The Merchant's Tale, or Another Poor Worm
God of his grete goodnesse seyde than,
"Lat us now make an helpe unto this man
Lyk to himself"; and thanne he made him Eve.
The Merchant's Tale 1372–29
[The Merchant's Tale] transcends the traditional medieval criticism of women for their seductive powers and inconstancy in love; equally important is the tale's demonstration of the reprehensible folly and lechery of men.
Karl P. Wentersdorf, "Imagery, Structure, and Theme in Chaucer's Merchant's Tale "
Why has the Merchant's Tale seemed so much more horrifying to modern readers than other tales in which characters are similarly ignoble and deluded, actions by certain standards equally if not more obscene, and storytellers just as fixated on the failure of all ideals and the success of a kind of rude justice? Compare, for instance, interpretations of the Miller's Tale . As I noted in the preceding chapter, critics have held that this tale of adultery and deceit, with its undertones of rape or genital mutilation, sodomy, and castration, is just wholesome good fun, that courtliness in it is "harmlessly misplaced," and that the unfaithful wife, Alisoun, is a symbol of "healthy animality." The Merchant's Tale , on the other hand, is only rarely seen as humorous; most often it is noted for its darkness, its "unrelieved acidity"; it is said to offer a "perversion" of the courtly
code. For committing the same sin that Alisoun commits—without the accompanying prank, and, as far as we know, with none of the "myrthe" and "solas" that she is said to enjoy—May is deemed "a completely unfeeling wife." What happens to May in the tree is not at all funny but a "culminating outrage," "high and horrible fantasy," and presumably the source of what is to me an otherwise inexplicable critical judgment that this tale contains "greater obscenity than any of the other Canterbury Tales."
Scholars convinced that this is a "brutal, bitter, and hence un-Chaucerian" piece have imputed to Chaucer divers motives for writing it, all of which depend on separating the author from the ostensive teller, the Merchant, to varying degrees and in various directions. The only critical approach that seems sure about this distance, and hence about the tale's meaning and merits, is one that confidently finds a higher message in all this obscenity, discounting what is troubling by reading it as a negative exemplum. But many other readers have been unsatisfied with such a solution; E. Talbot Donaldson, one of those most disturbed by the tale, maintains that the Merchant's Tale gives rise to "a state of nervousness from which only the most resolutely unflappable reader can free himself" and Jay Schleusner observes that the apparent absence of Chaucer's usual wit and good nature makes the tale "a critical embarrassment."
A key to understanding both these feelings of nervousness and embarrassment that the tale has engendered in many modern readers and its place in the patterns of Chaucerian fiction that I am exploring here lies in the Merchant's early evocation of the biblical myth of human creation. Genesis 1–3 was a frequent topic of commentary throughout the Middle Ages, often analyzed in theological debates about proper
gender relations and the religious meaning and value of human sexuality. The Bible tells two quite different stories about creation. The first, found in Genesis 1:26–28, seems to indicate that male and female human beings were originally created together, at the same time, or perhaps even that human nature was in the beginning androgynous: "to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them." Chapter 2, however, posits instead that Adam was created first and alone; after he named all the animals, God saw and pitied his solitude and so created Eve second, out of and for the lonely male. In the ironic encomium on the married state near the beginning of the Merchant's Tale , it is the second version of creation, taken from Genesis 2:20–24, that is cited:
The hye God, whan he hadde Adam maked,
And saugh him al allone, bely-naked,
God of his grete goodnesse seyde than,
"Lat us now make an help unto this man
Lyk to himself"; and thanne he made him Eve.
Heere may ye se, and heerby may ye preve,
That wyf is mannes helpe and his confort . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
O flessh they been, and o flessh, as I gesse,
Hath but oon herte, in wele and in distresse.
In Donaldson's view, the Merchant here degrades and "vulgarizes" the creation of Adam and Eve—and especially Adam. When the first man is described as "bely-naked," we feel that God was moved, Donaldson observes, by "cynical pity" for "the poor naked thing . . . there is no imago Dei here." While the story of Genesis 2 is usually used to differentiate and rank Adam and Eve, the Merchant's version of it, especially in the context of the tale that follows, actually implies their similarity, the failure from the beginning of a reassuring difference between male and female. Eve was made for Adam "lyk to hymself," Donaldson observes: "And Eve, another poor worm, is as like Adam as May turns out to be like January. It is a depressing thought."
