The Wanton Cynic In The Merchant's Tale

2248 words - 9 pages

The Wanton Cynic in The Merchant's Tale


The Merchant's Prologue and Tale presents the darkest side of Chaucer's discussion on marriage. Playing off both the satire of the moral philosopher, the Clerk, and the marital stage set by the Wyf of Bathe, the Merchant comes forth with his angry disgust about his own marital fate. Disillusioned and depraved, the Merchant crafts a tale with a main character who parallels his own prevarication and blind reductionism while he simultaneously tries to validate his own wanton life by selling his belief to the other pilgrims. As both pervert reality through pecuniary evaluations on different levels, however, both are exposed to be blind fools, subject to the very forces that they exert on others. As this reversal happens and the Merchant satirizes Januarie blindness, Chaucer reveals the Merchant's blindness, giving him the very significance that he had spent his whole tale trying to deny.


Januarie falsifies and destroys import as he loses himself in his "fantasye", reducing reality to objects that he believes he can mold to his own lustful imagination. Thus, he simplifies and subsumes all else under currency or property. Indeed, he exhibits the very traits of his narrator, a merchant-someone who purchases merchandise only to turn around and sell it at a profit. Januarie, therefore, concerns himself with the worth of an object rather than the object itself and, as he tries to find a bride, quite literally tries to shop for the girl who will become his wife:


"Heigh fantasye and curious bisynesse

Fro day to day gan in the soule impresse

Of Januarie aboute his marriage.

Many fair shap and many a fair visage

Ther passeth thrugh his herte nyght by nyght,

As whosotooke a mirour, polished bright,

And sette it in a commune market place,

Thanne sholde he se ful many a figure pace

By his mirour." (lines 1577-85)


This emphasis on "fantasye" plays a central role in Januarie's skewed ideals in both finding his bride and his expectations of her. While he takes some advice from others (1478-1565), Januarie's first concern is to satisfy his lustful "fantasye". Thus, Januarie ends up disregarding Justinus' critical advice in favor of that of the sycophantic Placebo. Aptly named, Placebo reinforces Januarie's high opinion of his own subjectivity, saying that his "'owene conseil is the beste'" (1490). He blindly follows his own desires, thinking that, "ech oother manes wit so badde/ That inpossible it were to reppley/ Agayn his choys, this was his fantasye" (1608-1610). Januarie's obsessive "fantasye" is only heightened by the image of the " a commune market place" (above). The girls whom Januarie sees are more than viable brides; they are projections of his own "fantasye". His bride must be his to create rather than a dynamic creature in her own right. A delusional Pygmalion, he comments, "'But certeynly, a yong thing may...

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