   And thoughte, "Allas! O tendre creature,
   Now wolde God ye myghte wel endure
   Al my corage, it is so sharp and keene!


Januarie's desire is dangerous, "sharp and keene" like a sword (perhaps Chaucer puns on "armes" in 1753, and surely it is not just his "corage" that Januarie considers to be "sharp and keene"). As Januarie insists of May, the Merchant boorishly and clumsily forces his tale to strip off its Romance clothes to unveil the male aggression that informs the Romance's more refined diction and narrative gestures. Desire, as it did for Paris and Helen, exists somewhere between rape and seduction, and the circumstances of their first sexual experience prefigures and initiates the cursed cycle of aggression that the matter of Troy so aptly demonstrates. (34)

Even more damning to Januarie, however, is his awareness of the harm he does: "`Allas! I moot trespace / To yow, my spouse, and yow greetly offende / Er tyme come that I wil doun descende / But natheless ..." (1828-31). Januarie's self-knowledge here suggests a husband who not only seeks his own pleasure solely, but one that also takes pleasure in his wife's pain. Yet later, quite suddenly, the tale turns Januarie into a pathetic figure in his blindness and allows him, as a result, to develop at least the rudiments of a self-knowledge that leads to sympathy for another. Januarie seems conspicuously and fully requited for his arrogance, self-deception, and jealousy by becoming blind and by serving as the unwitting "step" by which May accomplishes the very end which he had worked so hard to prevent. But the tale complicates our reception of a character who otherwise might stand there like John, being laughed at by communities within and without the tale. Rather, the tale has a "deity" restore his sight, for the express purpose of undeceiving him, and by the time the tale, as it were, punishes Januarie, it has already changed his interpretive status. We do not necessarily absolve Januarie in this plight for his past "offences"--especially since the blindness leads him to keep May even more a prisoner than before--but the tale invites our sympathy when, suspecting May's plans with Damyan, Januarie says,
   And though that I be oold and may nat see,
   Beth to me trewe, and I wol telle you why.
   Thre thynges, certes, shal ye wynne therby:
   First, love of Crist, and to youreself honour,
   And al myn heritage, toun and tour;
   I yeve it yow, maketh chartres as yow leste;
   This shal be doon to-morwe er sonne reste,
   So wisly god my soule brynge in blisse.
   I prey yow first, in covenant ye me kisse;
   And though that I be jalous, wyte me noght.
   Ye been so depe enprented in my thoght
   That, whan that I considere youre beautee
   And therewithal the unlikly elde of me,
   I may nat, certes, though I sholde dye,
   Forbere to been out of your compaignye
   For verray love; this is withoute doute.


While this Januarie remains the materialistic, possessive, misogynist of the first part of the tale, what is different here is that he demonstrates self-awareness ("And though that I be jalous," or "the unlikly elde of me," for example). To be sure, this self-awareness includes self-consciously manipulative vulnerability. But Januarie's ability to pull the heart strings with pathos and his appeal to notions of morality and honor suggest that he begins to perceive the situation as the readers and May perceive it, which thing we have not seen from him before. For the first time he admits his age, recognizes his jealousy, even sympathizes with the situation into which he has put May, and realizes that an appeal to her honor and the promise of his property may be the only ways he can hold May--indeed, that she needs to be held, and is not merely property to use as and when he chooses.

