Chaucer’s establishment of the Clerk in the General Prologue as a committed scholar who prioritises his academic studies over material wealth contrasts sharply with the description of the Merchant’s ‘bargaines’ and his ‘chevissaunce’. In placing The Clerk’s Tale immediately before that of the Merchant and exploring similar themes within both, Chaucer introduces to his readership a likelihood of the second tale being a response to the first. The differing attitudes and outcomes of the tales, whilst having significant links in their subject matter, provoke comparison of the narrators in their personal discussions and the protagonists become the embodiment of their views towards marriage in the tales.
Walter is presented by the Clerk as a largely stereotypical marquis, whose qualities of humility and understanding in his proposal to Griselda are linked to the distinct lack of irony in the introduction to his character. The Clerk narrates in praise of the protagonist,
“Handsome and young and strong; in him were blent
High honour and a gentle courtesy.”
It is then admitted that Walter did show certain faults (“He was indeed to blame…”) although the fact that he is named so shortly after the beginning of the tale resounds importantly in the Merchant’s prologue, where Chaucer admits to having forgotten the narrator’s name. This could be seen as a comment upon the perception of clerks as being far more honest than merchants in Chaucerian society – despite Walter’s great deception of his wife when hiding their two children from her, he is still presented in a positive, honest light throughout the tale. This reinforces his credibility as a character, which has the effect of the Clerk being able to present his views on marriage very clearly through the protagonist.
It is vitally important that both tales are set in Lombardy, though the setting is very different in both tales. The Clerk’s Lombardy is scarcely mentioned, whereas the Merchant’s city of Pavia, famous for its bankers and its brothels, provides a substantial basis for the highly sexual nature of the tale’s imagery. However, just as the Clerk is disconnected from the real world through his pursuit of academia, Walter has failed to consider marriage as it might be expected, through adherence to knightly qualities and great commitment in this sense. His marriage to Griselda is not brought about by sexual desire, but rather by his friends imploring,
“Therefore, we beg you speedily to marry.”
By distancing Walter from his geographical surroundings and having him marry a committed woman from a humble background, it can be observed that the Clerk is breaking the mould and attempting to tell a tale of virtue and devotion. It is not simply the imagery in the tale that allows him to do this, but also the form of the language: by using seven line rhyming verses, a more constrained, logical text is presented, making the tale more accessible to the reader during Walter’s more intensive actions of the described ‘cruelty’. In combination with Griselda’s unfailing loyalty throughout these tests of commitment, the overall form of the poetry serves to individualise the tale and make it distinctive among the group of pilgrims as a whole. This provides a large opportunity for contradiction of its content and, therefore, a response in the following tale.
January’s choice of May for his wife in The Merchant’s Tale, however, becomes a strong representation of his character. He cannot conceal the fact that she is only one of many potential brides, outlined where the Merchant narrates,
“…As whoso tooke a mirour, polished bright,
And sette it in a commune market-place.”
This illustrates that January is seeing a ‘reflection’ of the ideal of marrying a beautiful maiden – though not a reflection of his own physical appearance, which later detracts from May’s comfort in their wedding bed. The Merchant neglects to mention her parentage and under what pretences she actually came to marry January, whose presentation as a senex amans – an old man marrying a young girl – carries a significant potential for mockery. The various references to May’s ‘tendre flesshe’ serve as a reminder that the relationship on the knight’s part is driven by sexual desire and obsession and there is a great distinction between the humorous presentation of January’s appearance and the grotesqueness that is his later refusal to release her hand. A possible interpretation of the tale is that Chaucer intended it to be humorous to appeal to the reader after the more solemn words of the Clerk; on the part of the Merchant, January’s character may be under ridicule in order that the same view may be brought about regarding marriage. These important contradictions of the previous tale, both in content and in attitudes, give the impression of the Merchant’s words most certainly being a response to the Clerk.
The consideration of religion in relation to marriage by the Merchant maintains a debate between allegory and realism in the tale. Whereas the marriage between Walter and Griselda appears to have a strong Christian basis throughout (even the removal of the children as a test of commitment is reminiscent of Abraham and Isaac) and could reflect the likelihood of the Clerk himself being in training for the holy orders, the Merchant gives varied references to the Christian God alongside the Greek deities, such as Venus, who provides entertainment at the wedding feast, and Pluto and Proserpina at the conclusion of the text.
The juxtaposition of the ‘De Coitu’ book and the reference to ‘Goddes love’ undermines the credibility of religion in supporting the tale and equally in supporting the marriage, whilst the power and influence of the gods in The Merchant’s Tale distance it from realism and connects the text with a more metaphysical perception. The Merchant himself also refers explicitly to Griselda, commenting that the ideal of marriage experienced by her and Walter has failed him. This is another example of Chaucer introducing a strong overall contrast between the two tales – it might be said that the Merchant and his tale are the greater demonstration of allegory as a result of the heavy dependence upon irony in the text, and the different ideals of the Merchant and the Clerk are made clear through the presentation of religion and marriage.
Another prominent difference between the tales is the role and status of the wife in marriage, and her personal temperament. It is ironic that May, who appears so overshadowed by the physical unpleasantness of her naï¿½ve husband and only gives her first words in line 770, should ultimately become the more influential partner in the relationship. Her words are personal and assertive:
“Certeyn… whom that this thing displese,
I rekke noght, for here I him assure
To love him best of any creature…”
Despite the implications of being under constant surveillance by her husband, May eventually manipulates him in order to gain access to Damyan, which provokes the final comments from the Merchant in his conclusion that all women are deceptive. Conversely, Griselda has a great deal of speaking parts in The Clerk’s Tale and formally promises her obedience to Walter in the lines,
“…And here I promise never willingly
To disobey in deed or thought or breath…”
In this way, both tales are made distinctive through the exploration of a controversial subject of the time, namely the status of women, and the conclusions of the tales differ dramatically. Chaucer uses May and Griselda to reflect the personalities of their husbands, which has the effect of encouraging the reader to acknowledge flaws – especially the certain depravity of January’s intentions and the Walter’s preoccupation with testing the faithfulness of his wife.
The narrative and events of The Merchant’s Tale must certainly be considered a response to The Clerk’s Tale simply for their proximity to one another in The Canterbury Tales and their highly similar, yet interpretable themes. It seems natural for the pilgrims to compete with each other in the telling of their tales for a desire to be the most entertaining, and the two tales become the two sides of a debate regarding marriage. It is in this context that the words of the Merchant become a finely timed and thorough response to the preceding words of the Clerk.