THE CANTERBURY TALES, by Geoffrey Chaucer.  "The Merchant's Tale"

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Geoffrey ChaucerThe Canterbury tales were written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 14th Century.  Today, the collection is still considered a dynamic and greatly informative piece of literature, because of the way in which it portrays the common aspects of life for the time.  For this web analysis, primary focus will be placed on the single "Merchant's Tale."   This page begins the examination with character analyses and a plot summary.   The subsequent page features an overall analysis, relation of this tale to the larger work, and a comparison to life in the 14th Century.  There is also a separate page of external website links that feature informative and helpful websites that aid in understanding this work.

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The Merchant - The merchant prefaces his tale by explaining that he understands the concepts of weeping and sorrow due to the despair of his marriage.  Instead of telling of his own misfortune, he tells a tale about someone else who had similar experiences.  Chaucer seems to approve of the Merchant.  It is unclear whether the merchant really dispises marriage because the entire tale is wrought with irony. 
- January is the main character around which this tale is based. He is a knight from Lombardy, roughly sixty years old, and the story explains that until this point, January has been good with the ladies but not a gentleman himself. At this old age, it seems apparent that he is turning from his heathen ways and decides to partake of the sacrament of marriage. For whatever reason, he  decides to take a wife and asks that any suitable young woman be brought to him so that they may wed. January is not judicious in his choice of a wife, and even though his rationale for deciding to get married seems logical and holy, his haste proves otherwise. 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 (that is, for a young and beautiful wife) 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. January suffers in one way or another from several of the seven sins.  January's name implies the tired, winter-like qualities of his character whereas May's name conveys the aura of her youthfulness and spring-like stage in life.
- May is a common town girl whom January has seen in the streets and decides unilaterally to wed. May initially seems innocent and beautiful, but as the story goes on, it becomes apparent that she is not innocent, because of her apparent background of sexual encounters with other men and her unfaithfulness to January after they have been married. May represents the desires of the common female, that is to pursue her will whether or not that means contradicting and cheating on her husband.
Damian - Damian is January's top servant. He is an attractive man who instantly falls in love with May as soon as he sees her. May and Damian determine that their love is mutual, and they write letters to each other, particularly often after January has become blind. Damian proves that he is not loyal to January and that he is not of great virtue or dignity.
Placebo - Placebo is one of January's brothers. He strongly supports January's decision to get married and also the way in which he wants to do it. He favors the sacrament of marriage.
Justinus - Justinus is another of January's brothers. He strongly opposes January's decision to get married. He has become disenfranchised with the concept of marriage primarily because of his own wife. Justinus is presented as the opposition, but this is ironic because Justinus seems to concur with that of the tale and the merchant.
January's Men - January's men are important because January seeks council with them as to his decision about marriage. They ultimately support him, probably out of duty, and they conform to his wishes about finding a wife for him. It is brought forth that January's decision was partially justified by the support of his men, because the tale mentions a Bible verse in which it is claimed that wise men seek council about important matters with others.
The Gods - The gods in this story, oddly enough, appear to be of Pagan origin. Many times throughout the tale, these Pagan gods are referenced as a source of wisdom and justification. Pluto is responsible for January regaining his sight, and Pluto's wife (Proserpina) is responsible for supplying May with an appropriate response to January's interrogation as to her adulterous behavior.
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Plot Summary
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The merchant's tale's prologue features an opinion from the merchant about the nature of marriage. His attitude is marked by dislike for the sacrament, and he feels that marriage is primarily a detriment to men. His attitude is apparently due to the dislike of his wife. The tale itself begins with an explanation of January, the knight of sixty years from Lombardy who has recently become Christian and is pondering his fate regarding the hereafter. Because of his transformation, January has decided that it would be prudent to take a wife.   He calls upon his men to hear their opinion. Out of obligation, the knight's men agree with him and thus agree to aid January's search for a wife. After a time of searching, January has pondered his choice of women and decides that he wants a local commoner by the name of May who is of exquisite beauty for her class in society. He marries her and is highly anxious after the ceremony to have sexual relations with her. Damian, one of January's servants is immediately taken by May and falls ill due to the thought that he may not have her. After a time, Damian seeks out May and tells her his feelings, and she joins him in the lust. May and Damian begin communicating via letters. Shortly after May and Damian begin their affair, January loses his sight. Due to his jealousy and paranoia, he insists that May be constantly by his side and will not go anywhere without his hand on her. This makes it more difficult for May and Damian to communicate, but they manage through their continuing use of letters. Within the letters, Damian and May begin to plot a day in which their love may be manifested in a tree in January's beloved garden. The day comes and January goes into the garden with May, under the pretense of wanting to enjoy each other. May decides she wants fruit from a tree above, and asks January to lift her into the tree, where Damian is waiting. The two quickly begin having sex, and two gods on a nearby hill discuss the activities. One of the gods, Pluto, declares that he will grant January his sight so that he may see the unfaithful behavior of his wife. Proserpina declares that she will provide May with a striking response that will leave January with no argument. The two gods carry through with their plan, and upon January's regaining of sight, he sees May and Damian. May comes down and explains that once January regained his sight, he was not seeing clearly and merely hallucinated May and Damian in the tree. To this, January could not respond in anger and instead forgave her and moved past the event. The tale ends here with an epilogue that reiterates the merchant's dislike of marriage and woman's deceitful ways.
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This page created by Chris Garneau & Kevin Bergen for Mr. Bower's AP English
class at Montoursville Area High School.

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