The University of Virginia's College
January's Misogynist Merchant: The Theme of Sight
in Chaucer's Merchant and "The Merchant's Tale"
of "The Merchant's Tale" is introduced as a fashionable businessman, a
successful financial expert, and a terribly unhappy husband. Critics have
painted him as a disillusioned man full of hatred and contempt because
of his unhappy relationship with his wife. Most seem to agree that there
is no textual reason to suggest that the Merchant is a cuckold or that
his tale is autobiographical; however, some do find evidence that the Merchant
does hate women anand has a disillusioned view of marriage by connecting
his experiences to those of January, the main character in his tale. In
order to analyze both characters, it is important to examine perceptions:
society's view of merchants in the fourteenth-century, concepts of medieval
marriage, and the individual perceptions of the Merchant and January in
regard to marriage, women, and money. Through
January's physical sight in "The Merchant's Tale", we are introduced to
characteristics of the Merchant that he purposefully hides from others;
also, we glimpse how sight is central to January's control over May, his
wife, and how the Merchant's dependence on others' blindness allows him
to maintain his secrecy.
dissecting the Merchant, Muriel Bowden stresses it is important to understand
how typical merchants of Chaucer's day were perceived by the general public
and how Chaucer characterizes his own. Bowden writes, "To not a few of
Chaucer's contemporaries this portrait of a fourteenth-century merchant-prince
must have been a vividly familiar figure" (p.146). Bowden's description
of the Merchant as a prince is influenced by his description in the General
A Marchant was there with a forked berd,
In mottelee, and hye on horse he sat;
Upon his heed a Flaundryssh bever hat,
His bootes clasped faire and fetisly.
His resons he spak ful solempnely,
Sownynge alwey th'encrees of his wynnyng.
He wolde the see were kept for any thyng
Bitwixe Middelburgh and Orewelle.
Wel koude he in eschaunge sheeldes selle.
This worthy man ful wel his wit bisette;
There wiste no wight that he was in dette (ll. 270-80).
tells Chaucer's audience that his merchant is skilled and wise in the ways
of trading, borrowing, and lending. The "typical medieval merchants, who
were engaged in the wholesale traffic of wool, hides, cloth, iron and tin
were also bankers and money-lenders of the nation" (Bowden, p.146). In
addition to his established financial knowledge, his eloquent speech, fine
apparel and slight element of mystery suggest that the Host and the other
pilgrims question if he is an honest dealer. Bowden writes, "This perception
of the Merchant should be fairly accurate, as merchants in the later Middle
Ages enjoyed a social position which, for all that it was tacitly and sometimes
impermanently held, exceeded that of many a noble" (Bowden, p.146). We
admire the merchant because we perceive his attractive dress and middle-class
wealth; however, we question his character because we cannot physically
see the process of his trades. He depends on the audience's acceptance
that he is a wise trader to affect its judgments of him.
the physical act of seeing has been introduced, and will continue as a
theme. The pilgrims have yet to see everything about the Merchant, but
can assume that by definition, he will acquire things at market value only
to sell them for a higher price. R.A. Shoaf suggests that the Merchant
is not interested in the actual worth of his items, but what they will
bring him in return, much like January who "shops" for his bride:
Many fair shap and many a fair visage
Ther passeth thurgh a mirour, polisshed bryght,
And sette it in a commune market-place,
Thanne sholde he se ful many a figure pace
By his mirour (ll. 1577-85.)
provide textual proof that January is connected to the Merchant since he
appraises May before buying her. The connection of teller to tale can be
further supported by January's treatment of May. January's marriage "arises
from and presupposes exchange of property. So in fact did most if not all
marriages of the Middle Ages" (Shoaf p.190). January has a strictly mercantile
interest in May, and he buys her only to spend her for Heaven on earth.
The wax impression of a key May gives her lover, Damyan, allows him into
her garden unbeknownst to January. He is physically blind to Damyan's entrance
and mentally blind to her adultery. By way of the wax key, May controls
who sees her and when. But when January "treats (May) like wax, he is,
in effect, trying also to convert her into coin, so as to spend her, the
living girl, on his 'fantasye,' thus littling her to a thing" (Shoaf, p.190).
