Canterbury Tales: The Capabilities of Desire
Canterbury Tales: The Power of Lust
Seven deadly sins. Eight tales. In Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer offers insight into human characteristics and actions. Of the seven deadly sins, lust remains a reoccurring characteristic in several tales. As romance and marriage are prominent motifs throughout the work, many of the tales address sexual desires and portray characters searching to satisfy their cravings with quarrels (in “The Knight’s Tale”), deceit (in “The Miller”) or strong will and infidelity (in “The Merchant”). Though these stories have different plots, each offer a common message regarding human nature and lust.
Making its debut in “The Knight’s Tale”, lust overtakes Arcite and Palamon, two men locked in jail who desire Emily, a woman that may not even know that they exist. Throughout the tale, the two men describe Emily as “goddess” and “Venus”, revering her physical features and revealing the lust both men have for this woman (242-243). Chaucer conveys the stupidity of the two cousins as they fight childishly for a woman they know only from appearance; one claims, “I loved her first” (297).
Several years later, the power of lust reunites Arcite and Palamon as well as “a hundred knights [each]…well armed… to fight for a lady”; a lady that has not once spoken to them (1241-1245). In an act of foolishness, lust causes both “sworn brothers” to risk their lives in an all-out battle, ultimately resulting in Arcite’s death (273). In this tale, Chaucer achieves his goal of portraying the consequences of lust: it shades human consciousness, causing them to make disastrous choices.
Unlike Emily, who prefers to remain a virgin and resist Arcite’s and Palamon’s lust, Alison, one of the main characters in “The Miller”, submits to the young squire, Nicholas. After years of secret lust, “Nicholas happened to flirt and play with his young wife…and privily grabbed her where he shouldn’t” (87-90). Nicholas continues to flatter her as he “spoke so prettily and pushed himself so hard that she finally granted him her love…by Saint Thomas Becket, that she would be to his command” (104-108).
Flattery and adulation remain key driving forces behind sexual pleasure. Lust, however, does not limit itself to Nicholas. Absalom also falls victim to lust, declaring that “I yearn as does lamb for the teat. Indeed sweetheart, I have such love-sickness”, even though Alison shows no interest in him (518-519). Ultimately, lust results in a chaotic, embarrassing event for all three men: Absalom kisses the squire’s rear end, Nicholas receives a burnt “arse”, and the old carpenter breaks his arm. As Chaucer introduces a variety of characters in “The Miller”, their actions represent the widespread, unavoidable havoc caused by lust.
Though several of the tales portray lust in one way or another, “The Merchant” remains one of the best at revealing the characteristics of desire and will. January gives into lust and marries a fille named May for her beauty, despite Justinus’ warnings that he “shall not please her for as much as three years – that is to say, please her fully: a wife requires much to be performed” (318-320). A few days after the marriage, January “was ravaged away into a trance every time he looked upon her face; but in his heart he commenced to threaten that he would constrain her that night in his arms” (506-509). January cannot hold in his desire, and forces himself upon May. Blinded by lust, January justifies his actions by deciding that he has the right to sex because as a wife, May must satisfy January’s needs.
Despite the fact that January views May as his property, Damian carries the same lust: he “so burned in Venus’ fire that he died for desire, for which cause he risked his life” (631-633). Infatuated with love, he writes a love letter to May pleading for sexual favors, which she accepts out of pity. Damian takes advantage of January’s blindness: “without warning, then, this Damian pulled up the [May’s] smock, and in he thrust” (1108-1109). However, January suddenly regains his sight, and sees May and Damian having intercourse. Despite what he sees, his love for May and his navet cause him to believe May’s explanation of the entire situation.
All three stories present similar perspectives on human nature and lust. Through the characters in each story, Chaucer suggests that all humans have flaws, and that lust, in particular, affects entire societies. Many of the women in the stories find sexual fulfillment outside of the constraints of their marriages; another reoccurring theme, along with courtship and social status. Regardless of the specifics of the story, the characters, and the plot, Chaucer continues to remind the reader, amor vincit omnia – love conquers everything.
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