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This illustrates that January is seeing a ‘reflection’ of the ideal of marrying a beautiful maiden – though not a reflection of his own physical appearance, which later detracts from May’s comfort in their wedding bed. The Merchant neglects to mention her parentage and under what pretences she actually came to marry January, whose presentation as a senex amans – an old man marrying a young girl – carries a significant potential for mockery.
The various references to May’s ‘tendre flesshe’ serve as a reminder that the relationship on the knight’s part is driven by sexual desire and obsession and there is a great distinction between the humorous presentation of January’s appearance and the grotesqueness that is his later refusal to release her hand.
A possible interpretation of the tale is that Chaucer intended it to be humorous to appeal to the reader after the more solemn words of the Clerk; on the part of the Merchant, January’s character may be under ridicule in order that the same view may be brought about regarding marriage. These important contradictions of the previous tale, both in content and in attitudes, give the impression of the Merchant’s words most certainly being a response to the Clerk. The consideration of religion in relation to marriage by the Merchant maintains a debate between allegory and realism in the tale.
Whereas the marriage between Walter and Griselda appears to have a strong Christian basis throughout (even the removal of the children as a test of commitment is reminiscent of Abraham and Isaac) and could reflect the likelihood of the Clerk himself being in training for the holy orders, the Merchant gives varied references to the Christian God alongside the Greek deities, such as Venus, who provides entertainment at the wedding feast, and Pluto and Proserpina at the conclusion of the text.
The juxtaposition of the ‘De Coitu’ book and the reference to ‘Goddes love’ undermines the credibility of religion in supporting the tale and equally in supporting the marriage, whilst the power and influence of the gods in The Merchant’s Tale distance it from realism and connects the text with a more metaphysical perception. The Merchant himself also refers explicitly to Griselda, commenting that the ideal of marriage experienced by her and Walter has failed him.
This is another example of Chaucer introducing a strong overall contrast between the two tales – it might be said that the Merchant and his tale are the greater demonstration of allegory as a result of the heavy dependence upon irony in the text, and the different ideals of the Merchant and the Clerk are made clear through the presentation of religion and marriage. Another prominent difference between the tales is the role and status of the wife in marriage, and her personal temperament.
It is ironic that May, who appears so overshadowed by the physical unpleasantness of her nai?? ve husband and only gives her first words in line 770, should ultimately become the more influential partner in the relationship. Her words are personal and assertive: “Certeyn… whom that this thing displese, I rekke noght, for here I him assure To love him best of any creature… ”
Despite the implications of being under constant surveillance by her husband, May eventually manipulates him in order to gain access to Damyan, which provokes the final comments from the Merchant in his conclusion that all women are deceptive. Conversely, Griselda has a great deal of speaking parts in The Clerk’s Tale and formally promises her obedience to Walter in the lines, “… And here I promise never willingly To disobey in deed or thought or breath… ”
In this way, both tales are made distinctive through the exploration of a controversial subject of the time, namely the status of women, and the conclusions of the tales differ dramatically. Chaucer uses May and Griselda to reflect the personalities of their husbands, which has the effect of encouraging the reader to acknowledge flaws – especially the certain depravity of January’s intentions and the Walter’s preoccupation with testing the faithfulness of his wife.
The narrative and events of The Merchant’s Tale must certainly be considered a response to The Clerk’s Tale simply for their proximity to one another in The Canterbury Tales and their highly similar, yet interpretable themes. It seems natural for the pilgrims to compete with each other in the telling of their tales for a desire to be the most entertaining, and the two tales become the two sides of a debate regarding marriage. It is in this context that the words of the Merchant become a finely timed and thorough response to the preceding words of the Clerk.