Essay About Love. Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Merchant’s Tale and Prologue’ Analysis Example

The protagonists, January and May outline and heighten the detachment and misunderstanding of love in Chaucer’s ‘The Merchant’s Tale and Prologue’. However, whether love is possessive and burdensome is arguable throughout the entirety of this Fabliau, between the characters which the Merchant introduces us to. Often, through the multiple perceptions of ‘love’, there is a clear and common aura of lust and manipulation, creating the high possibility that love in medieval England was invariable and a constant undertone to any relationship. Although, there are elements of love, which are not bound to control and dominance, making this argument questionable to any listener.

Firstly, the Merchant, resembling a well-known, worthy position in the Medieval Estates Satire, is a literal representation of both a possessive lover, and a lover of possessions. His character is first conveyed to us through his self-indulgent description in the prologue. He ‘faire and fetisly’ wears a ‘flaundrissh bever hat’ which demonstrates his forcefulness and deliberate emphasis he places upon his lavish appearance as a tradesman. Chaucer’s repetition of the fricative ‘f’ denotes his desperation to be noticed and acknowledged as the aura of success he strives to exude. In Medieval England, it was a known fact that materials were important to society. Thus, the Merchant’s ostentatious manner would have been seen as absolutely appropriate to a contemporary reader, and this conscious love for possession was clearly an effective facade, for no one knew ‘he was in dette’.

His misogynistic attitude and belief that women ought to be subservient, obedient and bound to their husband amplifies the Merchant’s values of love being invariably possessive. He tells the tale in a Fabliau genre which Eddie Boney criticises as a “mirror which undertakes a near obsessive mental cataloging for all eligible women” which, while being seen as bitter and incredibly one-sided to a modern reader, to a contemporary reader this was not out of the norm. It may be argued that the ‘invariably possessive’ nature of the Merchant is conveyed through his ‘angered, heated’ response to the prior tale and its teller; The Wife of Bath was a strong woman, married five times and uncontrolled by the influence of masculinity, which may have heightened and exaggerated the possessive, misogynistic streak in The Merchant’s Tale, as almost an indirect argument.

Love can be argued as being invariably possessive, through the predetermined view, generalising all women. May is merely personified by her ‘Yong flesshe’ and ‘fresshe beautee’- which serves to give sexual satisfaction and pleasure to ‘oold January’. This purpose and superficiality is prominent in the BBC Animated Version of the tale, when January rubs his hands together gleefully at the thought of how he will gain in marriage. ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ conveys excessive sexualisation and a constant, underlying emphasis upon male lust- January’s synonymous descriptions of May as being ‘fresshe’, ‘tendre’ and ‘appointed’ as his woman dramatically catalogues her to the extent that she forcefully is unable to serve as anything other than his ‘buxom as a wyf’. However, May, unexpectedly in the medieval period, and in direct contrast to Griselda in the Clerk’s tale, is able to use this over-conventionalised assumption of her character to deceive and manipulate January. As Stephanie Tolliver argues, January is so ‘ravisshed’ and blinded by the impression that May is innocent and the woman who will give him everything he desires, and so becomes detached and withdrawn from the wants of May. Thus, allowing her to control January through her sexuality, which to him, suggests love and affection. May literally uses January, when she ‘stood on his back and caught’ Damien, which represents the natural and ignored oppression of women in Chaucer’s time, as she is the character who becomes invariably possessive. In patriarchal society, May is always, and commonly surrounded by masculinity, authority and power, implying that she is trapped between an emotionally and physically possessive pursuit of love. From the perspective of Alan Lopez, May appropriates the masculine discourse of authority, by ‘removing herself from the positions of social subordination’ in order to control January. Thus, the over-sexualised expectations of her position and appearance as a woman are underestimated, as it is May with a possessive impulse towards love; she uses January’s blind and rigidly lustful attitude of love, to grasp Damien’s infatuation towards her. The masculine discourse that May employs to communicate with January’s blindness, while working to further deceive and take advantage of his gullibility, is ultimately accepted by him. Consequently, to a modern reader this emphasises how society expected a woman to obey- because January had only ever known and loved such a ‘fresshe’ May, he cannot be persuaded that she is anything but a subservient wife ‘to love and serve’. May’s freedom within the confines of marriage is symbolic of the futility of ownership in context. She is ultimately the product of his possessive love and demanding lust, depicting the physical manifestation of January’s gullibility.