Suddenly, the situation between Januarie and May has reversed. In her scheme to rendezvous with Damyan in the garden, May, for whom we had great sympathy at the wedding and when she had to endure Januarie's lovemaking, turns Januarie into the passive member of the relationship. The text carefully evoked our sympathy for her with its lengthy discussion of Januarie's character and motives for marriage, and by lingering over the grotesqueness of Januarie's body in sex, but then the text shows us that May succumbs all too quickly to the first proposition offered, and is at some pains to portray her would-be lover as an insidious, serpent-like betrayer of his master. After preparing us to accept Damyan and the "love" he offers as a poetically just escape from the selfish and disgusting demands of her husband, the tale unexpectedly describes Damyan's and May's relations in disgusting terms, too. Perhaps, too, embedded in May's reading of the love note in the privy is the misogyny that Hansen notices in this tale and The Miller's Tale of "equat[ing] women's privacy, her private parts, her unknowable subjective self, with the dirt and decay of the site of her reading, the privy." (35) At the dramatic surface of the tale, it sets a tone of uncomfortable, degrading urgency in their relationship, emphasized, rather than mitigated, by the narrator's expressed delicacy--"Ladyes, I prey yow that ye be nat wrooth; / I kan nat glose, I am a rude man" (2350-51). This tone of degrading urgency becomes an actual event of degrading urgency when May and Damyan copulate in the pear tree: "And sodeynly anon this Damyan / Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng" (2352-53). In sign of his passivity, Januarie stands bent underneath May, her foot on his back to climb the tree, now the unwitting facilitator of May's and Damyan's own grotesquely rendered lust. Januarie's passivity continues when the tale leaves him submissively accepting May's explanation of the coupling. Far from excluding her from the moral context the tale has created, though she escapes punishment with what the now sighted Janauarie (by Pluto) takes as an adequate explanation (given her by Proserpine), the text reverses itself to invest May with blame.

This is perhaps not completely unexpected; the latter portions of the tale are careful to render May, as The Miller's Tale did Nicholas, not only as a knowing participant in the adultery, but as orchestrator of it. She responds, for instance, to Januarie's appeal in his pleasure garden for her fidelity with a speech which, given what we already know she intends to do, seems unnecessarily hypocritical. In fact, the tale places a knowing May into the iconography of Eve, standing with her Adam beside a tree complete with an entwined serpent, and reaching for the fruit that the serpent offers, to suggest that May is not only Eve, but worse than Eve because May lacks Eve's prelapsarian innocence. What May knows is crucial to how this tale works; the Merchant and, for that matter, Chaucer, (though not Januarie), are always interested in what she knows and thinks. The tale does not even allow us to look at May, at least not in the way The Miller's Tale has us look at Alisoun in order to "render" her character and, significantly, her innocence, in an elaborate catalogue of images. The Merchant tells us that he cannot describe her beauty--"I may yow nat devyse al hir beautee" (1746)--while his tale gives us a very clear sense of Januarie's physical attractions. In fact, his tale invites us to see through May not only, for instance, Januarie's "slakke skyn" (1849), but more importantly how deplorable Januarie is in the heat of sexual desire by asking questions about May's thoughts (to which we know the clear answer): "How that he wroghte, I dar nat to yow telle, / Or wheither hire thoughte it paradys or helle" (1963-64). Phrasing the answer in the form of a question brings readers more actively into the emotional dimension of May's plight, but it also initiates a way of reading May that the text will soon exploit for a different effect. Jay Schleusener is particularly insightful on this point, though he perhaps overstates the degree of control the Merchant attains over his readers:

The story of January and May hardly needs explaining--there is no ambiguity about their motives--yet the Merchant repeatedly steps forward with digressions, apostrophes, and instrusions which provide us with regular opportunities to consider and to dismiss interpretations at odds with his own. He peddles these alternative views in order to exercise our conviction that nothing can survive the truth we have seen in his tale. (36)

Scholars like Schleusener have shown us only too well how unsubtle the Merchant's manipulations are, a phenomenon which only attunes us more strongly to the narrative mechanics at play in the tale, and which make us, like Schleusener, to become skeptical, resisting readers. But Schleusener quite rightly perceives that we become complicit in the motives which the Merchant imputes to Januarie and May.

