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The Canterbury Tales | The Merchant's Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue | Summary

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Summary

Prompted by all the talk of husbands and wives, the Merchant chimes in, saying he is married to a horrible woman, nothing like Griselda. He complains that the life of married men is "grief and care." Harry Bailey asks him to tell a story.

January, an old and prosperous knight, lives in Lombardy. A bachelor for most of his life, he now has a strong desire to be married and have an heir. He gathers his friends and tells them his desire. His two friends, Placebo and Justinus, disagree on whether January should get married. Placebo tells him to go for it, while Justinus urges caution. But most of January's friends agree that his plan is excellent. January considers many women before deciding upon one, a young woman named May. The two are soon married.

A squire named Damian, who works for January, sees May and instantly desires her. He writes her a letter telling her of his love and places it in a purse. Sick with love, he lays in bed. January, feeling bad for his ill squire, sends May to comfort the man. As she sits by his bedside, Damian secretly passes her the purse containing his letter. May reads the letter and writes back, agreeing to meet him secretly.

As time passes, January goes blind, and his blindness causes him to guard his wife jealously—keeping her close to him all the time. Because she is unable to get away and meet Damian, May and the squire sadly exchange nothing but letters. Together they make a plan. May takes the key to January's private, walled-in garden and makes a wax impression of it, which she gives to Damian to duplicate.

One day January takes May to his private garden. May signals to Damian that he should sneak in the garden gate. Once inside May gestures to him to climb into a pear tree. Then she tricks January into giving her a boost up into the tree to pick a pear to eat and meets Damian in the branches. As they are having sex, the god Pluto suddenly restores January's sight, and he looks up into the tree, becoming very angry. May tells him that his sight is not very good because she and Damian were struggling in the tree, not having sex. January believes her.

Harry Bailey exclaims that women are full of "cunning tricks" and says his own wife has many vices.

Analysis

The Merchant's tale is another example of a fabliau, but one that uses elements of romance to set up readers' expectations before descending into the trickery and adultery characteristic of the fabliau. January, the old knight "of good renown," marries a young, beautiful lady of "wise self-discipline" and "gentle ways." While other fabliaux feature less refined characters, such as members of the middle class or churchmen of questionable morals, these characters are as noble as those of the Knight's tale. Readers, then, are led to expect a romance. It is not until after the marriage feast that signs of shenanigans to come become apparent. Even then the language is lofty: "O perilous fire kindled in the bedding,/Domestic traitor, with the danger spreading!"

Yet descent into shenanigans eventually begins, with May's dissatisfaction at her husband's sexual appeal: "Wearing his night-cap, with his scrawny throat./She didn't think his games were worth a groat."

This tale is also rich with symbolism. The winter—"Old January"—is symbolic of old age, and spring—"fresh young May"—is symbolic of youth. The garden is symbolic of sexual energy but also of Eden: "so fair a garden never was there known." Into this Eden May (Eve) allows in an "adder," a snake. This is consistent with the idea, believed at the time, that Eve and women in general were to blame for the biblical Fall—being cast out of Eden. The key, of course, that unlocks the walled-in garden is a not-so-subtle sexual euphemism.

January's blindness, while a physical affliction, is also symbolic. January is so blinded by lust for his young wife he sits in the wedding feast as "in a trance." Later the narrator (the Merchant) begs him to "see your servant, Damian ... even now is meditating villainy." This fulfills what is said earlier in the tale: "love is always blind and cannot see." January's blindness is a physical manifestation of his gullibility, reflecting the medieval belief that a person's shortcomings and sins could become visible in physical illnesses.

Situational irony plays a role in the humor of the final sequence of events. First, when May asks him for a boost up into the tree, blind January complains that there is "no boy about" to lend a hand. Of course, there is a boy about—waiting for May in the tree. When January regains his sight, he wants to "behold his love"; when he does see her, she is in the arms of another man.

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