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Merchant’s Tale: Analysis of Genre and Main Ideas

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In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which gives them greater powers of perception but also causes their expulsion from Paradise. The story creates a link between clear vision and the ability to perceive the truth which, in this case, causes mankind to fall from a state of blissful ignorance to one of miserable knowledge. In the Merchant’s Tale, vision and truth do not enjoy such an easy relationship. Vision is obstructed at both the metaphorical and the literal level, and the subversion of the fabliau genre challenges the idea of truthful representation. The Merchant’s Tale destabilizes the notion of representation itself, problematizing man’s relation to truth.

Chaucer uses a very strange metaphor to describe January’s quest for a wife. The teller likens the old knight’s mind to a mirror that has been set up in a common market, catching the image of every maiden who passes. January undertakes a near obsessive mental cataloguing of all eligible women:

Thanne sholde he se ful many a figure pace

By his mirour; and in the same wyse

Gan January in with his thoght devyse

Of maydens which that dwelten hym bisyde. (ll. 1584-7)

The more familiar the reader is with the conventions of the fabliau genre, the more likely he is to feel that something is not quite right. First of all, the life of the married couple before marriage and the story of how that marriage took place is not properly the subject of fabliau at all and here Chaucer devotes considerable space to it (Pearsall 4/12). Second, there is something so discomforting about the old man’s search his mind becomes a surveying mirror, capturing these women with its gaze it is difficult to imagine a reader who would find this metaphor humorous. For modern readers, it is perhaps impossible to read this description without being reminded of video surveillance. By this point in the story, Chaucer had made the reader aware that the fabliau form will not be strictly followed: in addition to taking upper class people as characters and situating itself in a vice-ridden city (Pearsall 4/12), the tale deals with images like this mirror that are much more unsettling than standard fabliau fare. This destabilization of genre seems to call representation itself into question; the reader is not allowed the comfort of being firmly situated in a genre, and instead is made aware of Chaucer’s play with storytelling’s conventions. Such awareness of storytelling’s malleability should naturally make the reader more wary of any “truth” that might present itself.

The mirror itself challenges the link between representation and truth the images January sees are reconstructions/reflections, rather than the women themselves. Furthermore, the mirror is not even real. It is the poet’s metaphor, itself another kind of reconstruction, and so the reader becomes twice removed from these women who are being represented. January bases his non-visual assessment of these women not on direct interaction but on hearsay; it is their reputation among the people that determines what he thinks of their characters (ll. 1591-2). The mirror becomes a metaphorical space in which January can appraise both physical beauty and reputation. As a series of images, these reconstructions are simultaneously physical, social, and metaphorical, and yet all fall short of giving January what he needs. The mirror presents no “truth” in a way that can save January from being cuckolded. The text forcibly makes the point in a line which is both metaphor and foreshadowing: “For love is blynd alday, and may nat see” (l. 1598). In addition to being a reference to January’s later literal blindness, the line calls the problem of the mirror to the reader’s attention. What good is a “mirror” for a man who is, metaphorically (and, later, literally) blind? The idea of seeing as the direct path to truth, as laid out in Genesis, becomes inapplicable here. Vision is no longer a clear window between the subject and the truth. Instead, it is a kind of reconstruction, as flawed as any kind of representation, especially considering the limitations of this particular subject.

In addition to problematizing the relationship between vision and truth, January’s blindness challenges notions of representation by stretching the limits of the fabliau genre. First, his handicap makes him a victim in a way that invites more pity from the reader; pity inhibits the effectiveness of the humorous elements of the story, disqualifying one of the defining characteristics of what makes a fabliau. Second, his blindness makes the key fabliau element of clever trickery somewhat difficult. Although May and Damyan very cleverly trick January, this trick seems almost artificially inserted why such elaborate lengths to deceive a man who is blind? Like Damyan crouching in the garden (Pearsall 4/12), this trick seems excessive as if the characters knew they were in a fabliau story and had to fulfill their one requirement to make the cut.

The story’s use of classical and Christian myth continues the problematizing of representation. Pluto and Prosperpyna arguing like medieval Christian scholastics in the middle of a fabliau carries the destabilization of genre to a new extreme. Vision and truth come into play here again: Pluto, in wishing to grant January his sight, seems to be operating from the basic assumption that vision is a clear window between a man and the truth: “Thanne shal he knowen al hire harlotrye” (l. 2262). Prosperpyna, rather than argue against giving January his sight back, insists that vision will not help the man, because “I shal yeven hire [Mayus] suffisant answere” (l. 2266). The intervention of language, May’s “suffisant answere,” creates a gap between sight and truth. The scene of discovery and un-discovery is rife with Biblical parallels: the act of adultery is taking place in a pear tree, which, in the Middle Ages, was represented as the type of tree that bore the forbidden fruit (Thompson 4/16). The beautiful garden parallels Paradise; the Augustinian interpretation of the forbidden fruit as sexual sin links the act of adultery in the story to the first sin of Adam and Eve. Yet despite all these parallels, the Merchant’s Tale’s climax inverts the relationship between truth and sight set down in the Eden story. The first couple’s eyes are opened; at great cost, they see the truth of their own nakedness. January’s eyes are opened, but his regained sight does not help him to see the truth of his wife’s adultery. May re-interprets the scene she constructs her own representation of what was happening in the pear tree and convinces her husband of a gap between sight and truth: “Til that youre sighte ysatled be a while, / Ther may ful many a sighte yow bigile” (ll. 2405-6). His readiness to believe her ensures his continued metaphorical blindness.

The Merchant’s Tale problematizes man’s relationship to truth by destabilizing representation. Although at the end of the story the reader knows more than January about what has transpired in the garden, the tale does not allow the reader to sit comfortably with a secure grasp of the “truth.” Chaucer’s stretching of the fabliau genre and the role of stories in the text call attention to the malleability of representations Biblical imagery has been appropriated and inverted, and stories themselves (May’s lie is a skillfully told story with a strategic purpose) have been used to obscure the truth. And while May’s lie hides a truth to which the reader is privy, Chaucer leaves the reader with an image that reminds him of what he cannot know: “And on hire wombe he stroketh hire ful softe” (l. 2414). Of course, this image brings up the unanswered question of whether or not May is pregnant, as well as a second question of the child’s fathering (Pearsall 4/12). The potential child becomes an opaque representation. Its existence represents a knowable fact; that is, a pregnancy reveals that there was an act of sexual intercourse between May and a man. But the child becomes an opaque sign because the true identity of the child’s father would be a mystery not only for the reader and January, but for the adulterers as well.

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