Marriage In The Canterburry Tales Essay, Research Paper
Marriage is an institution viewed upon in many different ways. Some people believe it is a holy union of two people in order to reproduce. On the other hand, there are those who look at it as a social contract which often binds two people that are not necessarily right for each other. In Geoffrey Chaucher’s The Canterbury Tales, the view taken is that of the former. Chaucher looks at marriage as an obligation that is almost always dominated by one of its two members, as view proven in the Miller’s Tale, the Shipman’s Tale, the Merchant’s Tale, and the Wife of Bath s Tale.
The “Shipman’s Tale” exemplifies the sarcastic view of marriage taken by Chaucer. Here, his wife along with his cousin, Sir John the monk, cuckolds a noble merchant. The merchant is completely trusting of his wife and his cousin, but still they take advantage of him. Money is the underlying theme in this tale. First, Sir John asks the merchant if he’d “contrive to lend [him] a hundred francs” (Chaucer, 164) which would actually be used to seduce the merchant’s wife. The merchant gladly loans him the money; not knowing his cousin had ulterior motives. Then, the merchant leaves on a business trip and leaves his wife alone in their home, along with the monk. With the merchant never once questioning their honor, the wife and the monk take advantage of his leave in order to consummate their relationship. Although later the wife almost gets caught, ultimately her husband never learns that his wife has lied in anyone’s “arms all night” (Chaucer, 165) that weren’t his and the merchant is seen as a blind fool. The relationships in this tale are all defined, at least in part, in terms of finances:
The wife defines her relationship with her husband at the beginning in terms of his niggardliness, and offers her body at the end in repayment of the hundred francs; she offers herself to Daun John in return for money (Cooper, 281).
The selling of one s own body does not seem to be very important within the context of this tale. Instead, it is perceived as another way of making money. This can be seen because, The merchant is not jealous; he gives his wife liberty (Cooper, 281). This is further demonstrated at the end of the tale when His rebuke of his wife at the end is a very mild one in what he believes to be the circumstances (Cooper, 282). His Wife s adultery for cash should appear all the more shocking for his forbearance, but moral judgement on any of the characters is entirely lacking (Cooper, 282). Her disregard for the institution of matrimony and the merchant s naivete are the two reasons why the wife has the control in their relationship. Basically, Chaucer finds this situation somewhat humorous, thus proving his scorn for marriage.
The “Merchant’s Tale” is yet another example of Chaucer’s contempt for this institution. This story is the irony of a mere man, it is the irony of passion and personal experience (Kittredge, 19). Here, the noble knight December, at age sixty, decided that it his time to be wed. He chooses the “fresh, young May” (Chaucer, 372) to be his bride. Once they are married, December is thrilled to have such a “tender creature” (Chaucer, 372) as a wife and treats her like a queen. Unfortunately, some time after their consummation, January is suddenly stricken with blindness. This is both noteworthy and ironic because as soon as he becomes blind he can not see that he has lost his power in the relationship. Though he tries to remain dominant by forcing May to stay by his side, she is eventually able to cheat on him and get away with it. Because of his loss of sight, he becomes extremely worried that his wife might cuckold him, so he forces her to remain with him all the time. Nevertheless, she soon gets upset at her husband’s jealousy and decides to have an affair with the young and handsome Damian. She concocts a plan whereby she would be able to embrace her lover while within reach of her husband. Once the plan finally unfolds and May is in Damian’s arm, December suddenly regains his vision. The first thing he sees is his wife in the arms of another man. He is in shock and begins yelling at her. However, after a few words, May is able to convince him that his eyesight had to have been “hazy” (Chaucer, 387) after being blind for so long, and he immediately asks for her forgiveness for slandering her. This tale is like a myth of marital relations that must forever remain static: the woman will always have the gift of gab, the man will always be deluded (Howard, 432). The Merchant s tale is therefore asserting that women are awful and men, who are fools to think otherwise, can be happy in marriage only through willful self-deception (Howard, 434). With this ridiculous conclusion, it is once again safe to assume that Chaucer does not take marriage seriously and that one member of the marriage will almost always stray.
