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The Canterbury Tales | The Reeve's Prologue and Tale | Summary

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Summary

Everyone but Oswald the Reeve (who is a carpenter) thinks the Miller's tale is hilarious. The Reeve then says he is old and describes old age at length. Harry Bailey makes fun of him, saying he is like a preacher giving a long sermon—and not a very good one. Harry Bailey then invites him to tell a story. The Reeve says that, because the Miller's story makes fun of a carpenter, his story will "pay him back."

He begins a story about a dishonest miller with a wife, a daughter of about 20, and a baby son. Simpkin, the miller, grinds grain for a college, stealing some of it in the process. Two college students, John and Alan, decide to keep an eye on the process the next time grain is ground. They tell Simpkin they want to watch out of curiosity, but really they want to make sure he does not steal any. Simpkin, knowing it is a trick, plans a trick of his own. He sneaks away and sets their horse free, and, when John and Alan find their horse gone, they run after it. After they have left, Simpkin steals some of their flour.

The two students ask to stay the night because it has taken so long to recapture their horse. Simpkin agrees, though he says they all must sleep in the same room because his home is small. That night Simpkin gets very drunk, as does his wife. Soon Simpkin, his wife, and his daughter are all snoring loudly.

Alan decides to sneak into bed with Simpkin's daughter, despite John's warning of the risk. John is envious of his friend, so he tricks Simpkin's wife into his bed by moving the baby's cradle when she gets up in the night. He gives her such a good time in bed that she repays him by telling him where he can find the meal cake she made out of the stolen grain.

It is still dark when Alan gets out of bed later. On his way back to bed, he is confused by the position of the cradle, and groping around in the dark he ends up in Simpkin's bed. Thinking the man next to him is John, he boasts about his exploits with Simpkin's daughter, and the miller, enraged, begins to fight him. Everybody wakes up, and the two students beat up Simpkin.

The Reeve winds up his story by saying, "Tricksters will get a tricking."

Analysis

The Reeve interprets the Miller's story as an attack on carpenters, so he decides to get his revenge by telling an insulting story about a miller. This "payback" theme is echoed in the story, as the college students "pay back" Simpkin for stealing their grain with a trick of their own. Of course, the story is trick upon trick: Simpkin steals the grain, the students lie about their intentions, Simpkin releases their horse, they seduce both the miller's wife and daughter, people are tricked into getting in the wrong beds, and so on. Ultimately the original trickster does get the worst tricking, as Simpkin is beaten and the stolen grain reclaimed.

This story, like the one before it, is a fabliau and is similar to the previous story in several other ways. Like the Miller's tale, it sets up a rivalry between youth and age—except this time the older man is dishonest rather than simple—as well as between scholars and a skilled worker. Rivalry also exists between the two students—John's envy of Alan's sexual escapade is his main motivation for sleeping with the wife. And, like the Miller's tale, this story involves a wife who seems willing to cuckold her husband without a second thought.

Yet the tone of this tale is distinct from the Miller's, emphasizing the theme of story and storyteller. The Miller, a boisterous and happy fellow, tells a tale that is cheerfully amoral, in which the young wife is won over by charm. The Reeve, in contrast, is an angry, bitter fellow who sees offense in the Miller's tale when none was intended. So he tells a tale that rests on revenge and mean-spirited tricks. The students "steal" Simpkin's wife and daughter by deception, not through seduction.

The characterization of people in this story is also significant. The miller is described as round-faced, bald, and with a pug nose. He is sly and violent, and his wife is the daughter of a "celibate" priest—who obviously broke his vow of celibacy. His daughter is young but not beautiful. Overall the family is painted in unflattering terms. The characters are also often compared to farm animals: The miller's wife runs "clucking like a hen," John and Alan come "like cattle in the rain" from capturing their horse, the miller snorts "like a cart-horse" as he sleeps, and the fighting men wallow "like two porkers in a poke." (This is a contrast with animal metaphors used in the Knight's tale, in which the knights are compared to noble wild beasts such as lions and tigers.)

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