In contrast, the distinct detachment and distance between January and May is instantly portrayed to a modern and contemporary reader, through their separated, antonymous names of ‘oold Januarie’ and ‘fresshe May’. Even their initial descriptions from the simple adjectives are clearly independent and disconnected, disproving the notion of full ownership within marriage. The lack of possession within January and May’s relationship is further highlighted by David Shores as being ‘nothing more than a humorous story about how youth and age do not mix well in marriage’. The vast difference in the ages of the two protagonists causes not only a detachment within itself, but completely disengages both a contemporary and a modern reader with this value. Although we are unaware of her exact age, we are exposed to the fact that May is a very young ‘wyf’ to January, and in Chaucer’s time, young women were much less likely to survive childbirth. Additionally, January’s ‘lymes’ that weren’t as ‘green as laurel’ emphasise his old age and lack of sexual prowess, heightening this instability. Thus, May’s purpose to serve and ‘engendren him an heir’ highlights the inexistent possessive streak to their relationship; the emphasis upon May’s role within marriage is to provide pleasure and sexual experience. Perhaps the underlying probability that May won't produce an ‘heir’ to January reflects the lack of ‘dictatorship’ between them- May won't be bound to him as a mother, with his children- maybe she is just there for January to love and share affection with. Possession can be argued to not necessarily be a vital element to their happiness.

Moreover, although Damian is described as being ‘ravisshed’ at May’s natural ‘beautee’ like January, his infatuation doesn't strive towards invariably possessing May; he is merely just young and lustful. The courtly love between both May and Damian portrays a much more natural sense to any reader; they are of similar ages, from families of lower status in the Estates Satire. As Tatlock argues, May and Damian are nothing more than “paper dolls”; there is no darkness to their relationship (other than the deceitful nature they both exert over January) and no underlying plan to damage or destroy May’s marriage. Their secrecy and adultery can thus be seen as a light-hearted challenge and form of release from the boundaries and rules imposed on their positions as a servant and ‘wyf’ in reality. Although Chaucer uses exaggerations and satire to mildly express his disapproval towards their ‘affair’ in the tale, when Damian ‘almoost…suelte and swowned’ the emphasis upon ‘almost’ depicts a more genuine, sincere demonstration of his love. He portrays his ability to control his sexual appetite which eliminates the idea that he is driven by lust and a desire to possess. Damian’s character is somewhat similar to Aurelius’ worshipping, devoted character in ‘The Franklin’s Tale’. When the two characters exchange letters as a form of communication, C. Hugh Holma argues that ‘Damian loses his sense of individuality’ which is claimed to weaken his possessive drive, being seen more evidently after the adultery in the pear tree. Once Damian has had his pleasure, he expects nothing else; he is satisfied with what he received and is not determined to do anything more. While this could suggest that their courtly love was indeed, superficial and a temporary state, it was also harmless and in Chaucer’s time, an ‘idealised, extra-marital sensuality’. However, Damian is shown as loving May while symbiotically possessing and manipulating January. From the ‘carf biforn’ at the wedding, which contextually was a very prime and important job, Chaucer demonstrates to the contemporary reader how January shows great trust towards Damian, foreshadowing the ease for him to deceive. The symbol of a key to the garden is ironic- ‘January’ is associated with finance and keys, and so for the copy to be made, unknown to January expresses great possession, reinforcing the contextual concept that lower classes were poisonous within the class system. The garden can be seen as a setting for lustful congress rather than for any manifestation of Courtly Love, connoting the idea that initially, this love was enamoured and non-possessive, but quickly becomes a method of tricking and deceiving, highlighting the fall of The Biblical Paradise and Garden of Eden. The garden seems to change Damian’s attitude- when ‘in he throng’ he is described coldly and lacking emotion, however, he still seems undetermined to possess; he doesn't even seem compassionate.

Additionally, it may be interpreted by a contemporary reader that there were elements of love and affection, demonstrated by January, which did not link or relate to a purpose of irrationality nor possession. January can be argued to be genuinely in love with May, and perhaps was not as desperate in reality as he portrayed to his friends when discussing how he can ‘warm wex with handes plye’. In the fourteenth century, God was viewed as the ultimate witness, and so if a couple were ‘too’ desperate to marry publicly, it was not considered necessary to have a wedding viewed by society. Chaucer’s deliberate emphasis upon the huge, inflated and dramatic wedding ceremony exudes the idea that January perhaps feels insecure; marriage between a very young woman and an elderly man would be looked down upon and even condemned by modern and Chaucer’s contemporary society. The relationship being ‘scrit and bond’ has connotations of an insurance policy, and a sense of certainty or proof of their sincere relation. Despite January’s lustful, objectifying desires, there is an underlying sense of pride and contentedness. From the perspective of C. Hugh Holma, Chaucer indirectly hints at his disappointment towards May’s participation in the secrecy of her and Damian’s courtly love. Thus, through the evident irony in the mock epic of ‘the mooste deyntevous [wedding] of al Itaille’, Chaucer creates a subtle sense of pity towards January’s later cuckholding; January’s character appears purer to the reader, making his feelings seem wholly sincere and patient. Any possible sense of possession in his character can be deemed futile- May still manages to fornicate Damian, accentuating the lack of possession and tightness in January and May’s relationship.


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