Donaldson might also have commented on how the poetics of God's speech as formulated by this narrator reinforces his reading. The crucial phrase, "lyk to hymself," is underscored by its prominence at the beginning of line 1329. Furthermore, syntactic ambiguity in the second half of the line, "he made him Eve," suggests the possibility that in making the woman for the man, God made the man into a woman. Making two out of "O flessh," God transformed human nature from solitary (and in Genesis 2 expressly linguistic) preeminence over all other creatures to uneasy, silencing doubleness, leaving Adam desirous of a former unity and wholeness still recalled and promised in the ideal of "O flessh" but tempted and prevented by the equivocal nature, "as I gesse," of gender difference. In the Book of the Duchess , the oneness of man and woman, "Oo blysse, and eke oo sorwe bothe," was represented as just such an impossible, or lost, dream. Firmly treated as lost to both narrator and characters, it could become the generative matter of an allegory in which masculine identity and access to the power of language was positively reinscribed. In the Merchant's Tale , oneness in more tangible and present senses—oneness as common (fallen) humanity and as depraved, illicit (re)union in the flesh—is all too possible, and the stuff of nightmares, or at least of brutal fabliaux.
Lines 1325–36 evoke, then, the problems of gender difference, sexuality, and male domination that the creation myth embodies to the Middle Ages, and the tale as a whole goes on to explore a particularly troubling issue for patriarchal Christian thinking: what is the source of allegedly innate, natural feminine inferiority? If Eve is made "lyk to hymself," of Adam's "bely-naked" flesh, why is she instinctively deceitful, untrustworthy, and carnal? The tale contains without reconciling two possible answers to this question, neither of which is supportive of claims for the legitimacy or even possibility of masculine dominance. On one hand, the matter that Eve is made of, Adam's flesh itself, might be pervasively corrupt; this idea is a commonplace of medieval world-hating, and a truism, as readers have noted, of the Merchant's characterization of both men and women. It is also a "depressing thought," as Donaldson says, that not only problematizes the notion of inherent male superiority but also denies men the ability to resist the self-reflexive trap of woman-hating in two ways attempted by characters and narrators in other Chaucerian fictions: through sympathizing with innocent female victims or by positing the existence, always in absentia, of a good woman to be worshipped. On the other hand, it might be argued that Woman has some
quality not derived from Adam, some carnal drive of her own that justifies the need for male mastery. But this possibility opens the door to a radical female difference and hence a distinctly female subjectivity—like May's—that needs to be punished and controlled but will always manage to outwit the sons of Adam.
Reading the Merchant's Tale in this way accounts for both the horror that most modern critics have seen in it and the "nervousness" that it exhibits in its narrating voice and seems to generate in some readers. The Merchant's Tale is, I agree, brutal and bitter: brutal in its attitude toward domestic and narrative violence against women and bitter in its confrontation with the fact that even violence cannot guarantee masculine difference and dominance. I read the tale not, however, as "un-Chaucerian" in this regard but as quintessentially Chaucerian in its concentration on familiar questions about the intersection of gender difference, the representation of women, and poetic or narrative authority. Perhaps more rawly than most, this tale exposes and turns on an unresolvable dilemma inherent in orthodox medieval assumptions about gender relations. In struggling with this dilemma, it shifts from one uncomfortable account of Woman to another in ways that I shall explore in some detail. First, I consider the tale's emphasis on the facts that May is made in the image of both January and her maker, and that when men bring Woman into being, they both see themselves more truly and induce or reveal their own feminization. I then argue that the tale at the same time gradually introduces the "horrifying" second possibility: May is different and has something that cannot be fully known or seen or controlled. The nature of the female character's difference here does not enable the would-be manly storyteller in the Merchant's Tale , as it often did the figure of the poet of Chaucer's dream-visions, but hoists him very visibly on the petard of his own unrelieved, unhappy antifeminism.
The Merchant's Tale reproduces the first of the two unsettling possibilities that might account for the putatively natural and invariable corruption of the female: May is made in the image of both January and her maker, the Merchant, and both project themselves and their base desires all too clearly onto the creature they bring into being. At the narrative level, there is literally no May before January marries her; that is to say, she enters the story quite explicitly as the product of the old man's warped imagination, the "heigh fantasie" of a male who is anxious about his waning manliness and wants to see his own lost youth and powers of discernment reflected in the image of a young wife. The production of May herself out of January's clichéd anxieties is most explicitly brought out in the long passage in which the old knight chooses his future wife from "Many fair shap and many a fair visage" (1580). The narrator first uses a simile to suggest that January looks at women from a distance, seeing the superficial image and gazing through the eyes of public opinion, and also in a way that will show him more of himself (whom he also misconceives) than of the objects he gazes at:
As whoso tooke a mirour, polisshed bryght,
And sette it in a commune market-place,
Thanne sholde he se ful many a figure pace
By his mirour; and in the same wyse
Gan Januarie inwith his thoght devyse
Of maydens whiche that dwelten hym bisyde.
