A discussion of Allegory and Allusion in The Merchant's Tale

One of the most famous examples of medieval literature is Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. This collection of poetry, which chronicles a group of pilgrims amusing themselves by telling tales on the way to Canterbury, proves to be a very entertaining read. However, Chaucer did not intend for The Canterbury Tales to be merely entertaining; each of the tales within teach valuable lessons about human nature by using a clever mix of allusions, metaphors, and allegory. None of the poems within The Canterbury Tales demonstrate this as well as “The Merchant’s Tale”, which is very adept at using allusions, allegories, and symbolism.

The first thing we notice about The Merchant’s Tale is the large degree that the narrator is reflected in the Tale. The Merchant’s Tale, which is the story of a less-than-exemplary marriage, is prefaced by the merchant telling the pilgrims about his own unhappy marriage. Although he says that the tale he tells will not be autobiographical, it is clear that the merchant is disapproving of wives. The knight January, it could be argued, represents the merchant, who thinks marriage is a good idea but discovers it is not the paradise that was expected.

The tale becomes more autobiographical in the very first line: “Once upon a time there dwelt in Lombardy”. During Chaucer’s lifetime, Lombardy was a major banking center, and the Lombards were notorious as usurers. Thus, the medieval reader would have caught the allusion and assumed that January had achieved his prosperity through usury and investment. January also has the mindset of a merchant, as he literally shops among the local girls for the one that he wants to marry. Finally, the fact that January wants to get married without having anybody in mind shows that January will not be concerned with his wife, but only the value she will bring to him, just a merchant cares not for the wheat he has, but for the value or price it will bring. In these ways, the knight January is a clear allegory for the merchant, and perhaps the merchant class in general.

After January decides to get married, a string of Biblical allusions follow. Although the merchant presents these parallels as examples of why marriage is good, it becomes clear that he is being sarcastic, as all of the women mentioned were responsible for bringing about the downfall of a man. He mentions Rebecca, who tricked Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau, thereby betraying both her son Esau and her husband Isaac. Abigail is also mentioned for how she “saved her husband, Nabal, when that he / should have been slain”. However, in order to “save” him, she betrayed his order by bringing food to David, and the news of Abigail’s betrayal caused Nabal’s heart to fail. Afterwards, she further honored Nabal by marrying David. The other two Biblical allusions, although neither of them betrays her husband, prove that women are tricky and deceitful. Esther tricked Haman into dining with her and Xerxes, which resulted in the hanging of Haman, and Judith used her charm to convince Holofernes, the leader of the attacking army, that she will betray her people. At night, Judith slew Holofernes in his sleep. These are allusions that show a very misogynist view of women, but their importance lies in the fact that the allusions are Biblical. The Merchant uses them to give the negative view of women that the Tale conveys justification. Furthermore, the readers of Chaucer’s era would easily pick up on these allusions, due to the large influence the Catholic Church had during the time period.

The names of the characters in “The Merchant’s Tale” carry allusions of their own. The knight’s wife is named May, and his own name is January. This suggests that the pair is truly not suited for each other. January is the month in which winter is at its strongest; life is ending everywhere. May, by contrast, represents the spring, the season of new life. Since January is sixty years old and May is in her twenties, the metaphor is an accurate one. When January seeks the advice of his brothers, we learn their names are Justinius and Placebo. Justinius, whose name means “just”, advises against marriage, and Placebo, whose name literally means “I will please”, tells January exactly what he wants to hear. Although Justinius gives the better advice, at least from the merchant’s point-of-view, January chooses to listen to the flatterer, Placebo. Because of this, the names of January’s brothers are very apt indeed.

Allusions to Greek and Roman mythology occur several times within “The Merchant’s Tale. The Roman Venus is mentioned several times, in the lines “And Venus gaily laughed for every wight / For January had become her knight.” This suggests that January is hopelessly in love with May, or perhaps more accurately due to his mercantile mindset, hopelessly lusts after her. Venus also appears twice in context with Damian, implying that this whole scenario is just a trick of the gods. Hymenaeus, the Greek god of marriage is mentioned once, and the legendary musicians Orpheus and Amphion are also alluded to, giving the impression that this wedding was of divine proportions. The merchant then goes to imply that no poet, not even Marcian, could describe the glory of the wedding. The largest allusion to classical mythology is in Pluto and Proserpine. Pluto talks with his wife about how women are treacherous, which is ironic, since it was Pluto that kidnapped Proserpine. Queen Proserpine vows that she will tell May what to say should January ever see May being unfaithful to their marriage. All of these classical allusions serve as a device to make the tale seem nobler, even though the merchant tells his story as a fabliau instead of the noble romance tales of the era. Once again, this reflects on the merchant as a narrator, for in 14th century Europe, the merchant class was suspended somewhere between the aristocrats and the normal people.

January’s walled garden can serve as both an allusion and an allegory. The original word “paradise” meant “a walled orchard or garden”. This reminds us of the Garden of Eden, where Eve tricked Adam into tasting the forbidden fruit. This allegory can be extended further when the root of May’s deception occurs in a fruit tree, and when discovered, she makes excuses, just as Eve blamed the serpent.

Another allusion is present in relation to the garden: the merchant refers to “he who wrote ‘The Romance of the Rose’”. The Romance of the Rose, by Guillaume de Lorris, was one of the most popular poems of Chaucer’s time. It was about a young man who enters the Garden of Pleasure through a wicker gate expecting to have a good time. However, the Garden of Pleasure turns out to be a trap; the man sees the image of a rose in the Spring of Narcissus and falls hopelessly in love with it, thus turning what he thought would be pleasure into pain and suffering. January’s garden is very similar to the Garden of Pleasure in description; both are walled, filled with fruit trees, and are only accessible through wicker gates in the wall. So, January has attempted to construct his own Garden of Pleasure, expecting to find joy, but like de Lorris’ Garden of Pleasure, it is a trap. Instead of happiness, January slaves away for May but only finds jealousy. This is a very important allegory in “The Merchant’s Tale”, because “The Romance of the Rose” was so popular at the time, the medieval reader would have picked up the parallel at once.

Chaucer’s masterful use of allegory and allusion have contributed to making “The Merchant’s Tale” one of the most complex and deepest works of literature of the Middle Ages. The merchant has not merely told us a tale, he has given us a scathing commentary on marriage and the battle of the sexes. Furthermore, Chaucer proved his adeptness at taking on personas; in The Merchant’s Tale, Chaucer BECOMES the merchant. Geoffrey Chaucer is regarded as the best medieval poet, and The Merchant’s Tale proves that title to be well-earned.

Node your Homework

For my essay, I used a modern English translation instead of the Middle English you see above.