Geoffrey Chaucer’s presentation of marriage throughout The Canterbury Tales is, indeed, varied, abstract and supplemented by dispute over the sincerity of specific works. This literary inconsistency is strongly evident in The Merchant’s Tale, making it essential to address the disparity of its message on the topic of marriage. It could initially be assumed that the poem is not solely a cynical attack on marriage; Chaucer offers a somewhat objective overview of the issue, purveyed by the obvious difference in opinion of its characters, for example; the merchant in the prologue – ‘we wedded men live in sorwe and care’1 – and Januarie’s opinion – ‘in this world it [marriage] is a paradis’2 – or the differing judgements of both Justinus – ‘it is no childes pley’3 – and Placebo – ‘Dooth now in this matiere right as yow leste’4 – after Januarie’s consultation with them.
By addressing the fact that the message fluctuates it could be argued that Chaucer offers multiple compatible interpretations. Should we interpret the opinion of Placebo in the same way as we should Justinus, or do the subsequent events of the Tale prove to us that we should primarily concern ourselves with the view of the more reasoned, objective character – the name ‘Justinus’ implies a judicial figure? Concerning an answer to the question, it is also important to address the relationship between Januarie and May, and the following ‘cuckolding’. Is it more a cynical attack on adultery than that of marriage?
The fundamental basis for investigating the status of marriage in The Merchant’s Tale is to address the initial opinion of the merchant in the Prologue, and the subsequent irony at the beginning of the Tale. Chaucer directs the poem through the narration of the merchant, who has a clear cynical attitude towards his wife (in reaction to The Clerk’s Tale and patient Griselda), though not overly marriage in general:
‘Thogh the feend to hire ycoupled were,
Here, he specifically links his wife with the devil, that she would defeat him if they were they coupled. He goes as far as demonising his wife and presenting her in an evil, even heretic manner. This is in stark contrast to his later comment, ‘for who kan be so buxom as a wyf?’6, which emphasises the inconsistency of thought throughout the poem. The idea of a woman having dominance over a potent figure can be related to May’s apparent supremacy over Januarie and the Tale as a whole:
‘And every signe that she koude make,
Wel bet than Januarie, hir owene make’
She manipulates Januarie in the garden in a similar manner to the serpent (the devil) in Genesis, suggesting that May has crafty, cunning and stealthy attributes relative to a snake. Januarie is blind to her cunning – in both a literal sense and a moral sense – as Adam is initially to the serpent’s influence. Januarie is manipulated by his wife as Adam is by his. Chaucer also refers to the realisation of sin, as with Adam, Januarie becomes aware of nakedness with the literal return of his sight, viewing his wife, May, actively engaging in a ‘sinful’ act of adultery with Damyan, further linking ‘wyf’s’ with the devil. These religious connotations and the vivid sensitive view of ‘cuckolding’ (and adultery) suggest the Tale is providing a cynical attack on marriage for a clerical purpose. When this is related to Januarie’s ambiguous, yet seemingly devout, reasons for taking a wife it can still be believed that Chaucer is addressing a particularly religious theme, albeit this should be addressed with caution when consulting the merchant’s narration:
1 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 16
2 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 53
3 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 318
4 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 305
5 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 7-8
6 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 75
7 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 1001-2
‘Were it for hoolinesse or for dotage,
I kan nat seye’8
Implying that there is the possibility of Januarie marrying merely to satisfy his appetites, encouraged by his growing dotage. Indeed, Januarie outlines that he intends to take a wife for the purpose of begetting an heir and engaging in sexual activity by pious and legal means, as opposed to his previous ‘bodily delit on wommen’9 as a ‘wyfless man’10:
‘A man may do no synne with his wyf,
Ne hurte hymselven with his owene knyf;
For we han leve to pleye us by the lawe’
Januarie here (seemingly contrary to Chaucer’s own views as addressed later) seems to view, in hindsight, sex outside marriage as spiritually and legally damaging, through the metaphor of a stabbing. This statement is preceded by Chaucer’s somewhat vulgar description of Januarie during his night with May, with ‘thikke brustles’12 and ‘the skin of houndfissh’13 – hinting roughness – as well as reference to ‘his paradis’14 – suggesting that the pleasure lay solely with the male part. This is compounded by a loathsome image of:
‘…upright in his bed thane sitteth he,
And after that he sang ful loude and cleere,
And kiste his wif, and made wantown cheere’
Which can easily be compared to a victory cry. Whether his joy arises due to a perceived redemption for his previous sexual activity as opposed to personal, appetital means is, of course, still open to debate. Yet, it definitively places May in a feeble, pitiful state:
‘She preyseth nat his pleying worth a bene’
Chaucer here again brings the reader’s attention to the one-sided sexual gratification this scene portrays, as well as the merchant’s role as narrator of the poem, ‘bene’ iconically related to money and trade. The portrayed dominance of Januarie in this scene is somewhat ironic, and is maybe even a literary trick by Chaucer to deceive the reader, as well as providing a form of prolepsis for the later dominance of May – her name aptly representing a month of rejuvenation and brightness.