What one sees in a mirror is a reflection, an image, not the thing itself; as much scholarly discussion of this passage already suggests, it reminds us of the acknowledged vanity and imperfection of human sight. Moreover, if January is looking as if in a mirror, he is likely at some point to see a part of himself; hence the figure confirms the way in which May,
the woman, is at the beginning at least a sharp reflection of January's problematic, erring, threatened masculine perception. May is, in the terms of this narrative, devised out of January's thoughts just as Eve is made out of Adam.
But January, in turn, is made out of an equally determining discourse; the man whose distorted fantasies create May is in no way a free(r) agent here, and what I have referred to as "his" imagination is as derivative and stereotypical, produced as much by antifeminist discourse, as May herself is. As the narrator dwells on January's initial inability to choose in the marketplace where women are exchanged, for instance, he describes the neighboring maidens' competing attractions—and reciprocal liabilities—thus:
He wiste nat wher that he myghte abyde.
For if that oon have beaute in hir face,
Another stant so in the peples grace
For hire sadnesse and hire benyngnytee
That of the peple grettest voys hath she;
And somme were riche, and hadden badde name.
What the narrator presents here as if it were January's experience is, like so much of this tale, drawn from standard and well-known antifeminist material (and as if to make sure that this is clear, a similar citation appears in that compendium of misogynist lore, the Wife of Bath's Prologue , lines 248ff.). The ideology out of which January's experience is made thus determines that January must choose among an imperfect set of options and hence close his eyes to imperfection; to love a woman is always already to err—even as it is to love (what is worst in) oneself, as the mirror simile reveals.
Finally, despite the difficulties of making a choice, and the impossibility of making a correct choice, when confronted with the dilemma that women are said to present, the narrator tells us that "bitwixe ernest and game" (1594), in that infamous site of Chaucerian expertise where accountability, like identity and intention, is so consistently up for grabs, January chooses one. The voice of the narrator (clearly distinct at this point from January's inner speech) underscores the predetermined fault-
iness of the choice—"For love is blynd alday, and may nat see" (1598)—and then offers what might appear to be, at last, a description of May. It turns out, however, to be not only a highly abstract and conventional portrait but also a depiction of what January sees in his mind's eye as he lies in bed thinking of May:
He purtreyed in his herte and in his thoght . . .
Hir myddel smal, hire armes longe and sklendre,
Hir wise governaunce, hir gentillesse,
Hir wommanly berynge, and hire sadnesse.
It hardly bears repeating that these lines do not represent some "actual" May. We see once more how January visualizes what medieval literary texts repeatedly say that men admire. Moreover (and I shall return to the significance of this point), the May of January's imagination is made to seem not only predictable but also implausible in this passage, since she combines the abstract qualities of ideal physical beauty and sober moral virtue that were earlier said to be mutually exclusive in women.
The narrator closes this discussion of how January chooses a wife by emphasizing once more that what January seeks to prove by selecting May is his place in an all-male pecking order. Recalling the earlier and by now thoroughly undermined assertion that the old man "chees hire of his owene auctoritee" (1597), the narrator reminds us that January is less interested in a real woman than in laying claim to authority and defending his own wisdom:
And whan that he on hire was condescended,
Hym thoughte his choys myghte nat ben amended.
For whan that he hymself concluded hadde,
Hym thoughte ech oother mannes wit so badde
That inpossible it were to repplye
Agayn his choys, this was his fantasye.
Here we learn still more about what we already must know of January—his lack of "auctoritee," perception, or free choice, and his stubborn investment in mis-seeing—and nothing about the woman he mistakenly expects will prove his superiority to other men, not even her name. Both the importance and inefficacy of his attempt to compete through May in a homosocial arena is underscored in the narrator's attention to January's conferences with his menfriends, including the long, fruitless de-
bates between Placebo and Justinus. When the proper name of the bride is finally given, it is still syntactically postponed and embedded—"she, this mayden, which that Mayus highte" (1693)—in a sentence describing the more or less reluctant exertions of January's friends to arrange the marriage quickly, "whan they saughe that it moste nedes be" (1691).
What little we are told about the marriage ceremony itself suggests that May is also derived from another traditional discourse about women, somewhat different from and even older than the conventional medieval misogyny that January echoes earlier. Performing the traditional marriage service, the priest enjoins May to "be lyk Sarra and Rebekke" (1704). and the allusions reinvoke the earlier ironically voiced catalogue praising a series of Old Testament types of the mulier fortis: Rebecca, who helped her son Jacob trick his blind old father into giving him his brother's birthright; Judith, who beheaded Holofernes; Abigail, who saved her husband Nabal from David's wrath and then, when Nabal's "heart died within him," married David; and Esther, who married King Ahasuerus to achieve her own ends (1362–74). As Emerson Brown has pointed out, positive readings of these stories were also common in medieval exegesis; these strong women were often viewed typologically as figures, like the Virgin Mary, of the triumph of truth, Christ, the true Church, over evil, and the use of bad means (deceit, betrayal, murder) justified by good ends. Although Brown notes that the Merchant's Tale emphasizes the literal, pejorative side of these stories, the audience, Brown believes, learns to distrust the Merchant sufficiently to find the "positive level of meaning" that rises above the literal level on which the Merchant focuses. As Brown observes, however, the Merchant still obliges the audience to sink to his level, to remember also the literal truth of these stories.
