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The characters introduced in the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales each represent a stereotype of a kind of person that Chaucer would have been familiar with in 14th Century England. Each character is unique, yet embodies many physical and behavioral traits that would have been common for someone in their profession. In preparing the reader for the tales, Chaucer first sets the mood by providing an overall idea of the type of character who is telling the tale, then allows that character to introduce themselves through a personal prologue and finally, the pilgrim tells their tale. Through providing the reader with insight about the physical and personal traits of the pilgrim and then allowing that person to come to life and tell an animated story, the reader is more prepared for the story as well as able to relate the physical description to the telling of the story. The physical and personal descriptions of the Miller, the Wife of Bath and the Merchant all aid in the telling of their tales. Chaucer was able to create tales that were perfectly suited for the characters that are presenting them. In having each tale told by someone who has a personal reason or motivation for telling that specific tale, Chaucer creates more of a reaction from the reader as well as provides the entire work with structure.
The Miller is large and imposing person who personifies a crooked, but likeable businessman. In “The General Prologue,” Chaucer describes the Miller as having a “thombe of gold, (563)” which the footnote on page 32 of The Riverside Chaucer notes, “is an ironic reference to a proverb, with the implication that there are no honest millers.” The description and actions of the Miller support the idea of this proverb. Although the Miller is rude, speaks out of turn, acts inappropriately and tells a tale that is centered on deceit and betrayal, he is also jovial and entertaining. Despite this unflattering introduction, however, the Miller cannot be considered a loathsome person because his purpose is to provide comic relief. The Miller’s appearance after the more solemn Knight creates a contrast in mood and provides the reader with a more relaxed feeling going into the remainder of the tales.
The Miller is described as a less than attractive man. His portrait is made in the following way:
He was short-sholdred, brood, a thikke knarre,
– His berd as any sowe or fox was reed,
And therto brood, as though it were a spade
Upon the cop right of his nose he hade
A werte, and thereon stood a toft of heres
Reed as the brustles of a sowes eres;
Hise nosethirles blake were and wyde.
(“The General Prologue,” 551-559)
These physical descriptions “were believed by the physiognomists to denote variously a shameless, talkative, lecherous, and quarrelsome character (Riverside Chaucer, 820: PMLA 35, 1920, 189-209).” Like his appearance, his personality is also depicted as being very loud and disturbing. He is depicted in the way that a young boy would be, only with the strength of a large adult. The Miller acts out and rams his head against doors, which is a common trait of a two year old, however, he is so big that it is said that:
Ther was no dore that he nolde heve of harre,
Or breke it at a rennyng with his heed.
(“The General Prologue,” 552-553)
Also, likening him to an adolescent he tells dirty jokes:
He was a janglere and a goliardeys,
And that was moost of synne and harlotries.
(“The General Prologue,” 562-563)
All of these are annoying, yet comical characteristics. Furthermore, the color red in his face and hair can be interpreted in two different ways. One interpretation given is that, “The redhead is a widespread figure of deceit and treachery. (Riverside Chaucer, 820)” The other interpretation of the use of the color red would imply that his personality is sanguine and that he is fun loving. His description supports both of these ideas, however, the importance of the red seems to be in its creation of a comical mood around the Miller that is carried by the reader into his tale. Overall, the introduction of the Miller in “The General Prologue,” leaves the reader with the picture of a loud, unattractive, red man, which seems appropriate given the Miller’s next appearance.
After the Knight has concluded his tale, the Miller rudely interrupts the host, who is asking the Monk to take his turn. The Miller then insists that he be the next to tell a tale and “quite the Knights Tale. (“The Miller’s Prologue,” 319)” He is obviously drunk and even admits that his speech might be a little off because of his condition. The Miller tells the reader that he must keep this in mind before he begins to tell his tale:
But first I make a protestacioun
That I am dronke; I know it by my soun.