Central to May's characterization are questions about May's motives, not necessarily why she does what she does, but what she knows and, therefore, how responsible she is for the actions she takes. As Hansen argues, "the narrator's strategy inevitably raises the possibility of a female subjectivity," a phenomenon that is "frightening" to the Merchant. (37) Yet the tale also forces us to take some responsibility for the sense of responsibility we impute to May. When we hear the narrator querying what May must think when she looks at Januarie's neck or listens to his chanting and croaking (1849-50), it creates the interpretive space within which it should articulate her motives. By leaving that space blank, it invites us to supply what is missing. Certainly, in May's actions with Damyan the Merchant wishes to enlist our support in revealing a May who existed from the beginning and a Januarie who was too foolish to see her for what she is. Yet the tale already had created the interpretive space to allow us to wonder--more than we ever did with Alisoun--not only what May thinks of her old husband, but also why May is in this marriage in the first place. We may think we know the answer to this question in the way that we know what May thinks of Januarie: May is every bit the capitalist in marriage that Januarie is. Yet the tale's silence on the matter always leaves at least a small bit of interpretive room--May could have been forced or persuaded to it by, say, her mother, an idea that lurks in the background of the Wife of Bath's characterization. Whatever the Merchant means us to think on this matter, his attempts to draw us into his narrative logic regarding May's culpability do not culminate before he first leads us to imagine an innocent or, at least, a sympathetic May who is more sinned against than sinning in her relationship to a repulsive and threatening figure. Taking into account the more expansive narrative pacing of The Merchant's Tale, as compared to The Miller's Tale, The Merchant's Tale gives us an initial and relatively quick look at the other May, one whose predicament elicits our sympathy and whose desire enlists our support. It articulates briefly but nevertheless more expansively that which is left implicit in Alisoun's narrative situation. By the same token The Miller's Tale allows a very brief glimpse at the possibility of Alisoun's culpability in the moments of John's and Absolon's pathos, which resembles the pathos which The Merchant's Tale more fully deploys to blame May. The Merchant's Tale closes down a sympathetic reading of May, but again, not before it allows us to imagine the thought processes that potentially exist behind the stock characterizations and situations of the fabliau. (38)

In this opening and closing, opening to close, motion, the tale plays with the expectations that emerge from the situations, motives, and actions that are attached to particular genres. Fabliau conventions of character and situation do not encourage, and perhaps resist, sympathy. Romance, on the other hand, derives much of its effect on the reader precisely from the sympathy it evokes for its characters' predicaments and motives. Initially May, along with Januarie, seems to belong to the world of fabliau, which constrains a fully sympathetic response to her predicament. At the point at which Damyan enters the tale, bringing with him the language and gestures of courtly romance, the tale raises the possibility (the hope?) that May might escape not only Januarie's clutches, but also those of the fabliau itself. But instead of moving May into a romance narrative, and thus understanding, if not endorsing, her attraction to Damyan as the tale progresses, Damyan is absorbed into the structures and expectations of the fabliau. Thus, the tale imagines romance only to be frustrated by its inaccessibility; the fabliau becomes a kind of irrepressible force that continaully asserts and reasserts its right to direct the way we read the tale. And significantly, the tale uses May to facilitate the power of the fabliau.

But the tale's movement with and towards fabliau is self-conscious, indeed, a movement that is conscious of the mechanisms and motivations that govern the genre. In giving voice to what those lusty young wives think about their old husbands and, therefore, why they submit to those lusty young squires, and in letting us hear what kind of foolish reasoning foolish old men go through to talk themselves into marrying young wives, The Merchant's Tale undergirds the scenario of The Miller's Tale with a pervasive sense of responsibility for what happens. Everyone associated with the tale--characters, teller, Chaucer, readers--is part of the mechanism of agency in the tale; at some level everyone chooses what will happen and why. We lose the innocence we had in The Miller's Tale, but despite our fuller knowledge of the genre's narrative logic, the tale frustratingly refuses to do anything new. The tale lets us think about different possibilities as it all the more deeply entrenches us in the eternal, inexorable struggle between men and women--Januarie gets his sight back, only to see the truth "revealed" concerning his fears about May, about himself, and about desire itself.

