Chaucerian Challenges: Studying The Merchant’s Tale at English A Level

Studying Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Merchant’s Prologue and Tale from The Canterbury Tales as part of A Level English is, undoubtedly, a daunting prospect for any Year 12 or 13 student. It is intimidating reading unfamiliar Middle English aloud in class (e.g. ‘fetisly’ – elegantly; ‘chidestere’ – nagging woman). However, despite initially seeming inaccessible, Chaucer is anything but elitist. In fact, the challenges of studying his work is what makes it continually surprising and rewarding. Stephanie Gartrell, Second in English KS4 at Wimbledon High School, explores the challenges and delights of studying Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ in Sixth Form…

English students face the challenge of identifying a clear moral from the competing narrative voices throughout The Canterbury Tales. The frame narrative establishes the central plot: a socially diverse group of pilgrims travelling from Southwark to the tomb of Thomas Becket. En route, they initiate a rather profane tale-telling competition to liven up what is, ostensibly, a journey of spiritual reflection and penitence. The prize for the best story? A free meal at the Tabard Inn, Southwark, on their return. Thus, from the outset, a conservative framework of Catholic ritual is subverted by a much more anarchic series of interrupted tales. Many tales are replete with ribald vulgarity typical of the fabliau genre; others use Estates Satire to expose institutional corruption; several puncture courtly pretensions of more high-status literary genres or forms (fin amor, chanson de geste, sermons…).

Our text falls in the so-called ‘Marriage Group’ in which the Wife of Bath, Clerk, Merchant and Franklin share tales that directly rebut and challenge one another’s views on marriage. This further destabilises a clear moral message about what constitutes the ideal marriage or marital partner. Some critics, such as George Lyman Kittredge, perceive the Franklin’s final message of mutual love and respect to be closest to Chaucer’s own views (‘We need not hesitate, therefore, to accept the solution that the Franklin offers as that which Geoffrey Chaucer the man accepted for his own part…’). However, there is a residual sense of irresolution on the matter. There is no authorial intrusion or omniscient narrator to clarify our ‘take-away’ message before the Tales move on.

Chaucer also builds a tantalising pattern of parallels and contradictions within The Merchant’s Tale itself. For instance, the Merchant’s Prologue reveals the Merchant to be unhappily married for ‘Thise monthes two’, describing marriage as ‘the snare’ and yearning to be ‘unbounden’. Nevertheless, his tale begins with a disconcerting eulogy lasting 135 lines in praise of marriage. This eulogy is generally perceived as a ‘mock encomium’, satirising the foolish naivety of the aged knight January whose idealised and blinkered view of matrimony as a ‘hooly boond’, echoes the Merchant’s earlier image of wedlock as a binding ‘snare’ or trap, transforming it into a sacred tie. Similarly, January’s vision of a wife as his ‘paradis terrestre’ (earthly paradise) ironically subverts the Merchant’s description of his ‘wyves cursednesse!’ The fact that large sections of the mock encomium are neither direct nor reported speech further blurs to what extent we are reading a filtered version of January’s beliefs, or whether the ironically inappropriate Old Testament examples of female virtue (Eve, Judith, Abigail…) are supposed to express the Merchant’s misogyny to the reader.

To summarise the plot of The Merchant’s Tale very roughly: after 60 years as a promiscuous bachelor, January finally decides to marry a teenage bride named May. Whilst his concerns are partly economic (to beget an heir), his primary motive is to legitimise his lustful desires and protect himself from sin. January is comically specific in his ideal bride: ‘She shal nat passe twenty yeer’ and he refuses to marry any ‘woman thritty [thirty] yeer of age’, who he dismisses as ‘bene-straw’ [dried bean-stalks]. Chaucer swiftly debunks any notion of January embodying chivalric values of spiritual refinement, repeatedly applying the ironic epithets ‘gentil’ [refined] and ‘noble’ to his protagonist, highlighting the absence of these stereotypical knightly qualities. Might this partly reflect some of the Merchant’s own social anxiety – a nameless member of the trading classes aggrandising his fictional self to the status of a knight? Or is the Merchant attempting to expose the fiction of aristocratic nobility to comfort his own wounded pride? Again, it could be neither or both!