And therefore if that I mysspeke or seye,
Wyte it the ale of Southwerk, I you preye.
(“The Miller’s Prologue,” 3138-3141)
The narrator then, before allowing the Miller to begin the telling of his tale, urges the reader to find another tale to read before they are offended and waste their time listening to the Miller:
And therefore, whoso list it nay yheere,
Turne over the leef and chese another tale,
For he shal fynde ynowe, grete and smale,
Of storial thing that toucheth gentillesse,
And eek moralitee and holynesse.
Blameth nat me if that ye chese amys.
The Millere is a cherl: ye knowe wel this.
(“The Miller’s Prologue, ” 3176-3182)
Through giving the reader the advice to turn away from the telling of this story, Chaucer is only enticing them and piquing their curiosity about the tale that the Miller is so eager to share. Although the Miller is vulgar and offensive, he is appealing. The likeability of the Miller and his tale is similar to his physical traits in that although they are unattractive on the surface and even in bad taste, overall, they are quite amusing.
“The Miller’s Tale,” is an obvious parody of “The Knight’s Tale;” only it is in the form of a lower class Fabliau. Both stories contain a central love triangle, however, the progression of the stories and the mood of the stories differ greatly. Unlike “The Knight’s tale,” “the Miller’s tale,” is full of quick wit and at the end of the tale all of the characters get what they deserve and seem to be somewhat satisfied with the outcome. Like, the Miller’s character, his tale is lighthearted and very entertaining. While “The Knight’s Tale,” offers a lesson on courtly love and traditional marriages, the relationsip between Alisoun, John, Nicholas, and Absolon mocks the values that were expressed by the Knight. In the essay, “Personality and Styles of Affect,” Irma Taavititsainen explains the role of courtly love in “The Miller’s Tale,” in the following way:
The reversal of courtly romance is explicit in the portraits of Alison and Absolon-No trace of the emotional loading of the contemplative monologue of the Knight’s Tale is present; the pace is quick enhancing the contrast- (229)
Furthermore, the incorporation of a flood in the story alludes to a religious theme, however, the humorous role that the flood takes within the action of the story can be considered “blasphemous (Taavitsainen 230).” Considering the personality of the Miller that the reader has been exposed to, these themes seem appropriate and like his manner, the story is crude, but likeable. Taavitsainen notes that as a narrator, the Miller’s character plays a key role in creating the mood and evoking reactions from the reader in the tale:
Readers are guided through the story, and are asked to pay attention to certain points, enjoy the apprehensions and sudden turning points of the plot and laugh at the characters. The Miller is in charge and controls the reader’s reactions, and he is extremely skillful in doing so. (“Personality and Styles of Affect,” 231)
The Miller represents himself very truthfully in his tale and there is a definite consistency between the obnoxiousness of the Miller’s appearances within the dialogue of the “The Canterbury Tales,” and the type of tale that he tells.
The description given to the Wife of Bath is very different from the one given to the Miller. She has been married five times and admits that she will “Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shall, (“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” 45).” Within these marriages, she is undoubtedly controlling and, as is demonstrated by her story, she believes that the woman should be in charge. Although The Wife of Bath seems to be the perfect example of a woman who would fit under the modern definition of being independent, Chaucer fails to describe her in a way that corresponds with a woman who is completely in control of her own life. She is presented as an aggressive, spirited, wealthy woman, whose entire life has revolved around the lives of her husbands. In her article “Feminism or Anti-Feminism: Images of Women in, The Wife of Bath,” Annie White explains how the name Chaucer gave The Wife of Bath is representative of her dependence on men in the following way:
Despite [her] talent and position as a business owner, Alison still relies on her husbands for wealth and status. While Alison in her own right is an accomplished artisan, she is rarely seen as her own person. Others on the voyage to Canterbury are referred to by their name and occupation, for example the Clerk and the Merchant, yet Alison is referred to as the wife of Bath. This shows that her importance lies within her sexuality or marital status. She is not a person or even an artisan; she is merely a wife. (No Page number given)
Furthermore, her dress, personal prologue and tale, demonstrate the importance that she places on the men in her life. These descriptions only prove to make her seem to be less of a strong, independent woman, and more of “A good wif (“The General Prologue,” 447).” Her physical characteristics and tale express that not only is marriage and the woman’s role within the marriage important, but that until there is an understanding that the woman is in charge within the marriage, a man and a woman are unable to live in peace.