The Miller’s Tale is another instance where Chaucer’s disdain for marriage is shown. This tale is characterized as a fabliau, a French form of writing that generally concerns humankind s most basic functions, most sex, and whose most common plot is the love triangle (Howard, 95). This tale refuses to look beyond the individual s immediate interests (Howard, 101). In this story, a rich, old carpenter named John is married to an eighteen-year old girl, Alison. A student by the name of Nicholas lodged in their home. One day, Nicholas begs Alison to “love- [him]-all-at-once or [he] shall die.” At first she objects, but soon after she accepts his entreaties and together, they work out a plan to have an encounter. Meanwhile, a parish clerk named Absalon falls in love with Alison and begs her to be his, as well. This time, however, she says no because she is not attracted to him. To deal with this rejection, he discovers some unsavory aspects of Alison, which is close to some of the recommended remedies of the time (Howard, 101). In the end, the story becomes somewhat zany because Absalon uncovers and exposes Alison and Nicholas’ affair and John is seen as a fool for allowing it to go on. By the end of the tale,
Nicholas and Absalon may get their deserts, but the tale is grossly unfair, by any normal standards, to both Alison and John: to Alison because she gets away with everything, to John because he endures general ridicule in return for mere gullibility (Howard, 101).
The whole situation is described as ludicrous and Chaucer’s sarcastic view is evident once again.
The Wife of Bath s Prologue is the most apparent example of Chaucer s contempt for the institution of marriage. Through the Wife of Bath, Chaucer shows how one person, mainly the female, has the ultimate control in a relationship. The Wife maintains that wives should rule their husbands, and she enforces this doctrine by an account of her own life (Kittredge, 11). The Wife is one of Chaucer s most powerful characters and she stood forth as an opponent of the orthodox view of subordination in marriage, as the upholder of an heretical doctrine, and as the exultant practicer of what she preached (Kittredge, 17). The Wife is very open and willing to share her own personal experience and expertise with the rest of the Pilgrims. In her prologue she tells about the relationships she had with her five husbands. She asks an interesting question, What kind of marriage does one want? (Howard, 430). Her first three husbands were good and rich and old (Chaucer, 263). They served mainly as providers of material goods and sexual needs. In return she would let them do as they wished with her, in a sexual context. There was no true emotional bond between them. She had total and complete domination over the three because she understood how to get what she wanted from men. Her fourth husband cheated on her, which never allowed her to become emotionally attached. In this situation however, it was her husband who had the control and he was the one who deserted her (Howard, 430). Her relationship with her fifth husband, a young man named Jankyn, was perhaps the most controversial and interesting of all the marriages. It seems as though he has the power in the beginning of the relationship but the Wife does eventually achieve dominance. As soon as she made him tear apart his book that degraded women she gains what she calls the governance of house and land, and of his tongue, and his hand also (Howard, 431). The Wife asserts that what women really want out of marriage is to have control to do as they choose and that through this happiness will be achieved. Through the Wife, Chaucer is able to minimize the emotional importance of marriage and assert once again that one of the spouses will always have control over the marriage.
Essentially, Geoffrey Chaucer s belief that marriage is an institution, which cannot be upheld, is proven by his attitude in his book The Canterbury Tales. The plot summaries of the Miller s Tale, the Merchant s Tale, the Shipman s Tale, and the Wife of Bath s Prologue are all stories about the domination that exists within marriage. Chaucer s scornful and ridiculing descriptions of these incidents show his disdain for the institution of marriage.
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Cooper, Helen. Oxford Guides To Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. Oxford: Oxford University
Howard, Donald R. Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World. New York: E.P. Dutton,
Kittredge, G.L. Critical Essays On Chaucer s Canterbury Tales. Toronto: University of
Toronto Press, 1991.