There are two other effects of citing this double, divided tradition about female duplicity, these two apparently contradictory ways of read-
ing the same stories of powerful women, and of foregrounding the tensions within and between traditional strains of thinking about women. First, at either level, literal or figurative, negative or positive, the allusions underscore the tale's thematic interest in the feminization of men. The type of the strong woman, viewed as good or evil, available to pro- or antifeminist interpretation, exposes and punishes the unmanliness of (some) men, and particularly, as Brown says, men's sensuality: the way in which many males are too feminine, too much like the normative conception of fleshly, sinning Woman. Second, the narrator's revisionary deployment of the catalogue against more orthodox religious readings of biblical history suggests how, through his reading and writing about women, he, like January, attempts to best other men and assert his own authority. Specifically, his use of the catalogue implies that figurative readings "cover up" something: they conceal the strength and power of women as they reassert masculine domination and difference in the face of blatant counterevidence. That is, by turning these historical or mythical women into types of Christ, the exegetical reading subsumes stories of castrated men into the teleology of salvation history. The Merchant's Tale , responsive to the hermeneutic traditions in which it may be read, problematizes this easy way of avoiding the internal or symbolic threats that women pose. By evoking a discourse and a way of knowing in which literal is so clearly set against figurative, the tale validates itself and its depiction of "women on top" as the literal: that is, as the true, the real, the unglossed, the impolite and undisguised. (Thus, as I noted earlier, the effect on the definition of Woman is similar to the effect generated by following the polite Knight's Tale with the frank Miller's Tale .)
May's sanctioned, even enforced entry into the scriptural tradition of castrating, manipulative, deceitful wives is confirmed in the narrator's characteristically sly description of the bride at the wedding feast, which includes a third reference to a type of the mulier fortis:
Mayus, that sit with so benyngne a chiere,
Hire to biholde it semed fayerye.
Queene Ester looked nevere with swich an ye
On Assuer, so meke a look hath she.
I may yow nat devyse al hir beautee.
But thus muche of hire beautee telle I may,
That she was lyk the brighte morwe of May,
Fulfild of alle beautee and plesaunce.
Once again the rhetoric implies that May is made of masculine fantasy; and here, more clearly than ever, as the use of the first-person pronoun suggests, it is partly the narrator's fantasy as well, so that the picture of May is at once both more obscured and more reflective of masculine ways of seeing. May is described by what it "semed" like to behold her "chiere" and her "look"; by the contorted negative comparison to Esther, whose own story can be read two ways and keeps intruding on this tale; by the narrator's use of the ineffability topos; and finally by the formulaic simile that incidentally reminds us of the conventional status of May's name itself. The effect of the narrator's strategy is to tell us more about himself and his discursive heritage than to clarify the object of his dubious praise; May remains a function of (slippery) figuration, of (not quite accurate or adequate) allusion and trope.
I have been arguing thus far that the narrative in which May is introduced and the rhetorical devices out of which she is made suggest quite relentlessly that a woman is created by the men who look at her and talk about her. One problem for men in this explanation becomes increasingly obvious as the tale unfolds. If the female is a projection of the husband and storyteller—if Eve is made of precisely the same stuff as Adam—then the antifeminist tradition, as it seeks to naturalize and essentialize Woman's sin and guilt, confronts a profoundly disturbing crisis, problematizing proper difference at two levels, first between male and female and second within the category of men. In the Merchant's Tale , the more obvious of these problems, the denial of proper difference between the sexes, is explicitly developed as May, acting on the illicit sexual desires imputed to her, and like the strong women she has been compared to, comes both to dominate and to resemble the men who foolishly desire to be "o flessh" with her.