An argument by Thomas Aquinas seems fitting here: "Anything whose price
can be measured in money is deemed to be money" (Shoaf, p.190). Therefore
May is money because she can be bought. Shoaf continues, "In what is a
chillingly precise 'quiting,' when Damyan comes, as it were, to borrow
May, just like money, she will be ready to change hands" (190). We further
identify the Merchant with January since his perspective is that of a business
deal to acquire property. January's perception of May in the market-place
persuaded him to buy her; now that she's his property, he can physically
control her when she is in sight.
the Merchant's hatred for his wife is reflected in January's blindness
to marital responsibility. Edward Wagenknecht defines January's blindness
as the physical counterpart of the ignorance of marriage and of women he
has shown all along: "It prevents him to the end from seeing the tree in
the garden and the knowledge of evil which it represents. And the regaining
of his sight wipes out even the alertness to danger which accompanied the
blindness" (Wagenknecht, p.257). The audience can interpret that whether
or not January's physical ability of sight is restored, his mental perception
cannot be. Like January, the Merchant never truly knows what marriage is
because he is blinded by his anger.
is not blinded by anger, but by the deception of his wife. The real irony
exists in January's statement to May when he invites her into his garden:
"No spot of thee ne knew I al my lyf" (l. 2146). The "contrast between
his ugly passion and the romantic imagery...matches the irony of his being
as unconscious of the physical spot he is even then touching as he will
later be of the moral spot--adultery--when he is looking at it with miraculously
unblinded eyes" (Wagenknecht, p.257). January's mental blindness to the
reality of marriage parallels his later temporary physical blinding.
blindness leads to the negative attitudes he develops about marriage and
contributes to his bitterness:
It can also produce the more bleakly sardonic
picture of a man who prides
himself on the 'realism' of his vision, but who
is unaware of the extent to
which his attitude reflects a blindness on what
human life can offer. It could
be said that the end of 'pilgrimage' is to explore
the forms of 'blindness' by
which men and women in some measure conduct their
lives, and beyond
this to indicate how their eyes may be opened, how
they may be restored
to a proper sense of what really is, and to rest
the conduct of their lives on
this true perception (Traversi, p.154).
The Merchant, in his disillusionment, does not advocate
romantic sentiment. Instead, he makes it his sole purpose to reduce it,
and plans to do so by telling a tale that will portray all wives as deceitful.
"The effect of his [January's] blindness is to feed 'the fyr of jalousie'
in his heart, exasperating his determination to cling, even beyond his
own life-time, to his rights of possession" (Traversi, p.154). In turn,
any husbands who may be listening will become jealous, and if the Merchant
is successful, they will also reject romantic sentiment as he does. He
is purposefully limiting the audience again by presenting a one-sided example,
which continues to be a problem.
with Chaucer's Merchant is that he may be a bit reticent; by not offering
enough details of his own experience with marriage, the Merchant is less
believable and may appear to be more deceptive. "The Merchant's habitual
refusal to tell us what we need to know in order to follow his bewildering
shifts among genres, tones, directions of sympathy and antipathy, and to
follow also his pyrotechnic display of an allusiveness [is] so brilliant
that it seems designed to go right over any audience's head" (Dean, p.191).
The Merchant appears to be "selling" his tale without being able to endorse
of the Merchant's reticence occurs during the pear-tree episode with May
and Damyan in his refusal to elaborate on its outcome. Just as May had
an insatiable lust for a pear, the audience hungers to know if Damyan was
able to complete the sexual act and if so, is May pregnant with his child?
The Merchant never tells. Beidler argues that "January's folly is that
he sees what he wants to see, rather than what is actually before him"
(p.42). This example is much like the Merchant refusing to see that marriage
is not always a paradise and his 'seeing' his wife as the only problem.
the Merchant may be perceived, critics agree that his voice, actions, and
statements cannot be altered to prove that his wife makes a cuckold of
him. Wagenknecht states,"In a word, the tale is the perfect expression
of the Merchant's angry disgust at his own evil fate and at his folly in
bringing that fate upon himself" (p. 203). The Merchant can't see a good
marriage. Wagenknecht concludes that the Merchant "speaks in a frenzy of
contempt and hatred. The hatred is for women; the contempt is for himself
and all other fools who will not take warning by example" (p. 203). The
Merchant becomes a misogynist because of his own emotional blindness, and
eventually translates his hatred of women into a self-hatred. It is through
January, who acts as an envoy for the Merchant, that I arrive at this conclusion.
serves as a vehicle for the Merchant, whose attitudes, opinions, and perceptions
of women classify him undoubtedly as a motley-clad misogynist. Characteristically,
he is a fool. January is developed as a vehicle through the connection
of teller to tale, textual implications of misogyny, and the limited sight
(faulty or deliberate) experienced by key characters.
is blind, January is blind, and in some ways, May is blind; however, the
audience is not. The Merchant is an active participant in January's blindness
because his own perceptions are the basis for the creation of January's.