Frustratingly, too, we cannot simply leave the Merchant's world behind, as we could the Miller's, for the Merchant's desire to contain, manipulate, and finally reveal this truth leads him initially to invoke the conventional context of transcendental significance for human action, especially marriage, though it simultaneously disparages that significance. In the Merchant's expository beginning, he invokes marriage as representing the presence and influence of God on humans: it is God's greatest gift (1311 ff.); it is "a ful greet sacrement" (1319); in its ideal state, it embodies the love God himself has for his people (1384). And though the Merchant sets us up with these pronouncements for the conspicuous, severe irony to follow, he has again given place in his tale for something which, when we find it missing, we miss it all the more. God is very much present in the tale, but present as a kind of absence. When the Merchant describes the process by which May "falls" for Damyan, he characteristically tells us he "kan nat seye" if it is "by destynee or by aventure,/ ... by influence or by nature, / Or constellacion" that acts upon May; "but," the Merchant continues, "grete God above / That knoweth that noon act is causeless, / He deme of al, for I wole holde my pees" (1967-76). Certainly, this is the Merchant's typical way of emphasizing what we do know--May's and Damyan's treachery, a gesture the Merchant repeats elsewhere. (39) But as God serves the Merchant's efforts to underscore May's responsibility for her actions, God simply becomes a projection of what the Merchant would have us know about May. Thus, deity is a projection of the Merchant's sense of humanity. Pluto and Proserpine are indeed emanations of Januarie and May; Chaucer perhaps chooses classical gods to show that for the Merchant God is created in the image of humans. God exists for the Merchant to use as he will.

As readers we find ourselves in a very difficult, complex position with respect to the tale itself. As we come to perceive the Merchant's bitterness and his attempts to conscript us into his ways of reading the world, we may be at odds with him as narrator of the tale. Yet somehow The Merchant's Tale, as opposed to the Merchant himself, will not allow us fully to be at odds with itself, though neither will it allow us to settle in to a more comfortable sense of harmony with itself by allowing, for instance, for satisfying allegorization. Who's writing this tale, anyway, and why, seem questions more explicit and relevant to The Merchant's Tale. Leonard Michael Koff is right to point out that there are unresolvably complex layers of narrative points of view in The Merchant's Tale, but just because it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to sort out who ultimately owns a statement or idea in the tale, does not mean that the tale lets us simply "take on, or ... try to take on, the ideas themselves as ideas." (40) Ideas of moral and philosophical significance, especially agency and accountability, become pieces of property, especially, it would seem, for the Merchant himself, to buy and sell for his own profit. The idea of a May, as well as a Januarie, turning to ideas, arguments, etc., when they wish to justify and facilitate the desire of the moment, is central to the tale. Consequently, we seem invited to judge the characters, above all the Merchant, for the ways in which they use ideas, value variously and opportunistically social values, and thereby transform the value of ideas and the idea of values that govern human behavior.

Within the fiction of the Canterbury Tales, the Merchant, conspicuously the "material" man of this world, is finally responsible for his tale's character and characters. Emerson Brown, Jr. argues that the Merchant gives us characters not only for whom he has great contempt, but also who represent contemptible qualities he finds in his own marriage and in himself: "The Merchant hates women, wives, his wife, and May. He also hates foolish husbands, Januarie, and the foolish Januarie in himself." (41) Our sense of the Merchant's narrative intent, his hostile response to the world in which he fictionally lives and the world he recreates in his tale, is the gate through which all interpretations of his tale pass. Perhaps Chaucer's intent, or, at least, "the ultimate effect" here is, as Alfred David claims, "to turn [us] not against women or marriage, not against poetry, but against the narrator's warped vision." (42) Yet David's view poses more questions than it answers, especially with respect to the degree of responsibility Chaucer takes for not only his Merchant's self-serving, mercantile ordering of the world, but also, paradoxically, for the moral context into which his Merchant places marriage and marital fidelity. As Robert R. Edwards has demonstrated, the "doctrine" on marriage that the Merchant invokes--which he would appropriate to his own ends of "establish[ing] the hegemony of his own voice"--not only "resist[s] his appropriation," but also "suggest[s] alternatives to his vision." (43) Chaucer creates a "dialectical tension" between narration and doctrine, and, of course, "does nothing to dissipate the tension," in order to convey a sense of "the competing truths of a fallen world." (44) Characteristically, Chaucer poses alternatives as alternatives available to negotiating and interpreting his world. Yet in The Merchant's Tale, as in The Miller's Tale, the poet self-consciously thematizes the act of reading itself as the negotiation both of alternative interpretations, and also, more fundamentally, of alternative modes of interpretation.

