In what ways is The Merchant's Tale a response to The Clerk's Tale?

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English Literature        

In what ways is The Merchant’s Tale a response to The Clerk’s Tale?

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.

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        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 ...

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