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The Merchant In Chaucers Canterbury Tales Essay

Chaucer describes the Merchant as a well-dressed, yet exotic businessman, a successful financial expert, and a very unhappy husband. Most people would agree that there is no textual evidence to support that the Merchant is a cuckold or that January, the main character in the tale is a mirror of his own character. However, both the Merchant and January have disillusioned views and experiences regarding marriage. The Merchant in the fourteenth century, as Chaucer has described him was a very familiar and well-known figure.

In the general prologue, the character was described as, A Marchant was ther ith a forked berd In mottelee, and hye on horse he sat; Upon his heed a Flaudryssh bever hat, His bootes clasped faire and fetisly. His resons he spak ful solempnely, Sownyge alwey th’encrees of his wynnyng. (I. 270-80) This character imagery tells readers that the merchant a skilled trader, borrower and lender. This, as we have learned, is the description of most merchants during the middle ages as they were considered bankers of their time.

Along with his knowledge of finance, he was also very well spoken, had fine clothing, and owned a horse which would suggest that he was of higher social status and probably wealthier than most of his fellow pilgrims. Up until the beginning of the tale, we as an audience admire the Merchant for his wealth and exotic nature, but we are also critical of him, as we know nothing of his character. We know that a merchant, by trade, acquires goods at market price but sells them for more than they are worth.

In this way we can infer that the Merchant is not concerned with the value of the items he possesses but is solely concerned with the profit they will bring him. This characteristic ties us right into he tale he tells about a man who feels the same way about marriage as he “shops” for his wife. Many fair shap and many a fair visage Ther passeth thurgh his herte nyght by nyght, As whoso tooke a mirour, polisshed bryght, And sette it in a commune market-place, Thanne sholde he se ful many a figure pace By his mirour (II. 580-1585)

In this passage we can see that January is linked to the Merchant because he appraised May before he, in a way, purchased her. I wonder if this is the way most marriages in the Middle Ages functioned, where they are built upon an exchange of property and power. He had a strictly mercantile interest in her and was searching for what a wife could bring him in terms of personal gain. When he finally selects the “fresshe May”, she is much younger than him. Instead of marrying a person, was marrying the archetype of the beautiful and young woman he thought he would be happy with.

Now that January had taken May as his property, he was able to physically and emotionally control her in any way that he pleased. This idea of control is very visible when January goes blind, as his sight is central to his power over May. The theme of sight is mportant in this tale when we begin to consider January’s desire for marriage and the transformative nature of his marriage. At the beginning of the tale, the Merchant was appointed the authority on marriage because of his so-called experiences, but what the audience truly realized from his description is that he had a strong hatred towards his wife.

Part of this apparent hatred can be seen as reflected in January’s blindness to marital responsibilities. He is ignorant to marriage and blind to the deceit that occurs in the garden. Like January, the Merchant is also oblivious to the joys and responsibilities of arriage because he is so blinded by his anger. The Merchant, in his blindness, does not support romantic sentiment in marriage. In stead his sole purpose in the tale is to diminish it by telling a story that portrays wives as dishonest and untrustworthy.

In this way, any husband listening to or reading this tale will become untrusting and will reject romance just as the Merchant has. An issue with the Merchant telling this one sided tale is that he is being portrayed as the authority on marriage, when he has only been married for two months. He is selling his tale without being able to endorse it himself. I feel as though January serves as a tool for the Merchant to spread his attitudes and perceptions about women and marriage to a larger audience.

The merchant tries to stamp his own wills and ideas of marriage upon his audience so that they become coins of his perceptions. If the audience trusts his views and in turn become coins, he can use them in order to validate and give value to his flawed ideas about sexuality, women and marriage. I think he was unsuccessful in making coins out of his audience however, because he portrayed January with limited sight and experience, which are exactly his own faults. In a way, the merchant is blind, January is certainly blind, and one can argue that May is blind-however, the audience is not.

The Merchant is an active participant in January’s blindness because it is his perceptions that created January’s. May is blind as a result of the lack of character she is given by both the Merchant and Chaucer and her only opinions are the few times she is able to speak in the text. Even though as a reader, it is so obvious the extent to which the Merchant is talking about his own marriage in the tale, he makes it a point to tell us that that it is not utobiographical. He says, “of myn owene soore, For soory herte, I telle may namoor” (II. 1243-4).

This is a line from the prologue that implies the admittance of the Merchant’s marital difficulties that show the audience that they should regard January’s marriage to May as the Merchant’s sentiments on the idea of matrimony. I found myself thinking that the Merchant is somewhat misogynistic which may be a product of his disillusionment to marriage. We can draw a comparison between his misery and hatred to buying a bad product or becoming victims to false advertising. One could say that he ought more than he bargained for when he began his own marriage.

Perhaps, in this tale, May does not represent the Merchant’s wife, but she does represent his hatred for adulterous women. Early on in the tale, the Merchant quotes the Golden Book on Marriage, which is an obvious attack on marriage, “Ne take no wyf,” quod he, “for housbondrye, A trew servant dooth moore diligence Thy good to kepe than thyn owne wife, For she wol clayme half part al hir lyf” (II. 1296-1300) Maybe the best way to address the view and blindness towards marriage in this tale is to look at something that January says efore he takes May to the garden.

He says, “A man may do no synne with his wyf,/Ne hurte hymselven with his owene knyf” (II. 1839-40). Here we can see that he has convinced himself that his disillusioned view is the truth by only looking at sources that confirm his own beliefs. In this way, his views are never open to correction or enlightenment. The Merchant also refuses to allow his perceptions to be changed and this prevents him from truly being blissful in marriage. Both the Merchant and January are given the chance to adjust their perceptions.

January could have hanged his ideals through his discussions with Justinus and Placebo and the Merchant could have been open minded and gained knowledge of marriage through his extensive studies and social profession. However, both men do not. Now that we can see how linked the Merchant is to January, we are forced to evaluate how much we can trust the tale. If we as readers decide to trust this tale, we are able to textually infer that the Merchant hates women and that his tale might not be as credible as it is described to be.

The Merchant’s blindness however, in an unconscious choice because he doesn’t ecognize it himself and therefore will remain blind. In this way the pilgrims as well as the readers of this tale will not be able to evaluate the Merchant’s character because he leaves out the details of his own short marriage. This ties in to the idea that Chaucer has been playing with throughout the Canterbury Tales about the relationship between appearance and worth. The Merchant presents this tale thinking his cynicism would not carry through, but he doesn’t realize the difference between what his words are saying and how close to reality they actually are.

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