However, the Merchant himself, as mediator of our sense of the alternatives, becomes conspicuously, cynically alienated from the sacred matters he brings up in the first place. Instead of going for the joke that plays inconclusively with the transcendental implications of human agency and behavior, as he does in The Miller's Tale, Chaucer allows the Merchant's narrative simultaneously to imagine and to spurn the sacred dimensions that inform human agency in marriage. Consequently, Chaucer enables the Merchant not just to create a tension between, but also to put at odds, the modes of discourse through which we conceptualize the character and significance of human action: on the one hand, behavior described in doctrinal principles and, on the other hand, behavior made imaginable by narrative. This is hardly something we might imagine Chaucer taking lightly, even if we might dismiss the Merchant as an unreliable narrator of human behavior, especially female behavior, and throw him in with the other bad-humored narrators the Canterbury Tales give us, like the Reeve or the Summoner. (45) But the rules according to which we disallow or ignore the vision that some of his tale-tellers give of human agency in general, and female agency in particular, become very slippery from tale to tale, from teller to teller. Moreover, such rules must coexist with those by which we determine the perspectives we would not nor cannot simply reject, despite the apparent uses to which their tellers put them. In any event, Chaucer indicates--before giving his famous advice to his readers to take responsibility for the tales they choose to read--that he only records the tales he hears in the "manere" in which they were told (3167-70). Perhaps, then, the narrative spaces that Chaucer so frequently creates for his female figures--ambiguous spaces of silence, deferral, submission, and negotiation--describe his own place in his narrative as receptor and negotiator of doctrines and narratives that construct the very notions of agency that animate his poetry.

Brigham Young University


(1.) The impulse to address issues of female agency in these two tales by reading the tales with and against each other began and was refined in conversations with my wife and colleague, Catherine Corman Parry. Her guidance and editorial assistance--in too many places to note individually--has been invaluable. I also wish to thank the editors of Philological Quarterly, and especially the anonymous reader they chose for this article, for their perceptive suggestions; as a result, this article is much better than I had managed on my own.

(2.) Joseph D. Parry, "Dorigen, Narration, and Coming Home in the Franklin's Tale," Chaucer Review 30 (1996): 262-93.

(3.) Thomas J. Farrell is right to trouble the term "poetic justice," citing the anachronism in the term, and therefore the disparity between our own time's sense of the concepts that inform the term and Chaucer's, in his "Privacy and the Boundaries of Fabliau in the Miller's Tale, ELH56 (1989): 775-76. But the term has occupied an important place in the history of the criticism of, in particular, the Miller's Tale.

(4.) Charles Muscatine notes the similarities of these two tales in "their plots and collections of characters ... in a large sense their stylistic materials" and claims that "the poetic strategy in each is to play off an elevated attitude against blunt naturalism to expose a blindness." Chaucer and the French Tradition (U. of California Press, 1964), p. 237. See also Janet Boothman's examination of John and January in "`Who Hath No Wyf, He is No Cokewold': A Study of John and January in Chaucer's Miller's and Merchant's Tales," Thoth 4 (1963): 3-14.

(5.) This well-known interest shown in this passage not only in "earnest" and "game" has great resonance for my argument: "The Millere is a cherl; ye knowe wel this. / So was the Reve eek and othere mo, / And harlotrie they tolden bothe two. / Avyseth yow, and put me out of blame; / And eek men shal nat maken ernest of game" (I 3182-86), Geoffrey Chaucer, The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). I will take all Chaucer citations from this edition and acknowledge them parenthetically.

(6.) Kolve argues that it is "improper" to look for moral or philosophical significance in The Miller's Tale, for this tale is essentially amoral as it functions "within a self-contained fabliau system--not outward toward a world of transcendental meaning and spiritual destinies." I wish to demonstrate, however, that the suspension of the very system of requital around which Chaucer seems to organize both tales incites us interpretively to reassess the logic according to which actions are punished, rewarded, or exempted in this system, to speculate about especially Alisoun's and May's degree of responsibility and participation within that system, and--given the tales' playful references to moral modes of meaning--to meditate in general on the interpretive and metaphysical possibilities implied by the system. Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative: The First Five Canterbury Tales (Stanford U. Press, 1984), pp. 214-15.

