The Merchant’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer is listed as fabliau at the time of its publication. The brief is a humorous story of love. The story’s vocabulary is clear, and the characters are average men from the time it was published. The theme is marriage, intimacy, and the consequences of one’s decisions (Hamaiti 4-7). The merchant tells the story in the first person using that story because he says he cannot say it explicitly. In the prologue, Chaucer makes use of opinion as a significant writing style to give an idea of what he thinks marriage is all about from the experience the clerk has gone through with his wife. Through direct narration, the writer shows the audience how marriage is loathed and its essence in the medieval world (Bloom 32-45). January, an Italian knight, having transformed wants to marry because of the religious and traditional connotation given to the institution of marriage. Through well narrated chronicled events, the tale of the merchant uses January to portray the consequences of making bad choices. Thus, this paper seeks to give the impressions of January as it is established in the first 500 lines of the merchant tale, by exploring the writing styles and literary devices employed.
The writer uses symbolism and idioms to give the traditional consequences of valuing status over love. January appeals to his friends to search for him a wife who is young and beautiful, characters that will resonate with the state he has acquired over the years. Accordingly, this pursuit for status blinds him as not to see the real nature of May, who turns out to be cunning, deceitful and evil. The audiences are given an opportunity to ponder over the realities of those times to decide for themselves what the shortcomings were. Chaucer only gives a conventionally held perception on women but does a lot not to reveal how these come about.
January represents old age and the common susceptibility of men to the antics of women. In the same sense, January also represents the desires of men and is portrayed as a man who is somewhat ignorant to reason. At one point in the narrative, January becomes blind, both in the literal and figurative sense. It is at this point that the reader is aware of May’s unfaithful activities towards January. (Boone 23)
He used an idiom to describe love as blind.
“He, at the last appointed him on one,
And let all others form his heartegon,
And chose her of his own authority;
For love is blind all day, and may not see (Chaucer 34)
In the tale of the merchant, the writer uses narration in the first person to give a vivid occurrence of events. Notably, this authentic style is employed by using the description of numerous characters to provide a different point of view in the third-party. Thus, it gives the audience an opportunity to get the thoughts of the writer, with regards to the characters chosen and make an independent analysis of the situation.
The merchant’s tale is mostly about January, an Italian knight, who has worked all his life, but feels incomplete in the old age because he is not married. Though he perceives the act of marriage as a fulfillment of a law of God, he calls upon his friends to give him opinions about that course. Through an altercation that delves more on the advantages and the disadvantages of marriage, the writer provides the audience with an opportunity to pick sides by keeping it open for a reason.
After his transformation, January asks his friends to look for a lady for him. Here, he shows how the institution of marriage has been usurped. January is portrayed lack of respect in marriage by practicing the conventional societal practice of arranged marriages built on status, rather than love.
Chaucer uses imagery; irony and paradox to explain the irony in January’s old age coincide with his early age. He is portrayed as thrilled with the idea of marriage (Baldick 204). The choice of the name January is imagery, and it descriptively gives the audience the character of the protagonist, portrayed as a transformed person, like the beginning of the year who faces the adversities of winter – May. Using Biblical allusions, he equates married life to heaven and paradise. As a man short of reason, he does not seek to make a deep understanding of the Bible and only takes it casually and literary. As a result, he sees his wife as paradise. The hereafter characteristic portrayal of January demonstrates his idea of heaven. The writer used irony by depicting January as a transformed man, but who still values exploitation of women as his idea of paradise.
“January is portrayed as a traditionalist who associates females with the body and sense, making May’s existence physically based (Burchmore 56)
January is not describing his dotage, but seeking to express the paradoxical combination of old age and youthful vigor, which he claims to enjoy. (Field 40)
In conclusion, while the writer portrays January in many aspects, the tale is about the traditional role of women and the perception of the institution of marriage. Through numerous stylistics, devices the writer is exposed to a more nuanced understanding of love and marriage in the old ages. The woman is deemed as a man’s subject, and the consequences of these social constructions come out very clearly from the resulting situation that January finds himself in.
Baldick, Chris. The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Bloom, H. Bloom’s Guide: Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. New York: Library of Congress, 2008.
Boone, Randy L. “God-like, or ungodly:: an analysis of the Pluto and Proserpine marriage in Chaucer’s Merchant tale. Abdiel, Milton’s “Servant of God.” Thesis and Dissertations; Lehigh University (1993): 1-90.
Burchmore, David. “January, Janus and The Merchant’s Tale.” Califonia Institute of Technology; Division of The Humanities and Social Sciences (1997): 1-45.
Chaucer, George. The Canterbury Tales. London: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Field, Rosalind. “January’s ‘honest thynges’: Knighthood and Narrative in the Merchant’s Tale.” University of London (2001): 37-49.
Hamaiti, Hlima. “Nature and Blindness Metaphors in George Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Tale and William Shakespeare’s King Lear.” (2014): 1-79.