May's blindness is a result of the limiting of her character by Chaucer--the
tale focuses on January; therefore, May's opinions are only expressed in
her speech. Her perceptions are textually inaccessible to the audience.
The Merchant does not realize that through his participation, he is revealing
his own blindness to the true experience of marriage and opening the audience's
eyes to it. The Merchant "participates in the blindness of his creature
January in not realizing the extent to which he is talking of his own sore
in the tale. The creator of January is evidently a converted idealist,
and the bitterness of his cynicism is the measure of his former folly"
(Wagenknecht, p. 259). However, the Merchant has made sure to alert the
audience that his tale is not autobiographical: 'of myn owene soore, For
soory herte, I telle may namoore" (ll. 1243-4). It is his declaration that
the tale is not about his own experience that leads the audience to believe
that it, indeed, is. It is also the Merchant's admittance of his marital
difficulties that provoke the audience to connote January's marriage to
May as the Merchant's original idea of matrimony.
misogyny is a product of his marital disillusionment. His misery and resulting
hatred could be likened to purchasing a faulty product, or falling victim
to false advertisement. One could assume, in a manner of speaking, that
he bought more than he bargained for when he entered into marriage. The
Merchant has a "special view of the male-female relationship and to the
theme of 'sight'- of the way in which men 'see' what their desires condition
them to 'see'- which is a recurrent theme in the general plan" (Traversi,
p.137). The tale, then, is the story of an old man who thinks of his marriage
in terms of possession, and suffers from his outlook. This outlook would
confirm that January operates as a surrogate for the Merchant, who perhaps
bought his wife as a possession, and then crashed into the reality of marriage
as a partnership. The audience's ability to see the faults of each character
leads it to question how the text reflects the substitution of January
for the Merchant:
the most upsetting feature of The Merchant's Tale is January's failure,
at the end, to recognize his folly. For those who identify January with
the Merchant, there emerges in consequence a psychologically complex fiction
in which the narrator acts out his own senile delusions and lecherous self-indulgence
without holding himself morally accountable. According to this essentially
modern interpretation, the reader is asked to trust the tale, not the teller
reader trusts the tale, the fact that the Merchant hates women can be textually
supported. Whether or not January represents him can still be questioned.
However, "Chaucer creates an original aesthetic vehicle...to express the
cynicism of the Merchant-narrator, whose consciousness of the difference
between words and reality would perhaps be all the keener for a man who,
while in debt, was sownynge alwey th'encrees of his wynnyng" (Burger, p.108).
It makes sense that the Merchant would fall victim to Chaucerian irony,
because as a merchant, he should know well the difference between an object's
appearance and its actual worth.
cited passage in which January is seeking a bride is significant because
it plays on the theme of sight and reinforces the connection of the Merchant
to January. In the passage, January "shops" for his bride by scouring the
market-place, much like a merchant would comparison-shop to evaluate his
options before purchasing a specific item. January is relying solely on
his sight to select his bride. The mirror that he sets up in the market-place
can only reflect the physical appearance of the women who pass it, not
their intelligence, opinions, or personality.The connection of teller to
tale is reinforced again; a merchant would obviously purchase an attractive
item rather than a disheveled one.
is a usurer, as Shoaf suggests, then he is searching for what a wife can
bring him in return in terms of personal gain. The bride he eventually
selects, "fresshe May", is much younger than January, but serves two purposes
for him. In the tale, January states that he wishes to be married because
it is God's gift. His view of women at this point in the tale is that they
are "Goddes yifte verraily" (l.1311). This view, however, is not the only
reason he seeks a wife; January's selection of a younger bride in his old
age reveals his desire for an heir.
that his time to find a wife and to sire an heir to his property is limited,
and this forces him to seek marriage.
of sight is important when we consider January's desire for marriage and
the effects of the outcome that marriage will have on him. "His lust for
pleasure and his desire for salvation combine in the first consultation
scene to blind him to the danger inherent in taking a young wife" (Wagenknecht,
p.256). It can be interpreted that the only danger January foresees is
that so much felicity in marriage will ruin his chance of a blissful afterlife:
"Yet is ther so parfit felicitee/ And so greet ese and lust in mariage.....That
I shal have myn hevene in erthe heere. How should I thanne, that lyve in
swich plesaunce.....Come to the blisse ther Crist eterne on lyve ys?" (ll.1642-52).
January's lust blinds him to reality.
and May's marriage is an institution; she is his property. January will
never be able to see May's adultery because he has never been able to perceive
her as anything other than his possession. This perception of a wife as
property for the owner's pleasure directly links the Merchant to January.