The predictable entry into the story of the young man who easily seduces the older lord's wife might be somewhat reassuring to the manliness threatened in the feeble figure of January and in the Merchant's literal-minded reading of the Bible, if like "hende" Nicholas the squire here were at least cleverer than May and more at the center of the story. But he is not. Damyan is essentially just like January, only younger; both are "ravysshed" by May (cf. 1750, 1774). Six lines after he is introduced, Damyan as parodic courtly lover almost faints and "hastily" takes to his bed (1775–79). After he gives May the initial signal (the letter), she takes the lead and, true to the type with which she has been identified, plays
the man's part. The proverb cited from the Knight's Tale in speaking of her swift decision to commit adultery—"Lo, pitee renneth soone in gentil herte!" (1986)—referred there, notably, to Theseus and his mercy. Here, like Theseus, May is the one who pities, and she becomes the stage manager of the affair. So too when May writes to Damyan, the narrator describes her frustrated love as that of a typical (Chaucerian) male lover:
[May] loveth Damyan so benyngnely
That she moot outher dyen sodeynly,
Or elles she moot han hym as hir leste.
She wayteth whan hir herte wolde breste.
As their love affair progresses, the tale focuses less on role reversal and more on the essential similarity of May and Damyan, female and male. These two lovers are so alike, so interchangeable, that they understand each other as readily as most other courtly couples in Chaucerian fiction misunderstand. They communicate easily in both verbal and nonverbal ways, and so just as Criseyde (falsely) hoped and believed Troilus knew her thoughts without words, Damyan and May truly know and act on each other's every wish: "But nathelees, by writyng to and fro, / And privee signes, wiste he what she mente, / And she knew eek the fyn of his entente" (2104–6). To drive the point home we find a repetition of this idea—with emphasis on the central term, "entente"—twice more. First, May and Damyan cooperate in forging the key to the garden. She initially imprints its shape in "warm wex" (2117), thus doing to the key what January planned to do to her ("'a yong thyng may men gye, / Right as men may warm wex with handes plye,"' as he puts it in 1429–30). Then "Damyan, that knew al hire entente, / The cliket countrefeted pryvely" (2120–21). Once they are all in the garden, May signs to Damyan to climb up the pear tree,
. . . and up he wente.
For verraily he knew al hire entente,
And every signe that she koude make,
Wel bet than Januarie, hir owene make.
Between these lovers, as between even the oldest husband and the youngest wife, there is thus no mystery, no tantalizing, erotic, face-saving difference, no distance between the sexual appetite or sign-making capacity of male and female. The female, putatively, is as much the possessor of "entente" as the male, and her intention and his are both one and the same and mutually intelligible. Both men and women use words and other signs in the same way, to advance their equally pressing sexual desires. And so the tree bearing tempting pears, the fruit known in the Middle Ages as an ambiguous symbol for both male genitals and female breasts, stands as an apt icon at the end of the tale for part at least of what has been perceived as the "culminating outrage" of this story: the blurring or failure of gender differences at the moment of heterosexual climax, when they ought to be most natural and secure.
Difference in a second, less blatant way—difference within the category of men, between males of dissimilar age, status, and kind—is also problematized by this plot: there is little distinction, other than age and sexual competence, between January and Damyan; and Pluto, elsewhere god of the underworld, is here treated by his shrewish wife Proserpina just as January is treated by May. At another level, the similarity between the narrator himself and his character, January, as type of the naive, uxorious husband is clear from the outset of the tale. In the infamous praise of marriage with which it begins, the narrator establishes the tongue-in-cheek stance he will maintain, however unevenly, for the rest of the tale. If there are doubts about the sarcasm intended in this compendium of both pro- and antifeminist citation, what happens later removes them; retrospectively, at least, we can only assume a pervasive irony that condemns January and all other blinded men (including, possibly, the Merchant before he married; see the prologue to the tale, 1233ff.) who believe that "A wyf is Goddes yifte verraily" (1311). Yet at the same time, the ironic voicing of the lines in itself highlights the interpenetra-
bility of storyteller and character, of January's naive enthusiasm for marriage and the narrator's misogynist cynicism. And just as January's self-deluded choice of May backfires and fails to prove his superiority to other men, so too, I will argue, the narrator's insistence that he now reads and writes women more authoritatively than other men rebounds on him and on the relentless misogyny in which he participates. Above all, the rhetorical strategies by which the narrator condemns January and other men for their foolishly naive or idealizing views of women, in an effort to differentiate himself from them in their blindness, presuppose another disturbing possibility inherent in medieval misogyny: May has a subjectivity and a sexuality that is something more than a projection of male fantasy and can therefore never be fully known or controlled.