(7.) For a good historical overview of scholarship on these questions see Thomas W. Ross's "Survey of Criticism," The Miller's Tale: A Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (U. of Oklahoma Press, 1983), 2:3.7-26.

(8.) Robert M. Jordan, Chaucer and the Shape of Creation: The Aesthetic Possibilities of Inorganic Structure (Harvard U. Press, 1967), p. 187. Farrell ascribes this quality to the fabliau itself and cites several illustrative examples. "Privacy," pp. 777-78.

(9.) Thomas D. Cooke, The Old French and Chaucerian Fabliaux: A Study in Their Comic Climax (U. of Missouri Press, 1978), p. 183. Joseph A. Dane says as well that "morality is simply not an issue" as he traces the tale's dual investments in that which is "logically inevitable" and that which produces "utter surprise." Dane, "The Mechanics of Comedy in Chaucer's Miller's Tale," Chaucer Review 14 (1980): 223.

(10.) Morton Bloomfield, "The Miller's Tale--An UnBoethian Interpretation," in Medieval Literature and Folklore Studies: Essays in Honor of Francis Lee Utley, ed. Jerome Mandel and Bruce A. Rosenberg (Rutgers U. Press, 1970), p. 210.

(11.) Nicholas' punishment necessarily responds to both his adultery with Alisoun and his intended jest at Absolon's expense. As many readers have pointed out, though some of these claim that no one else has seemed to notice, Absolon's "kultour" is intended for Alisoun, not Nicholas. See, for example, Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender (U. of California Press, 1992), p. 232. In the context of her interest in "feminine absence and masculine anxiety" in Chaucer's treatment of women (p. 12), Hansen finds, on the one hand, Absolon's and Nicholas's interaction marked by "gender confusion and cross-undressing" with homosexual overtones, and, on the other hand, a gesture that "covers up the will to violence against women that is represented in Absolon's case as an effect of male fear and sexual anxiety" (pp. 231-32). See also Kara-Virginia Donaldson, "Alisoun's Language: Body, Text and Glossing in Chaucer's The Miller's Tale," PQ 71 (1992): 149; and Janes H. Morey, "The `Cultour' in The Miller's Tale: Alison as Iseult," Chaucer Review 29 (1995): 373-74. Morey provides an interesting examination of the "cultour" in the tale, given its use in "trials by ordeal to determine the guilt or innocence of women accused of adultery" (p. 374), which for Morey suggests a parallel between Chaucer's Alisoun and Iseult (p. 375ff.).

(12.) For example, Ian Robinson, Chaucer and the English Tradition (Cambridge U. Press, 1972), p. 97, and Hope Phyllis Weissman, "Antifeminism and Chaucer's Characterization of Women," in Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. George Economou (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975), p. 102.

(13.) One fine example of a critical study that explores the disequilbrium in the punishment of the three male characters appears in Lee Patterson's observations on John in the context of his examination of the politics of The Miller's Tale in his "Chaucer's Miller," Southern Atlantic Quarterly 86 (1987): 479-82. At the tale's end, Patterson claims, John is the one "most severely punished," but in terms that "bear a powerfully political valence and force us to attend to the class consciousness to which the Tale [sic] gives witness" (pp. 479-80). John becomes, thereby, a focal point of a much larger cultural critique that Chaucer briefly envisions: "Chaucer grants remarkable scope and force [to the tale's class consciousness], allowing it both to counter the oppressive hegemonic culture of the aristocracy and to subvert the language of class hatred promoted by certain forms of clerical discourse. Yet as we should expect, this authority is immediately, and severely, circumscribed" (pp. 481-82).

(14.) James H. Morey, "`Cultour,'" p. 373.

(15.) Richard Neuse argues that those plot elements deemed "demonic" to, for instance, The Knight's Tale--"the spontaneous, the accidental, the erotic"--are in The Miller's Tale "not perceived or felt as such, but [are] rather considered part of the natural order or course of things." The demonic in the tale is "a facet of the unaccountable plenitude of creation" and, Neuse continues, "it is precisely the fortuitous and seemingly demonic that cause poetic justice to prevail." Chaucer's Dante: Allegory and Epic Theater in the Canterbury Tales (U. of California Press, 1991), p. 131.

