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Free Study Guide-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free BookNotes
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THE TALES: SUMMARIES AND NOTES

The Sea captainís Tale

Summary

A rich merchant of St. Denis had an extremely beautiful wife who was very fond of parties. The merchant kept an open house and entertained huge crowds daily. Among his guests was a handsome young Monk named Brother John.

The Monk had grown quite familiar with the Merchant. In order to avail himself of the Merchantís lavish hospitality, the Monk claimed to be his cousin or very closely related. The Merchant good-naturedly didnít deny this claim and swore kinship to the Monk. The Monk was always welcome in the Merchantís house and liked by everybody because he always got gifts and even tipped the lowest page.

One day the Merchant planned to go to Brussels to purchase merchandise. He dispatched a messenger to Paris to invite Brother John to spend a few days with him and his wife before he left on his planned tour to Brussels. The Monk gladly accepted and lost no time in coming to St. Denis.

After the third day of Brother Johnís visit the Merchant awoke early and went to his counting room to take stock of his financial affairs. The business of accounts kept the Merchant occupied until nine in the morning. The Monk had also risen early and was pacing in the garden when the merchant's wife quietly stole into the garden to talk to him. The merchant's wife asked the Monk the reason for his getting up so early in the morning. The Monk in turn replied that he only needed five hours sleep but that probably she should get more rest since the Merchant may have kept her awake all night. The merchant's wife protested that she never got the least pleasure from that game and that she was so miserable that she was thinking of running away or even killing herself.

The Monk asked her to unburden herself by telling him the cause of her grief so that he could give her advice. Both swore secrecy never to divulge what was said. The merchant's wife then apologized to the Monk for criticizing her husband since he is his cousin. The Monk immediately revealed that he wasnít her husbandís cousin and had only used kinship to get better acquainted with her because he loved her passionately. The merchant's wife then revealed her sorrowful tale of marital neglect. She told the Monk of the Merchantís sexual abstinence, cowardice and extreme stinginess. She desperately begged the Monk to lend her a 100 francs by next Sunday to pay for some clothes that she had bought. In return she promises to render any favor / service that the Monk desired. The Monk agreed to lend her the money as soon as her husband left for Brussels. He then clasped the merchant's wife tightly and repeatedly kissed her.


The Merchant instructed his wife to take care of the house while he went away to Brussels and then sat down to dinner after saying a hurried mass. Soon after dinner the Monk requested the Merchant to lend him a 100 francs for a week since he had to buy some cattle to stock one of the farms upon his abbey. He also requested the Merchant to keep the matter of the loan a secret. The Merchant was only too glad to help and readily gave the money to the Monk. The Monk then left for his abbey.

The Merchant left for Flanders the next morning and reached Brussels and concluded his purchases. On the Sunday following the Merchantís departure the Monk arrived at his house. Apparently he had struck a deal to spend the night with the merchant's wife in exchange for his loan of a 100 francs. After a blissful night the Monk left for his abbey without arousing the least suspicion.

Some days later the Merchant went to Paris to borrow some money in order to clear his debts. After finishing his business transactions he paid an affectionate social visit to Brother John and not to ask about repayment of the loan. The Monk nevertheless informs the Merchant that he had already repaid the money to his wife only a few days after he took the loan.

The Merchant merrily returned home after concluding a profitable financial deal. He gently chided her for not informing him that Brother John had repaid the loan in his absence. The wife was unfazed and boldly replied that she had spent the money on clothes and that she would amply repay him in bed. The Merchant realized that nothing was to be gained by scolding her and forgave her along with a mild warning not to spend what belonged to him.

Notes

The Sea captainís Tale suits his character. It is an immoral story narrated by a thoroughly immoral man. The readers learn from the ĎGeneral Prologueí that the Sea captain is dishonest and has no qualms about stealing the wine that he is transporting for a Merchant. He owns his own ship named ĎMagdaleyneí and is from Dartmouth. He is a tough captain and ruthless in his dealings with pirates. His tale is a mean-spirited account of a trusting Merchant who is deceived and duped by a Monk. The baseness and unscrupulousness of the Sea captainís tale is appropriate to his character. What is even more disgusting is the fact that the Sea captain appears to derive an immense delight from this tale about adultery. He takes pleasure in the Monkís devilish antics and in the Merchantís wifeís dissolute behavior. The Merchantís wife is only concerned about acquiring new clothes and has no qualms about selling her body and honor in return. She connives with the Monk and with his help robs the Merchant. The Merchant never comes to know that his wife has betrayed him. The Monk too never shows a momentís hesitation about violating his monastic vow of celibacy and frankly confesses that he had cultivated friendship with the Merchant in order to get close to his wife.

However despite the taleís apparent suitability to the Sea captainís depraved character, it is certain that the tale wasnít originally designed for him. The beginning lines of the tale (lines 12 - 19) shows that the tale was designed for a female character, probably for the Wife of Bath where the Sea captain says that our husbands desire us to be wise and good in bed. Such a view accords well with the Wife of Bathís character. But the tale suits the Sea captainís character extremely well.

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