Chaucer’s Depiction of the Merchant and View of Marriage
Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 14th Century, featuring several tales loosing linked together that revolve around typical medieval lifestyles, virtues and preoccupations with many modern day parallels. In the Merchant’s Prologue, the Merchant’s attitude is imposed by distaste for the sacrament of marriage, which he describes as a form of “cursedness”, ironically reverting the conventional idea of marriage being a blessed sacrament. He implicitly stresses throughout that it is nothing but an emotional detriment to men, especially with Chaucer’s use of the semantic field of despair – “sorwe”, “care”, “soore”, “wepyng and waylaying” – so that the reader is absolutely aware about the Merchant’s fixated perspective, being that marriage will arise only these melancholic emotions. His language contains a regular rhyme metre that is flexible and enables the words to flow easily as the pilgrims journey to Canterbury. His sustained bitter tone carries his negative interpretation that is a consequence of the dislike for his wife, becoming increasingly self-pitying throughout. Having been married a mere two months (“monthes two”), enduring pain throughout each wake and sleep of this period, the merchant is so far deep in his sorrow that he has no strength to retell his own tale and must relay another.
The powerful opening of the Merchant’s Prologue is intended by Chaucer to echo the prior epilogue of the Clerk’s Tale, concluded by the Clerk’s final comments “and let him care, and wepe and wringe and waille”. The reader immediately assumes this will proceed a story of personal woe and sorrow as the Merchant continues these miserable descriptions of the consequences of marriage which he, similar to the Clerk, perceives as leaving a man “wepyng and waylyng”, with the use of alliteration quite comically here emphasising his distress with its exaggerated and elongated pronunciation of the vowel sounds. This is followed by reiterating the grief and sorrow he experiences – “care and oother sorwe” – which is later repeated to exaggerate the depths of despair he has been cast into. Chaucer’s primary application of these verbs and adjectives are used in conjunction as an accumulative list, to increase the chance of pathos from the pilgrims, who in fact are strangers to him, and so to convey him as the undeserving victim. He describes his constant suffering as occurring “on even and a-morwe”, being every evening and morning, which melodramatically creates imagery of his perpetual tribulation lasting eternally and without fail. He proposes the forceful statement that many other married men suffer alike when he says “and so doon other mo/ that wedded been”. This leaves no ambiguity, as he irrefutably sets the standard of marriage for the entire population of wedded men. These descriptions leave the reader anticipating the details behind his suffering.
His initial presentation of his wife is extremely negative, evident through Chaucer’s use of the superlative “worste” when the Merchant states that he has “a wyf”. This may startle the reader, since the Merchant speaks so harshly of his wife to these unacquaintanted pilgrims. He makes the first comparison with his wife to the “feend” (devil) who she would “overmacche” if she was married to him, for she is far worse than him. Again, this extreme imagery the Merchant develops will bewilder the reader since there is no explanatory details to her behaviours. He later refers to her as a “shrewe”. Chaucer uses this metaphor to put the Merchant’s wife in light of being a nuisance rodent animal, who acts violently and brutishly when not given what she desires. This firmly embodies the contemporary misogynistic perceptions of women. He makes a second antithesis of the Clerk’s Grisilda, who with her “grete pacience” succeeds trails inflicted by her husband so is deemed, by the contemporary audience, as the ideal wife. Grisilda’s exceptional obedience – and lack of “cureltee” that his own wife shows apparent persistent signs of – outshines his wife in every way. The reader can assume that from the Merchant’s subtle yearning for a wife like Grisilda that there is a likelihood for perfection in marriage, but the Merchant being so isolated in his despair does not make light of this possibility. It is her cruelty that has fixated his negative perspective on all existing and future marriages. Early in the Merchant’s Tale he discusses anti-feminist literature of the period, referring to author Theofraste who claims the married woman has sole interest in spending half the money between herself and her spouse – “she wolf claime half part al hir lyf” – which reinforces the misogynistic view of the Merchant, despite saying Theofraste may be lying.
Chaucer’s character then explores the possibility of him being “unbounden” from his marriage when he uses the metaphor for marriage being a trap (“snare”), which strongly suggests he believes marriage forcedly encapsulates men into a state of no return, and of no prosperity as he wishes he could succeed when he says “also moot I thee”. From this, the reader will not make any connotations of love from these images the Merchant creates. This clear criticism of marriage begs the question of why he got married in the first place.The Merchant continues to degrade the value of marriage and makes the impression that married men must unite as one in their emotional turmoil, evident through Chaucer’s use of inclusive address when the Merchant says “we wedded men”. This suggests that he feels more united with other married men than to his own wife.
He makes a direct reference to the Host when he says “A, goode sire Hoost” which effectively highlights to the reader his desperation and plea towards the Host, or for anyone he can reach out to in midst of his despair, to pay attention and to empathise with his suffering. After stating he has been wedded for only two months (“I have ywedded bee/ this monthes two”) the reader may be surprised at this early depression, and perhaps question the sincerity of his testimonies or at least be suspicious. Chaucer has portrayed him as an arrogant man claiming to be an expert on marriage on foundations of such limited experience, hence the reader may begin to reduce in fondness or grow doubtful of the Merchant.
Chaucer refers frequently to religion and saints, for instance when the Merchant criticises his wife he swears truth “by Saint Thomas of Ynde”, and from this casual approach to swearing oaths suggests to the reader a man who has little faith and whose values in religion can be speculated. The reader could also assume that the Merchant married his wife purely for religious reasons; the contemporary audience believed the sacrament of marriage mirrored the union between the married and Christ. Marriage, being a crucial element of Catholicism at the time, was necessary to enter heaven. Since there was a strong belief of afterlife, there was much prevention done to ensure tranquility after death. Therefore the Merchant’s intentions for marriage may be deemed self-satisfying, only so he would enter heaven, which is ironic since he presently experiences no means of satisfaction. Chaucer may be warning the readers of the ramifications of solely selfish behaviour, as demonstrated by the Merchant, which will have a diametrically opposite outcome than intended.
When listing the criticisms of his wife and their marriage, the Merchant emerges as an arrogant character and as a man with lack of perception for the true nature of marriage. Conventional attitudes to the nature of marriage were regarded as a mercantile transaction and the consolidation of title so marriage was rarely undertaken for love. This may be the case for the Merchant, hence his failure in marriage. By the end of the prologue, the reader’s sympathy for the Merchant may be challenged as he increasingly absorbs himself further into self-pity and deeper into depths of despair.
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