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The Merchant's Tale -summary

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Introduction

'Weping and wailing, care and oother sorwe' The narrator of "The Merchant's Tale" is introduced as a fashionable businessman, a successful financial expert, and a terribly unhappy husband. Critics have painted him as a disillusioned man full of hatred and contempt because of his unhappy relationship with his wife. Most seem to agree that there is no textual reason to suggest that the Merchant is a cuckold or that his tale is autobiographical; however, some do find evidence that the Merchant does hate women and has a disillusioned view of marriage by connecting his experiences to those of January, the main character in his tale. In order to analyze both characters, it is important to examine perceptions: society's view of merchants in the fourteenth-century, concepts of medieval marriage, and the individual perceptions of the Merchant and January in regard to marriage, women, and money. Through January's physical sight in "The Merchant's Tale", we are introduced to characteristics of the Merchant that he purposefully hides from others; also, we glimpse how sight is central to January's control over May, his wife, and how the Merchant's dependence on others' blindness allows him to maintain his secrecy. Thus, the physical act of seeing has been introduced, and will continue as a theme. The pilgrims have yet to see everything about the Merchant, but can assume that by definition, he will acquire things at market value only to sell them for a higher price. ...read more.

Middle

experienced by key characters. The Merchant is blind, January is blind, and in some ways, May is blind; however, the audience is not. The Merchant is an active participant in Januarie's blindness because his own perceptions are the basis for the creation of January's. May's blindness is a result of the limiting of her character by Chaucer--the tale focuses on Januarie; therefore, May's opinions are only expressed in her speech. Her perceptions are textually inaccessible to the audience. The Merchant does not realize that through his participation, he is revealing his own blindness to the true experience of marriage and opening the audience's eyes to it. The Merchant "participates in the blindness of his creature January in not realizing the extent to which he is talking of his own sore in the tale. However, the Merchant has made sure to alert the audience that his tale is not autobiographical: 'of myn owene soore, For soory herte, I telle may namoore" (ll. 1243-4). It is his declaration that the tale is not about his own experience that leads the audience to believe that it, indeed, is. It is also the Merchant's admittance of his marital difficulties that provoke the audience to connote Januarie's marriage to May as the Merchant's original idea of matrimony. The Merchant's misogyny is a product of his marital disillusionment. His misery and resulting hatred could be likened to purchasing a faulty product, or falling victim to false advertisement. ...read more.

Conclusion

January makes before taking May to the garden: "A man may do no synne with his wyf,/ Ne hurte hymselven with his owene knyf" (ll. 1839-40). Each man has convinced himself that his disillusionment is truth. Because both men rely on their own perception and only outside sources that confirm their pre-established beliefs, their vision can never be truly clear nor open to correction. The Merchant's refusal to allow his perceptions to be changed is a character flaw that prevents him from having true marital bliss. Both the Merchant and January are given opportunities to adjust their visions (January through his discussions with Justinius and Placebo, and the Merchant through his profession and his studies) but both refuse them. In effect, the Merchant refuses correction for them both because it is he who fashions January's perceptions. The Merchant's self-blindness is an unconscious choice, and because of his inability to recognize it, he will remain blind. The pilgrims will never be able to fully evaluate the Merchant's character because their vision is limited as well; how is his character fully developed when he purposefully leaves out details of his own marriage? January's inability to analyze May's deceit is essentially his refusal to accept it, making him the perfect surrogate for Chaucer's misogynist Merchant. It remains a key point of interest that we can't fully distinguish between the Merchant and Chaucer. But by deciding to have a narrator he asks the reader to challenge the authorship and how does the narrator distort the tale. John Golding 7C4 English Literature ...read more.

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