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The Canterbury Tales | The Miller's Tale | Summary

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Summary

Chaucer notes that the company, especially the "gentlefolk," enjoyed the Knight's tale. Harry Bailey then says it is the Monk's turn to tell a story, but the Miller, who is drunk, interrupts, saying he has a tale to tell—one about a carpenter and his wife. The Reeve (who is a carpenter) gets angry, but the Miller continues. Chaucer warns the reader that the tale may not be to the liking of those who prefer "morality, good breeding, saintliness."

The Miller's tale proceeds: An old carpenter named John takes a student as a lodger. The student, Nicholas, is clever and charming. John's wife, Alison, is young and pretty. One day Nicholas makes advances to Alison, and she promises that they can meet later. A young parish clerk, Absalon, also desires Alison. He serenades her and sends her gifts, hoping to win her love. But she is in love with Nicholas.

Nicholas and Alison make an elaborate plan. Nicholas pretends to be ill, and, when he is discovered in a stupor, he pretends he has had a revelation that there will be a terrible flood. He advises stocking three tubs with provisions and hanging them up with ropes so that John, Alison, and Nicholas can float in them during the flood. The carpenter believes Nicholas and makes preparations. When John falls asleep in his tub, Nicholas and Alison sneak out of their tubs to have sex.

Meanwhile, Absalon goes to the carpenter's home to see if he can get a kiss from Alison, who rejects him. He says he will go away if she will just give him a kiss through the window. It is dark, and she sticks out her naked behind. He kisses it and is enraged at her trick. He goes to a blacksmith and gets a hot iron to bring back to Alison's. This time it is Nicholas who sticks his bare buttocks out the window, letting out a loud fart, only to be branded by the hot iron. All the uproar wakes up the carpenter, who cuts the ropes of his tub and falls, crashing through the house all the way to the cellar.

Analysis

This tale is an example of fabliau, of which there are several in The Canterbury Tales. A fabliau is a humorous story that usually features sexual shenanigans and outlandish tricks. Normal moral codes are temporarily suspended in these tales, which take cheerful delight in the shocking and surprising.

This story, following the Knight's tale, is a crude and comical contrast to the genteel chivalry of the previous story. Like the Knight's tale, this story features two young men in love with the same woman. This time, however, the woman is also an older man's wife and actively participates in arranging the affair with one of the young men. Alison, a young beauty who agrees without much persuasion to have sex with Nicholas, is presented as a contrast to the virtuous Emily. Social class is also a point of contrast between this tale and the Knight's tale: The two young knights of the previous story have been replaced by two young men of the emerging middle class of clerks, scholars, and teachers.

In developing the theme of rivalry, this story features rivalry between a young, clever scholar and a simple, gullible old man, as well as rivalry between young men for the same woman.

Chaucer uses dramatic irony—in which the reader has important information not known to the characters in the story—to increase the tale's comedic effect. Readers know that Alison and Nicholas are planning an affair and that the ruse of the upcoming flood is a fabrication, but the carpenter does not know, making him seem silly. Readers also know that Absalon is bringing a hot iron back, but Nicholas does not, so the readers anticipate the branding of Nicholas's bare buttocks while Nicholas is blissfully unaware until it happens.

The sudden fall of the carpenter in his tub is the final unexpected straw in this outrageous sequence of events, and it would be a hilarious end to the story if the old man were not badly injured and then assumed crazy. This revelation about the outcome for the carpenter may stir sympathy in some readers or listeners, leaving them to wonder whether the joke was really funny after all.

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