The Wife of Bath is dressed in a fashionable, somewhat ostentatious wardrobe that is both meant to display her wealth as well as attract men. She is wearing a large hat and red stockings:
Hir coverchiefs ful fyne weren of ground;
I dorste swere they weyeden ten pound
That on a sonday weren upon hir heed.
Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed,
Ful streite yteyd, and shoes ful moyste and newe.
(“The General Prologue,” 452-457)
The color of her stockings, in particular, is significant, since, like the Miller, her face is also described as “reed of hewe (“The General Prologue: 460).” In this case, the color red strongly implies a sanguine personality, which is more than demonstrated by her flirtatious and playful tone as well as her sexuality, which defines her as the primary woman and sex object on the Pilgrimage. In his article “Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s ‘Foot-Mantel’ and her ‘Hipes Large,'” Peter G. Beidler focuses on a possible misinterpretation of lines 471-474 of “The General Prologue”:
Upon an amblere esily she sat,
Ywympled wel, and on hir heed an hat
As brood as is a bokeler or a targe;
A foot-mantel aboute hir hipes large,
Beidler asserts that the whole image of The Wife of Bath can be reevaluated if the word large can be interpreted as an adverb rather than an adjective:
Most of us have imagined her as a big, strong woman who is fully capable of defending herself in the rough-and-tumble arenas of medieval business, pilgrimage and marriage. If those imaginings are not necessarily supported by Chaucer’s text, we should reconsider her possible physical vulnerability to her husbands.
This interpretation suggests that the world large is describing her leggings or clothing being hung largely about her hips. This is possible, however, it seems more likely that the mention of hips, in and of itself, is meant to symbolize a woman’s fertility and that by making her hips large, Chaucer is only improving on her role as a good wife whose main purpose is to have children. Nevertheless, the physical description given to the Wife of Bath introduces her as a very feminine and outgoing woman, who through her own prologue and tale embodies parts of what a man would consider a threat as a wife as well as an ideal companion.
As the Wife of Bath describes the story of her 5 marriages the reader is shown that she is a manipulative and conniving woman who uses her many marriages in order to gain a sense of empowerment. Within these marriages, she admits that she accuses her husbands of cheating on her in order to gain the upper hand in a situation. The Wife of Bath considers marriage a game and has profited greatly from most of her husbands. She even suggests that a wife uses strategies and manipulation in order to get the better of her husbands in the following way:
Ye wise wyves, that kan understonde.
Thus shul ye speke and bere hem wrong on honde;
For half so boldely kan ther no man
Swere and lyen, as a womman kan
I sey nat this by wyves that been wyse,
But if it be whan they hem mysavyse.
(“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” 225-230)
The Wife of Bath insists on being in control and when she loses it, as she does with her fifth husband, Jankyn, it causes problems within the marriage. Jankyn had a favorite book that recalled the many vilified women in history and literature. This book, that the Wife of Bath referred to as a “book of wikiked wyves, (“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” 685)” was used by Jankyn to preach to her about how awful women are. After becoming fed up with Jankyn’s obsession with this book, the Wife of Bath decides to use it as a way of manipulating him into giving her back her property. She initiates a violent act, which prompts him to hit her on the ear, at which she takes advantage of her femininity by acting as though she has been seriously injured:
Al sodeynly thre leves have I plyght
Out of his book, right as he radde, and eke
I with my fest so took hym on the cheke,
That in oure fyr he ril bakward adoun.