From the beginning, the development of May might at crucial moments suggest that she has a problematic, uncontrollable selfhood that escapes the narrator's mastery and understanding as easily as the wife escapes her husband's most jealous attempts to control and confine her. As we have seen, for example, in order to indict January's blindness in choosing a bride, the narrator insists that the May January thinks he sees is merely a reflection of the old man's pathetic needs. Yet if January is wrong about May's innocence and malleability, as he soon turns out to be, must there not be another May, a true May, a May who is precisely not what she looks like in the mirror of January's eye? The narrator's recurring use of occupatio frequently suggests precisely this; what he usually doesn't have time to look at and talk about is the real May. In lines 1697–98, for instance, he says that it would take too long to tell us "of every scrit and bond / By which that she was feffed in his lond"; and thus he hints that the maiden has her own socioeconomic interests, or that marriage allows a woman to enter, however marginally, into material and legal being. Like other instances of irony, the sarcasm in the description of May at the wedding feast (1742–49) not only confuses the gaze of the narrator and the character but also imples the existence of a terrifying female subjectivity. The narrator superficially describes May as a (false) male fantasy, telling us only what it "semed" like to behold her, what kind of
"look" she had, what she was "lyk." But the presupposition of sarcasm and irony of all sorts, again, is always that there is a truth behind the false appearance, a reality that someone, presumably the storyteller and audience, as opposed to the duped male character, can see. Because of his own insistent misogyny, the putatively true or actual May that this undeluded narrator must claim to discern predictably turns out to be the obscenity that therefore seems both shocking and inevitable to so many modern readers: a woman getting away with it, escaping male mastery and going unpunished.
I do not mean to argue that the picture of May that we begin to glimpse through the narrator's irony and sarcasm, or in what he can't or won t say about May, is any more accurate a representation of some historical female experience or position than January's mental image; my point is that the narrator's strategy inevitably raises the possibility of a female subjectivity, and what I want to emphasize now are the ways that he more fully both realizes and resists this frightening possibility as the tale progresses. Indirectly implicated by early irony, allusion, occupatio and simile, the awakening, so to speak, of an independent female consciousness appears with something of a sudden lurch in the narrator's representation of May on her wedding night. First, after January has consumed his aphrodisiacs and sent his friends home, the narrator glances at May, predictably, in a simile:"The bryde was broght abedde as stille as stoon" (1818). The clichÉ continues to fix May at a distance, in rhetoric and conventional figure, all feelings undisclosed. But if she is like stone, something about her is not stone; her properly inexpressive demeanor may cover fear, repulsion, innocence, indifference, passivity, stoicism. After thirty or so lines devoted to describing January's physical and mental repulsiveness in bed, the narrator returns to the question of what May felt:
But God woot what that May thoughte in hir herte,
Whan she hym saugh up sittynge in his sherte,
In his nyght-cappe, and with his nekke lene;
She preyseth nat his pleyyng worth a bene.
Like the earlier simile, the narrator's initial claim here of ignorance and distance from May's feelings—"God woot"—could indicate that May is as yet sexually uninitiated, (hence) undeveloped as a female (character), and, perhaps, pitiable. It may seem strained to suggest that the conventional phrase also implies that God, at least, knows what May
thinks: that is, that she has thoughts of her own, even if no human male can hope to understand them. But this possibility is precisely what is reinforced in the final line in the passage, when the narrator contradicts himself and offers for the first time a clear, apparently frank and therefore true statement about the allegedly divine mystery of May's feelings. And what does this astonishing about-face tell us? The negative formulation—she didn't find his lovemaking worth a bean—discovers a maiden who is already making judgments about men's "pleyyng," instead of just silently and stonily enduring her fate; it reveals that she can already compare and verbalize her evaluation of male sexual performance, that she might praise another man's playing as worth a few beans at least. The diction obviously lowers the tone of May's thoughts to a less than innocent level. It also continues to imply, in some sense, that she is a reflection of January and in fact a good match, despite her youth, for the old man, who uses this same expression in the very first line he utters in the tale, praising wedlock: "'Noon oother lyf. . . is worth a bene'" (1263). May, like the Wife of Bath, quite literally borrows her husband's idiom as she enters into selfhood. For the reader who might seek to find female experience or a feminine voice recorded here, this may be just another troubling but unsurprising confirmation of female absence and silence. For the antifeminist tradition, however, May's imputed judgment is analogously but inversely problematic, for it disturbs the notion that January's language is men's idiom, that it is only men who speak, and only men who can desire and appreciate praiseworthy "pleyyng."
The third and last time the narrator alludes to May's feelings about January's sexual demands (or lack thereof), his strategy and its effects reinforce this perception. The passage comes immediately after May has taken Damyan's love letter into the privy, read it, and disposed of the evidence. The act recalls the Miller's Tale as it equates women's privacy, her private parts, her unknowable subjective self, with the dirt and decay of the site of her reading, the privy. A few lines later, we see her obliged once more to take off her clothes for January. The narrator underscores that May acts under compulsion, and he again overfly refuses to tell us what she felt:
And she obeyeth, be hire lief or both.
But lest that precious folk be with me wrooth.
