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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THE MERCHANT'S TALE

The Merchant admits his wife is hardly like Griselda; in fact, his two months of marriage have been hell. His tale, therefore, ties in with his character because it tells of the pitfalls of expecting too much of a marriage.

January, a rich knight, turns sixty and suddenly decides to marry. He lists examples of "good" women, all of whom ironically were responsible for a man's downfall. He gets pro and con advice from two friends, Justinus ("just one") and Placebo ("flatterer"), the "just" man arguing against and the other for. January settles on young May (the winter/spring distinction) as his bride, and enjoys his wedding night although Chaucer makes him look rather foolish. May falls for Damian, a young squire who is sick with love for her; January suddenly goes blind and won't let May leave his side. In January's walled garden, May arranges for Damian to climb a certain pear tree. Telling January she's climbing the tree to get him a pear, she scampers up. Meanwhile, the gods-Pluto and his wife Proserpina-take male and female sides in the argument. Pluto has January's sight return just as May and Damian embrace in the tree; Proserpina provides May with a fast- talking excuse, that January's eyes are deceiving him since he is still unused to the light.


The tale echoes the Miller's in the plot of old man/young wife and her plans for infidelity. Chaucer combines standard medieval set-ups (the age difference; the view of arguing gods, as in the Knight's Tale; the walled garden; and the pear tree, symbolizing sex) for a tale that is almost allegorical but carries a bitter tone because of the Merchant's own situation.

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