And he up-stirte as dootha wood leoun,
And with his fest he smoot me on the heed
That in the floor I lay, as I were deed.
(“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” 790-796)
This altercation, although resulting in her going deaf in one ear, ends the difficulties that the Wife of Bath was having getting along with her husband. The Wife of Bath becomes very emotional after Jankyn hits her and claims that she has been terribly hurt and that Jankyn has killed her for her money. When realizing that he might have hurt her he offers to give her back her money and property. This act restores order in the marriage. In her description of these events in “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” she seems almost proud of how she has affected Jankyn:
And whan he saugh how stille that I lay,
He was agast, and wolde han fled his way, –
But atte laste, with muchel care and wo,
We fille acorded by us selven two.
He yaf me al the bridel in myn hond,
To han the governance of hous and lond,
The Wife of Bath has been married since the age of twelve and has adapted herself to the role of being a wife. Throughout her many marriages she has learned how to take control of her situations and use her position as a woman to attain the upper hand in a marriage. Her tale, like her life, involves a woman who takes control of a man and uses her feminine powers in order to have an advantage over him.
The Tale that the Wife of Bath tells seems to parallel the story that she tells in her prologue of her marriage to Jankyn. Similar to Jankyn, the Knight in her tale shows little respect for women in the beginning of the story. When alone in the forest he encounters a maiden and “By verray force, he rafte hire maidenhed.(“The Wife of Bath’s Tale,”888)” In order to avoid being put to death he must discover “What thyng is it that women moost desiren, (“The Wife of Bath’s Tale,”905).” In order to save his life the Knight puts his trust into a strange woman who tells him the answer, which he trelays to the queen as:
Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
As wel over hir housband as hir love,
And for to been in maistrie hym above.
(“The Wife of Bath’s Tale,”1037-1039)
That the Knight is made aware of a woman’s desire being “to have sovereynetee, (“The Wife of Bath’s Tale,”1037)” is the overall theme for not only the tale, but of the appearance of the Wife of Bath in her prologue. The Knight begins the story in a position of sexual dominance by committing a rape, and ends the tale by completely submitting to his wife (“The Wife of Bath’s Tale,”1230-1232). This demonstrates that the purpose of the tale was to reveal that a man who submits to his wife could obtain a wife that is both “fair and good (“The Wife of Bath’s Tale,”1241).”
Like the Wife of Bath, the Merchant uses his tale and prologue in order to offer his opinion of love and marriage. His views, however, are strongly opposing marriage. The Merchant, also similar to the Wife of Bath, tells a story that is closely linked to a personal experience. He explains in his prologue that he has been married two months (“The Merchant’s Prologue,” 1234) and in these two months he has become quite opinionated on the subject. In the essay “For craft is al, whoso that do it kan”: The Genre of the Merchant’s Tale,” Leigh A. Arrathoon explains that:
While the pretentious Merchant bitterly and somewhat squeamishly relates what he perceives as a story exemplifying the wickedness of wives, the statement Chaucer is making involves the responsibility of lecherous husbands for their own marital misery. (241)
Furthermore, the character of the Merchant seems to be opposite to the Wife of Bath in every way. His description, personality and tale all embody the masculine traits that the Wife of Bath might try to oppress within a marriage. Nevertheless, the Merchant seems just as consumed by his disgust for marriage as the Wife of Bath seems to be dependent on it.