In any case, January’s young bride May quickly establishes an affair with their servant Damyan. When January is unexpectedly struck blind, they capitalise on this opportunity to consummate their affair in a pear-tree in January’s private garden, at which point January miraculously regains his sight. With a bit of female ingenuity, May explains that his sight is still impaired and not to be trusted. The gullible knight accepts her explanation and continues to live in a state of prelapsarian Edenic bliss with his ‘paradis terrestre’ – remaining blind figuratively, if not literally…

One of the main pleasures of teaching and studying The Merchant’s Tale is because it is difficult. Ambiguities abound. For instance, who is in the ‘snare’ of marriage by the end of The Merchant’s Tale: May, who is largely voiceless and objectified, or January, the architect of his own trap, likely to raise an illegitimate son as his heir? Why would the Merchant present January as such a contemptible lecher if his main moral were to vilify wives? And are we imposing 21st values onto a 14th century text by casting May as a proto-feminist figure struggling for sexual autonomy?

And if that weren’t enough of a challenge, students compare The Merchant’s Tale to Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband – a divergent text in form and context. An Ideal Husband was first performed on stage in 1895 for the Victorian elite at the Haymarket Theatre, whilst The Canterbury Tales is a narrative poem from the 1390s. However, despite the 500 year gap, both texts share a prescient (and hopefully timeless) interest in exposing individual folly and abuses of institutional power – whether religious or political. They mock moral hypocrisy and the false ideals perpetuated by those guilty of self-deception or duped by sentimental dogma.

Since all of these concerns are as pertinent today as they were for Chaucer and Wilde, it seems vital that students continue to engage with the delightful, troubling complexities of Chaucer’s work.

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Decolonising the Canon of English Literature

By Ava Vakil, Year 12.

If the purpose of literature is to represent the culture and tradition of a language or a people, can we really profess ourselves to be true students of literature when seemingly only focusing on a single culture and its peoples?

Such has been the question of a group of students from Cambridge University these past few weeks; there has been a cry from undergraduates to “decolonise” their English Literature syllabus by taking in more black and minority ethnic writers, and bringing more expansive post-colonial thought into the curriculum.

A kindred instance occurred at Yale University in May of last year, where there was widespread criticism of the requirements to graduate as a Yale English major. As it stands, a student is able to fulfil the requirements of the revered course without studying the literature of a single woman or minority writer.

However, as always after a plea for diversity, there comes the inevitable “But…(insert the name of any women/minority)!”.

And whilst this may be true – and the likes of Austen and the Brontës have themselves a fairly fixed place within the Canon of English Literature – it is simply not good enough; not only are women and minorities few and far between, but they tend to offer what I consider ‘one-step diversity’. This being white women, or gay men, or anyone who represents only one shift away from the ‘norm’ of the straight, white cis-gender men. Where are the black female trans writers, and why aren’t they a key part of our education?

There is an urgent need to address the homogeny of the curriculum within many universities and schools, along with the canon itself. The reason for this is not just diversity for diversity’s sake (though this has many benefits in itself), but because we are narrowing and constricting our understanding of literature and context by ignoring writers simply because they don’t have a place in the literary canon.

This does not mean refusing to study Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Frost etc. but simply broadening our conceptualisation of what English Literature is.

As Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a teaching fellow at Churchill College (Cambridge) puts it:

“It is not just about adding texts but about rethinking the whole question of Britishness, Englishness and what they mean in relation to the empire and the post-imperial world… questions of race, gender, sexuality and so on.”

We are hampering and inhibiting our own knowledge under the colonial guise of the canon. Surely it should be impossible to study Othello or Jane Eyre without considering the post-colonial context? Or Twelfth Night without a wider multidisciplinary study of gender and sex?

Though it is against the nature of universities to want to politicise their curriculum, this happens by default when the syllabus simply reflects the age-old and continuing social, literary (and political) repression of anyone classified as “other”. Hence, cries from Twitter trolls about this being a ‘patrolling’ of the curriculum to suit and accord to the views of particular women and minority groups are intrinsically hypocritical.

The canon of literature has forever accorded to the politics of the majority, and appeals to change this are no more political than the sexist, racist and colonialist nature of the canon in the first place.

The need to change this system of subtle repression of writers within education must come from both professors/teachers and students alike. Though there are concrete changes which need to be made in terms of legislation of the actual syllabus, as students we have a large part to play.

Read widely and read critically; consider racial and gender context; rewrite and reclaim what you consider “classic”. Most importantly, investigate the hidden under-belly of the canon of English literature – the texts that are excluded have just as big a part to play in the shaping of our society as the texts which sit smugly on the exclusive list.

“Let’s make our bookshelves reflect the diversity of our streets.” – Phil Earle