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"What do the first 149 lines of the Merchant's prologue and Tale tell us about marriage and women?"

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Introduction

"What do the first 149 lines of the Merchant's prologue and Tale tell us about marriage and women?" 'The Merchant's Tale' is part of the Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories loosely linked together. Through these poems Chaucer provides an insight into the attitudes, weaknesses, virtues and preoccupation of English men and women of the Fourteenth Century. Chaucer imagines a group of pilgrims, setting off from the Tabard Inn on a journey from London to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury. In order to pass time, the pilgrims tell each other stories; in this case we are told 'The Merchant's Tale'. From reading and discussing the first part of 'The Merchant's Tale', this essay will explore the narrators concerns of marriage and women, and attempt to explain their contextual relevance. To begin with I will discuss the values of marriage and the social status of women during the Fourteenth Century. Conventional attitudes to the institution of marriage were regarded as a mercantile transaction and the consolidation of title, land and money was of great importance among the wealthy and noble status. Furthermore marriage was rarely undertaken for love, and could take place under force agreement if money was involved. Marriage was considered a sacrament of the church that mirrored the union of Christ and Christ's church; it was deemed an important practice of the Christian religion during this period. ...read more.

Middle

The Merchant suggests that the Knight's youth was spent in a 'seculeer state', but appears uncertain as to whether the Knight's path to marriage is for 'hooliness or for dotage' (L, 41). If viewed by the audience as a holy purpose, this could reflect medieval ideals of marriage which was regarded as a key to heaven and a holy commitment in the eyes of the church. Hence the Knight had 'greet corage...to be a wedded man' (L, 42-43). Ironically the Merchant praises marriage 'blisful lyf that is bitwixe an housbonde and his wyf' (L, 57-58); this contradicts his original views, although this could account for another expectation of marriage from the Knight being portrayed by the narrator. As the tale commences, the Knight becomes progressively more committed to his particular ideas about wedlock; it is a way to avoid sin and fortification. He considers 'Wedlock so esy and so clene'. His fixed views of what marriage will be like appear far too simplistic and demonstrate his naivety of wedded life. He desires 'a yong wif and a heir' (L, 59) which contrasts with his spiritual justification for marriage, there is a much greater concentration on the material convenience and pleasure to be obtained from a 'yong wif'. His praise of marriage becomes increasingly unrealistic and therefore almost sarcastic when contrasted with the Merchant's thorough disenchantment after two months experience. ...read more.

Conclusion

It could be considered by the listeners that the Merchant is playing to the crowd of pilgrims in order to create a sense of balance within his narrative; he praises then subtly attacks marriage similarly to how he presents women. His views appear to stem from an unhappy marriage and are reinforced by rhetoric that depicts the misogynistic values held by many during the 1300's. Alternatively the Merchant has effectively presented his views in the form of philosophical debate. His language contains a regular rhyme metre that is flexible and enables the words to flow easily as the Pilgrims journey to Canterbury. In opposition to the Merchant, is the tale of the Knight who begins with a long eulogy in praise of marriage; as the Merchant is himself unhappily married which is quite ironic. The narrative of the Knight seems to entail two ideals; one is a naively exaggerated description the ideal state of holy matrimony for the good of the soul. The other is a darker and more selfish concept of marriage as providing great convenience for an ageing lecher. His wife should be obedient and give him joy; and nurse him when ill as well as be the mother to his heir. Chaucer effectively outlines the traditional values and characteristics of women and marriage, through these two characters. It could be argued that the character of the Merchant is used to depict some of the dangers that may occur from 'new women' emerging in society, those that are bold and outspoken like his wife. ...read more.

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