"Where January moneys imagination or 'fantasye' only for his sensual pleasure,
the Merchant moneys imagination out of spite and envy. It is important
to note here that the medieval etymology of 'invidia' (envy) is 'in-videre,'
or 'not to see'" (Shoaf, p.200). Shoaf suggests that the sight emphasis
in "The Merchant's Tale" is owed to the Merchant's envy. The Merchant's
jealousy leads him to taint the views of others by providing a one-sided
argument that women are all shrews:
it is that the Merchant tries to stamp the wills of his audience, to impose
his stamp upon them, so that they will become coins of his "fantasye":
if they become such coins, he can spend them, use them, to validate and
valuate his poisoned view of human
sexuality and, indeed, of human creativity itself
(Shoaf, p.200). If the pilgrims agree with him, he has limited their
vision as he has limited their opinion of January. January is right, May
is wrong and it is all her fault.
not necessarily represent the Merchant's wife, but she does represent his
hatred of her and for adulterous women. Early in the tale, the Merchant
quotes Theofrastus' Golden Book on Marriage, a direct attack on
"Ne take no wyf," quod he, "for housbondrye,
As for to spare in houshold thy dispence.
A trewe servant dooth moore diligence
Thy good to kepe than thyn owene wyf,
For she wol clayme half part al hir lyf" (ll. 1296-1300).
If the Merchant has been reading Theofraste, it can
be assumed that he had adopted some ideas of antifeminism. By reading a
book that overtly attacks the sacrament of marriage, the
Merchant identifies himself with those who embrace misogynistic ideas and
promote them. Also, the Merchant is characteristically concerned with property,
and how the taking of a wife will diminish it: "The Merchant's furious
indignation at his wife only exacerbates his desire for property. Because
his private property has betrayed him -one gathers that his wife was something
more than wax- he desires more property all the more vehemently, property
which, because he owns it, will reinforce his sense of self" (Shoaf, p.200).
the best way to support the continuing theme blindness as it relates to
January and the Merchant is to examine a statement that January makes before
taking May to the garden: "A man may do no synne with his wyf,/ Ne hurte
hymselven with his owene knyf" (ll. 1839-40). Each man has convinced himself
that his disillusionment is truth. Because both men rely on their own perception
and only outside sources that confirm their pre-established beliefs, their
vision can never be truly clear nor open to correction. The Merchant's
refusal to allow his perceptions to be changed is a character flaw that
prevents him from having true marital bliss. Both the Merchant and January
are given opportunities to adjust their visions (January through his discussions
with Justinius and Placebo, and the Merchant through his profession and
his studies) but both refuse them. In effect, the Merchant refuses correction
for them both because it is he who fashions January's perceptions. The
Merchant's self-blindness is an unconscious choice, and because of his
inability to recognize it, he will remain blind. The pilgrims will never
be able to fully evaluate the Merchant's character because their vision
is limited as well; how is his character fully developed when he purposefully
leaves out details of his own marriage? January's inability to analyze
May's deceit is essentially his refusal to accept it, making him the perfect
surrogate for Chaucer's misogynist Merchant.
Beidler, Peter G. "The Climax in the
Merchant's Tale." The Chaucer Review. (1971): 39-43.
Bowden, Muriel. A Commentary on
the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. New York: Macmillan,1948.
Burger, Douglas A. "Deluding Words
in The Merchant's Tale." The Chaucer Review. 12 (1977) : 103-9.
Dean, James M. and Christian K. Zacher,
eds. The Idea of Medieval Literature. Newark: University of Delaware
Jacobs, Kathryn. "Rewriting the Marital
Contract: Adultery in The Canterbury Tales." The Chaucer Review
29 (1995) : 337-47.
Kellog, Alfred J. Chaucer, Langland,
Arthur. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1972.
Kelly, Henry Ansgar. Love and Marriage
in the Age of Chaucer. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975.
Neuse, Richard. "Marriage and the Question
of Allegory in The Merchant's Tale." The Chaucer Review 24 (1989)
Robertson, D.W. Preface to Chaucer:
Studies in Medieval Perspective. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963.
Shoaf, R.A. Dante, Chaucer, and
the Currency of the Word. Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1983.
Stevens, Martin. "And Venus Laugheth:
An Interpretation of the Merchant's Tale." The Chaucer Review 7
(1972) : 118-131.
Traversi, Derek. The Canterbury
Tales: A Reading. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983.
Wagenknecht, Edward, ed. Modern
Essays in Criticism. New York: Oxford UP, 1959.
Text copyright ©2001 Stephanie A. Tolliver. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Luminarium
through express written permission.
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