Analyzing The Miller’s Tale: What Kind of Hero Is John?
Carpenters are traditionally regarded as hard-working, rugged men with calluses on their hands and dirt beneath their fingernails. They are strong and silent; they take pride in their work and are generally self-assured. One of the main characters in “The Miller’s Tale” from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, however, breaks the typical carpenter mold. John the carpenter falls prey to the wily Nicholas who, in planning an elaborate one-night-stand with John’s wife, convinces John that the world is ending Old-Testament-Flood style. At Nicholas’ urging, John fastens three tubs to the rafters of the barn so that Nicholas, John, and his wife might escape a watery grave. As John embarks on this venture of hanging the tubs in anticipation of the “prophesized” flood, he periodically lapses into a state of despair, worrying solely about the safety of his wife and fulfilling the classic cuckold role. In this part of the tale, the Miller uses specific language to characterize John’s actions and attitudes as effeminate, insinuating that irrational behavior is unequivocally linked to feminine sentimentality.
The term “feminine” can be subjective and, therefore, problematic, but Chaucer graciously provides an example of proper femininity when the narrator speaks of the Prioress in the General Prologue. He obviously admires her grace and dainty composure; the narrator speaks at length about the Prioress’ refined dining behavior (“General Prologue” 127-135) and marvels at her sensitivity for small, defenseless things (GP 144-150). The Prioress exemplifies femininity in The Canterbury Tales, with her demure and emotional disposition. In contrast, John’s wife Alisoun is crude and cold-hearted, hanging herself outside windows in lewd positions (“The Miller’s Tale” 624) and callously cheating on her doting husband without remorse or emotion (541-546). John, however, behaves more like the Prioress than does his wife, engaging in unconstructive bouts of tunnel vision that leave him emotional, much like a woman would.
The segment begins with the mention of “affeccioun” (503) and “imaginacioun” (504), describing John’s thought process and source of motivation. The entire scene is the result of John’s dwelling on his overwhelming affection for Alisoun and his engagement in imaginative thinking as well as his blatant disregard for his own well-being. He departs from reality for a moment, envisioning Alisoun drowning in a flood comparable to Noah’s (508-509), while remaining oblivious to the danger that could very possibly befall him. In short, John is whipped by his love for his cheating wife and is accordingly considered effeminate.
The Miller also bombards the reader with a slew of traditionally feminine verbs to describe John: he “quake[s]” (506), “He weepeth, waileth, maketh sory cherre; / He siketh with ful many a sory swough” (510-511). The word “quake” can mean to “shake involuntary; to tremble, shiver, shudder through fear, anger, or some other strong emotion” (OED 2b). John lets emotion take over his body—he loses control and his loss of self-mastery manifests itself in an emotionally-ridden shudder. Such behavior—akin to swooning or fainting—is commonly regarded as feminine, yet John experiences these sensations and surrenders his body to emotion. Just thinking about the possibility of his lovely Alisoun drowning is, apparently, enough to bring John to tears. Weeping is the “natural, audible, and visible expression of painful emotion” (OED 1a), and is a generally considered an uncommon action for men. Furthermore, these actions are not constructive or proactive, but internal and self-indulgent. Any expression of emotion is considered a predominantly feminine action, but crying, especially, is commonly assigned to women, yet John weeps.
John is not quiet about his distress, either. According to the passage, he “waileth” and “siketh,” as well. It is almost as if the carpenter cannot contain his distress, that his emotions are so intense that they must manifest themselves, making his body “quake” and forcing him to cry out in wails and sighs. While all of these are gross overreactions—after all, John is hanging a tub for Alisoun and fully intends for her to survive the oh-so-fictional flood—John nonetheless frets over his wife, disregarding the possibility of his own demise. These are all actions that characterize John as a more effeminate character rather than the masculine carpenter that he is expected to be.
Before engaging in constructive actions, like actually hanging the tubs from the rafters like he was told, John indulges his sentimental and emotional urges, reacting much like a traditional female. This impractical and arguably wasteful activity is not characteristic of the traditional male role. Men take charge; they do, they build, they make. Men do not sit on their haunches, head in hands, weeping in fear or emotion. The Miller nonetheless assigns these actions to John at this point in the tale perhaps to draw connections between irrational behavior and female sentimentality. Only after John expresses himself emotionally does he actually take action and performs what he believes is necessary to protect him and his wife:
And heeng hem in the roof in privetee;
His own hand he made ladders three,
To climben by the ronges and the stalkes
Unto the tubes hanging in the balkes, (515-518)
With the fictitious deadline, looming, John wastes precious time worrying about Alisoun, without much of a cause. He disregards the harm that could possibly befall him and focuses fully on Alisoun and her safety. Furthermore, the Miller spends quite a few lines exploring John’s emotional escapades, but confines the hanging of the tubs—the central action of the segment—in a single line (515). Therefore, the reader can assume that John’s emotional reaction to the impending flood should be considered as more important than his action. This emphasis on emotion rather than action could be translated as an emphasis on John’s feminine qualities instead of his masculinity.
Even John’s proactive actions can, at times, read effeminate:
And gooth and geteth a kneeding-trough…
And hem vitailed, both trough and tubbe,
With breed and cheese and good ale in a jugge.
Suffising right ynough as for a day. (512, 519-521)
A kneading trough is “a wooden trough or tub in which to knead dough” (OED). Kneading dough and making bread are traditionally female roles, yet the image of a kneading trough is associated with John. Furthermore, John packs bread, cheese, and ale into the troughs and tubs, much like packing a picnic basket. These preparatory actions are reminiscent of feminine, domestic dealings, not measures a man would take. In some degree, very little of what John does in this passage can be considered purely masculine and, in short, the Miller subtly depicts John as an effeminate man.
By challenging the normal actions and emotional status of a so-called “manly” man, Chaucer (via the Miller) enforces the traditional concept that emotion and logic are opposites and cannot operate together. John, in short, is a stupid man. He believes a second Great Flood is coming, but perhaps the largest travesty of intelligence occurs when John actually thinks a bathtub will save him from God’s wrath. John is obviously not responding to the situation with logic or reason, but more so with emotion. Emotional expression is generally considered a female trait and since emotions are at odds with logic, one could easily see that females and logic or reason simply do not mix. While it has been widely accepted in the past that men think with their heads and women think with their hearts, John crosses this line and thinks more with his heart than his head, which, ultimately, is to his detriment.
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