(16.) Kolve, Imagery of Narrative, p. 190.

(17.) Ibid., p. 190. For Kolve, the world of the tale is not only separate, but also the lost world of childhood innocence. He implies that this world's appeal, and therefore its liberating effect on us, is its nostalgiac "charm": "We witness a delight in game that is obsessive and pure in ways that young people manage best; and when the playing gets rough, they yowl in pain or `weep as dooth a child that is ybete' [Miller's Tale, 3759]. The complexity and indirection of their preferred means help to free our sympathy and laughter from notions (otherwise perfectly applicable) of adultery, aggression, and betrayal" (Imagery of Narrative, p. 190).

(18.) William F. Woods, "Private and Public Space in the Miller's Tale," Chaucer Review 29 (1994): 168. Woods goes on to say that "each time" the males attempt this with Alisoun, "`nature will out': the sheltering individual world is transformed into the focus of a communal entertainment" (p. 168).

(19.) For a useful, though perhaps overwrought, examination of the way the tale renders Alisoun passively, see Donaldson, "Alisoun's Language," pp. 139-53.

(20.) Commenting on an image of cats and mice in an English bestiary, Kolve finds it "characterized by affectionate detail, utterly free of extrinsic signification. It is in terms of just such an image that we are asked to imagine the desire of Absolon for Alisoun" (Imagery of Narrative, p. 180).

(21.) Farrell identifies the moment between Alisoun's humiliation of Absolon and before his attempt at vengeance--when Nicholas "inserts" himself in the joke--as the episode which marks the boundary between the tale's two sections, the first of which entails the fabliau's "generic pattern of private action," and the second of which goes beyond this pattern to constructing a sense of justice. Farrell's point turns on the tale's final use of some form of the word "pryvete" at this moment, and I will not attempt to reproduce here Farrell's intriguing and carefully made argument. Of Alisoun Farrell avers that she "cannot be fitted into any scheme of justice. All of her actions take place while the tale is fabliau-bound, and any efforts to describe her punishment are therefore fruitless." "Privacy," p. 780. Nevertheless, Alisoun initiates a joke which not only sets in motion the series of events that complete the joke on John and enmesh Nicholas and Absolon in vindictive action, but also determines the imitative character of Nicholas' and Absolon's aggressions.

(22.) As examples of the former see, of course, Kolve's entire chapter on The Miller's Tale: Imagery of Narrative, pp. 158-216 and also Alfred David, The Strumpet Muse: Art and Morals in Chaucer's Poetry (Indiana U. Press, 1976), pp. 96-97. As an example of a feminist critique of Chaucer and critics on this point, see Hansen, Fictions of Gender, pp. 224-26, 239.

(23.) Kolve, Imagery of Narrative, p. 215.

(24.) Ibid., pp. 160, 215.

(25.) Ibid., p. 160.

(26.) Ross, "Introduction," p. 36.

(27.) Paul Olsen, "Poetic Justice in the Miller's Tale," MLQ24 (1963): 231.

(28.) The moralization that the bestiary tradition invites derives from perceiving in the physical character of animals, birds, fish, etc., manifestations of an order that demonstrates some aspect of the character of nature's creator, ranging from expression, of God's own nature (the Pelican pricking its breast to feed its young with its own blood) to right behaviors (camels kneel, humble themselves, to receive their burdens) to human-like capacities (horses are capable of feeling sorrow for their masters) to those behaviors and natures contrary to God's (the ibex, which is both male and female, representing its double-mindedness). On the ways in which phenomenal reality is a text written by God, and the ways in which reading the Bible and other, authoritative sources informs the ways one reads the world as divine text, see Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton U. Press, 1983). His discussion about what occurs to "oral discourse as it began to function within a universe of communications governed by texts" seems relevant both for the medieval bestiary and, therefore, for what Chaucer seems to be doing with this way of reading Alisoun (p. 3). Literate culture, guided in part by classical sources, approached the world with the discourse of "discovery," whereas for the oral culture, "nature did not have to be discovered; it already existed. But it had to be explained, interpreted, and above all authenticated by texts," especially the Bible (pp. 524-25). See also, Stephen G. Nichols, Romanesque Signs: Early Medieval Narrative and Iconography (Yale U. Press, 1983), p. 3.