How that he wroghte, I dar nat to yow telle;
Or wheither hire thoughte it paradys or helle.
The first line reminds us that May is January's wife, legally and morally bound to obey his will, and the next three lines may occasion readers to guess what the narrator only teases us with, to imagine how repulsive the constrained sexual service of January might be for May. In passages like this that refer to May's sexual life with January, some modern readers have found a trace of sympathy on someone's part. But if sympathy for May is even remotely possible here, why then does the narrator say that polite folk would be offended to hear not only what January did to May, but also what May thought of the old man's sexual fumblings? The narrator has already told us a great deal about January's performance in bed that "precious folk" may presumably not wish to hear, but he has not told us—he has said before, and demonstrated on all but one occasion, that he cannot tell us—what May thinks. The emphasis on what he dares not say about May, however, can in no way suggest, as her stoniness might, that she has no feelings or that she has feelings of distaste under the kind of virtuous control that could be imputed, say, to a stony woman like Constance. It confirms, rather, that she has them, and that they are in fact impolite. What is so unutterably offensive that the narrator himself cannot risk speaking it, these lines indicate, is not that the young wife is compelled, which he says she is; or that the old man is impotent and repulsive, which he has repeatedly told us; but that the woman would have any thoughts about the situation at all: that she might even (although not in this case) enjoy it.
Attributing sympathy to the Merchant or the implied author, then, is an unsatisfactory and naive—or maybe nervous—reading of both the narrator's imputed intention and the actual effect of his words. For even as May "awakens" in the ways I have suggested, strategies for resisting and managing her potential power and her difference are at work, and one such strategy that is prominent in these passages where the narrator looks at her sexual life with January is the sadistic pleasure he takes in imagining May's discomfort and distaste. When the audience is invited, after lengthy descriptions of January's aging male body, to think about May's feelings in bed, there is undoubtedly for some an element of titillation; as I suggested in reading the Legend of Good Women and other Chaucerian fictions, victimized and suffering women arouse a certain kind of masculine desire. Even more important is the way in which the
lawful husband's violence against an innocent woman is alluded to and then dismissed. In the context of the tale as a whole, this cavalier dismissal cannot stem from the narrator's desire to cover over the history of male violence (as the Knight and the Miller do in very different ways); clearly, the main point is that women don't suffer for long, if at all. On her wedding night, for example, May endures whatever January manages to inflict in silent stoniness for only about thirty lines before expressing colloquial disgust at an inadequate male sexual performance and hence, in the only way available, getting her own back.
The same conclusion may be drawn from Proserpina's characterization in the garden scene; her rape is alluded to, but the reader is sent to "Claudyan" for details of that story. Other glancing allusions to rape appear in January's hopeful reference to the way he will"manace" May "Harder than evere Parys dide Eleyne" (1752–4); the narrator's invocation of Priapus (who raped Lotis ); the mention of Wade's boat (linked by one recent scholar to the capture of an Irish princess ); and of Argus (set to guard Io, who is raped by Jove [2111–13]). In the Merchant's Tale , we find in this set of allusions a subtext of violence against the virginal woman so minimal that it can hardly be taken too seriously and yet so persistent that it cannot be ignored. Rape, I suggest, is thus invoked again as a kind of wishful thinking, in the no man's land "betwixe erneste and game," to remind us that men are (they hope) capable of it; it is part and parcel of both the narrator's and January's way of thinking about their role in heterosexual relations. The main point here, however, is, as Pluto says, recalling the allusions to the mulier fortis , "The tresons whiche that wommen doon to man" (2239), proving that male violence is much exaggerated as a subject matter and thoroughly deserved. The tale may then remain "depressing" because rape, like Absolon's foiled attack on Alisoun in the Miller's Tale , doesn't work and is not even the proof of manhood it might seem to be, if the domestication of Pluto, arch-rapist, is any evidence of the efficacy of sexual violence in maintaining normative male domination over female speaking as well as over the female body. Even the most egregious cases of rape are normalized and trivialized, and sympathy with the lawfully bound wife who suffers nothing
worse than the prickles of her husband's beard is hardly the point of the Merchant's Tale .