Interestingly, the image of Januarie’s victory cry, yet again makes the reader view him as an egotistical fool (a senex amans or ‘aged lover’), his appearance ‘in his night-cappe, and with his nekke lene’17 giving the image of a jester. This persona is later given grounds by May’s trickery of Januarie to inadvertently have sex with Damyan under the guise of ‘han of the peres’18 – the selected fruit’s shape having obvious sexual associations. This foolish role is again shown with his gullibility and delusion in believing May’s ‘answere’19 that his blindness would be removed after her ‘struggle with a man upon a tree’20 and that his restored eyesight is forcing hallucinations – undoubtedly, Januarie’s fantastical blindness hasn’t ceased.
8 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 41-2
9 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 37-8
10 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 36
11 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 627-9
12 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 612
13 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 613
14 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 610
15 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 632-4
16 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 642
17 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 641
18 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 1119
19 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 1105
20 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 1162
May’s deception portrays an imbalance of marriage according to fourteenth century ideals. From this we can draw ideas of what Chaucer himself may have thought of marriage. His lack of conviction for Januarie’s motives – shown by the conflicting ideas of his characters – his possible lack of religious fervour – depicted by the negative parallels with Genesis and the presence of classical gods, Pluto and Proserpina – and his hint of imbalance in the relationship of May and Januarie (supplemented by the odious sexual scene) makes one think that Chaucer’s intentions were for The Merchant’s Tale to predominantly be of satirical standing. This definitely links to the idea that the Tale is fabliaux, as does the relationship between May and Damyan, being a ‘ludicrous parody of courtly love’21 and contextually ‘coarsely comic’22 – according to the editor of the Cambridge School Chaucer version of The Merchant’s Tale.
This is further supported by the fantastical, burlesque final scene, the ridiculous proposition of a sexual encounter occurring in a tree, the persistent mockery of Januarie, and the substitution of the Christian God in a garden for Pluto and Proserpina – their relationship incidentally comprising a non-consensual marriage and irregular relief, in parallel to Januarie and May. This instigates a fundamental question; is Chaucer’s presentation of marriage in The Merchant’s Tale meant to be addressed with any sincerity? Not only this but the fact that the Tale is narrated by Chaucer’s assumption of character, the merchant, writing from an angle by which property and ownership is of sole importance, means that lines such as:
‘Ne take no wyf,’ quod he, ‘for housbondrye,
As for to spare in household hey dispence.
A true servant Dooth moore dilligence’
Must merely be seen as merchant’s interpretation other than an actual purveyance of Chaucer’s opinion towards the matter. Ultimately, The Merchant’s Tale’s message is too diluted for it to be by any means a planned, systematic attack on the concept of marriage.
21 Cambridge School Chaucer: The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, Edited by Sheila Innes, p. 107
22 Cambridge School Chaucer: The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, Edited by Sheila Innes, p. 107
23 The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale, l. 84-6