(29.) T.H. White, The Bestiary: A Book of Beasts (New York: Putnam, 1954), pp. 92-93.

(30.) Physiologus, trans. Michael J. Curley (U. of Texas Press, 1979), p. 50.

(31.) For good examples of how and what Chaucer parodies, see John B. Friedman, "Nicholas's `Angelus ad Virginem' and the Mocking of Noah," Yearbook of English Studies 22 (1992): 162-80; and Sandra Pierson Prior, "Parodying Typology and the Mystery Plays in the Miller's Tale," Journal of Medival and Renaissance Studies 16 (1986): 57-73.

(32.) Two notable exceptions to this kind of reading are Martin Stevens, "`And Venus Laugheth': An Interpretation of The Merchant's Tale," Chaucer Review 7 (1972-73): 118-31; and Derek S. Brewer, Companion to Chaucer Studies, ed. Beryl Rowland, rev. ed. (New York, 1979), p. 312.

(33.) As Robert R. Edwards argues: "The Merchant is a figure whose obscurity does not mask something so much as make him a cipher, a surface of disguise with no indication of what, if anything, might be concealed beneath. For this reason, any assessment of his character, hence of the dramatic portrayal of him in his tale, depends chiefly on his rehearsal of the tale he tells." "Narration and Doctrine in the Merchant's Tale," Speculum 66 (1991): 343. Even for those critics who resist the "dramatic" readings of the Canterbury Tales, the effect of the non-effect of the tale-teller on the tale is a product of the tale. On this topic, see also H. Marshall Leicester, Jr., Disenchanted Self: Representing the Subject in the Canterbury Tales (U. of California Press, 1990).

(34.) See also Elizabeth's Simmons-O'Neill's argument about May's and January's connection to Pluto and Proserpine through Paris and Helen in the context of her perceptive examination of Chaucer's revisionary use of Pluto and Proserpine. They are "deities," Simmons-O'Neill contends, "who demand to be read two ways, both as emblematic of the misogynist view which holds women's physicality and immorality responsible for their own rapes, and as a revision of that view." "Love in Hell: The Role of Pluto and Proserpine in Chaucer's Merchant's Tale," MLQ51 (1990): 395-97.

(35.) Hansen, Fictions of Gender, p. 260.

(36.) Jay Schleusener, "The Conduct of the Merchant's Tale," Chaucer Review 14 (1979-80): 243.

(37.) Hansen, Fictions of Gender, 259.

(38.) A work in progress by my colleague V. Stanley Benfell, III, has been most helpful to me as I formulated a sense of The Merchant's Tale's interest in "laying bare" and interrogating the mechanisms of the fabliau.

(39.) See Januarie's invocation of God--"God woot," "For Goddes sake," etc. in 2113-14, 2125-27, 2165-75; and May's damning "I prey to God that never dawe the day / That I ne sterve, as foule as womman may, / If evere I do unto my kyn that shame ..." (2195 ff.).

(40.) Leonard Michael Koff, Chaucer and the Art of Story telling (U. of California Press, 1988), pp. 111-12.

(41.) Emerson Brown, Jr., "Chaucer, the Merchant, and their Tale: Getting Beyond Old Controversies," Chaucer Review 13 (1978): 143.

(42.) David, The Strumpet Muse, p. 179.

(43.) Edwards, "Narration and Doctrine," p. 343.

(44.) Ibid., pp. 366-67.

(45.) We see Chaucer engage in a kind of joking through the Host with the Pardoner, whose relationship with his tale measures a significant ideological distance between teller and tale, but it seems to be a joke that is made not just for a good laugh. See 941 ff.
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Title Annotation:Canterbury Tales
Author:Parry, Joseph D.
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Geographic Code:4EUUE
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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