In “The General Prologue,” the Merchant is described as a devilish man with a “forked berd (“The General Prologue,” 270).” Like his opinions that appear before and after his tale, the Merchant sits “hye on horse (“The General Prologue,”271).” He is obsessed with profit and is, as was typical of a merchant in the 14th century, described in a way that embodies such merchant-like traits as “avarice, deceit, and usury (Riverside Chaucer, 809).” The Merchant, like the Miller, is presented in a positive light. It is repeated several times that he is a “worthy man. (“The General Prologue,” 283).” Considering the length of his total description this seems to be a fairly important point that Chaucer was trying to make. His profession seems to be honorable and his character seems to be fairly typical of a Merchant. Nevertheless, the Merchant is distinguished by his views on marriage, which seem to compliment his business sense. He seems to think that women are a waste of time and create problems, and he would probably much rather study profits than be bothered with problems that arise in his marriage. These characteristics are very different from the Wife of Bath who, while in love with Jankyn, gave up all of the money that she had amassed from her four former husbands. The Merchant’s physical description seems simple, just as his mind seems simple and as is demonstrated by his tale, his message is very brutal and he makes his point very clearly.
“The Merchants Tale,” is very sexual and humorous, like “The Miller’s Tale,” however, it is also like “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” because it provides a lesson to the reader about marriage. The main character, Januarie, is portrayed as a man who is blind to many aspects of what the Merchant feels are problems with women. This is first evident when Januarie, against his brother’s advice, believes that he can have a successful marriage with a much younger woman, May. Once Januarie loses his vision, he foolishly believes that if he is in constant contact with her, May will not find a way to be two-timing to him. Januarie’s blindness becomes most apparent, then, when he regains his sight and witnesses May having sex with her young lover, Damyan, in a tree. When he realizes what May is doing, Januarie demands that she answer for her deeds, to which she responds:
-Sire, what eyleth yow?
Have pacience and resoun in youre mynde.
I have yow holpe on bothe youre eyen blynde.
Up peril of my soule, I shal nat lyen,
As me was taugh, to heele with youre eyen,
Was no thing bet, to mke yow to see,
Than struggle with a man upon a tree.
God woot, I dide it in ful good entente.
(“The Merchant’s Tale,”2368-2375)
Januarie forgives May and proves that even though his physical blindness has been cured, he is still blind to the treacherousness of women. As the Merchant explains in his prologue he does not have a successful marriage. Arrathon suggests that although, like Januarie, the Merchant must have once been optimistic about his marriage and since then has gained the negative views that he presents in his prologue and tale:
It is as though he [The Merchant] were painting an exageratdly hideous self portrait. -his spiritual falling away must be a recent development-one that has taken place since his marriage of two months ago. (281)
The character of the Merchant presents a completely different view of marriage than the Wife of Bath, and as is expected, his physical appearance and mannerisms are likewise very different.
The appearances of characters of the Wife of Bath, the Miller and the Merchant within The Canterbury Tales, represent a well thought out structure that Chaucer provides for the entire work. Each character serves a purpose as a character on pilgrimage as well as one who has a personal message to offer through the telling of their tale. Even though the characters of the Wife of Bath, Miller and Merchant are very different from each other and has very distinct messages to offer, each of these characters serve a similar function within the larger work. Through a thorough development of their personalities, Chaucer uses the pilgrims as instruments to illustrate a network of interlocking stories within a larger and equally entertaining story.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: Riverside Chaucer Third Edition. Ed. Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,1987. 3-328 Secondary
Arrathoon, Leigh A. “For craft is al, whoso that do it kan: The Genre of the Merchant’s Tale,” Chaucer and the Craft of Fiction. Ed. Leigh A. Arrathoon, Rochester, Michigan: Solaris Press, Inc. 1986. 241-318
Beidler, Peter G. “Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s ‘Foot-Mantel’ and Her ‘Hipes Large'” Chaucer Review Vol: 34, Issue: 4. April 01, 2000. 388-397
Taavitsainen, Irma. “Personality and styles of Affect in the Canterbury Tales” Chaucer in Perspective. Ed. Geoffrey Lester.Midsomer North, Bath: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd. 1999. 218-232
White, Annie “Feminism or Anti-Feminism: Images of Women in Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath,'” 20 Jan. 2001. <http://www.classicnote.com/ClassicNotes/titles/canterbury/essays/essay5.html>
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