In the last scene, too, the narrator at once follows the antifeminist vision of woman to one inexorable conclusion and yet continues to resist the logical implication that if women have illicit desires and can always fool their husbands with a good story, then they have a certain agency that not only resembles a man's but also escapes its control. In her final speech, with a self-protective twist, May borrows the notion of a a contagious magic that operates in the Miller's Tale , as she claims that her "strugle with a man upon a tree" (2374) was intended to restore January's sight. And she is in a sense right. Both Absolon and January are cured of their analogous, age-appropriate diseases—youthful hereos and effeminacy, senile uxoriousness and blindness—by the contact, tactile or visual, with the female genitals that they thought they desired and needed to attain or sustain the status of adult male. But Absolon's cure is far more complete; he knows he has been tricked, although Nicholas's intervention in the joke subsequently covers over both Absolon's at0tempted revenge and its failure—or its unexpected, unconscious success. January's cure, by contrast, is only literal, and the narrator's unflinching representation of the old man's moral and emotional blindness at the end of the Merchant's Tale suggests that finally there is no way either to transcend or laugh off this fate, this obscenity, this knowledge, this end to all narrative. For a man to marry or love a woman, or to narrate a woman, is to discover both his own lack of difference and her true difference, her private parts: to discover that she has genitals, and sexual desire, and hence, by the logic of masculine dominance and Christian thought, subjectivity that cannot be controlled. This, I think, is what Donaldson means when he speaks vaguely but forcefully of the exposure in the tale of "the ugly muck that formerly lay hidden beneath the surface" and the disturbing "force and truth of the Merchant's hatred" (my emphasis; again, the truth is dirty feminine sexuality). As the Miller knew, it is better not to inquire into a woman's "pryvetee"; to do so, as the hateful voyeurism of the Merchant's Tale discloses, is to run the risk
of Absolon's fate or of January's horrifying vision of the strong woman in the pear tree.
At the same time, the narrator's treatment of this final vision of May's "pryvetee" actually works to protect him from the ugly sight of her privacy and to undercut and contain the woman's agency in a couple of ways. First, the quick-witted stratagem by which she thinks of a good story to fool her husband is not of her own devising; she is the passive vehicle for the words of another mythic victim, Proserpina, who in response to Pluto's standard antifeminist diatribe becomes in this telling the oddest example yet of the mulier fortis . Second, and more important, the narrator, in a time-honored way, refuses to represent May as enjoying any actual sexual pleasure. Here his strategy recalls what happens to Alisoun as Nicholas substitutes his body for hers, so that she becomes merely another "swyved" wife at the end of the tale. After all the tale's emphasis on May's urgency and agency in arranging the tryst with Damyan, her actual intercourse with her lover in the pear tree is oddly truncated in the narration and described exclusively from the males' point of view. Her last reported act is an unmistakable gesture of female dominance: "He stoupeth doun, and on his bak she stood" (2348). At this painful, humiliating moment for the poor old husband, the narrator interrupts: "Ladyes, I prey yow that ye be nat wrooth; / I kan nat glose, I am a rude man" (2350–51). But what his rude literalness actually proceeds to show us is not May, for he suddenly shifts the focus from what she is doing to what the men are doing. First Damyan takes over: "And sodeynly anon this Damyan / Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng" (2352–53, my emphasis). Then, at the very moment of Damyan's thrust, and thanks to the divine intervention of another male subject, Pluto (2354–56), the blind January suddenly regains his vision and syntactically becomes once again agent and possessor:
Up to the tree he caste his eyen two,
And saugh that Damyan his wyf had dressed
In swich manere it may nat been expressed.
But if I wolde speke uncurteisly.
(2360–63, my emphasis)
In his effort to handle his tricky climax, the narrator veers from confessions of rudeness to protestations of politeness, and impotence is implied in both positions: "Ladyes . . . I kan nat glose . . . ; it may nat been expressed." So too, as we saw in the A-fragment, in both fabliau and
romance modes men may avert their eyes to the crude fact of female sexuality with gestures that at once inscribe, shrink from, and resist that fact. Here, according to the narrator, the denouement of his tale, the wife's expected, generically required adultery, is in some way ineffable; and again the part that may not be expressed is not what Damyan did, or what January saw, but what May felt in the pear tree. In the glimpse of this scene that the narrator offers, May herself is represented first, metonymically, by the clothing that Damyan, as agent, must displace ("Gan pullen up the smok"), and then as the wife of January (2359), who resumes the role of viewer and possessor. A few lines later May does reappear in the position of an agent (or at least mouthpiece) to speak the words that Proserpina gives her (2368ff.). But the words are not her own, and she sounds completely cool and calculating as she speaks them, giving no indication that she was just interrupted in a moment of adulterous passion with the man she was allegedly dying to have (2092–6). Although she has been granted the power of (deceitful) language, then, we are right back where we started in our understanding of May: only God knows what she thought of Damyan's playing, or of January's. At the moment of her putative sexual gratification, the narrator closes his eyes; as far as her human creator and his audience know, May's sexual feelings were and are a contradiction in terms, nonexistent and unspeakable.
The tale's insistence on the similarity, and by certain standards common depravity, of men and women has been read by some modern critics as proof that Chaucer here "takes a more balanced view of human sexual relationships and responsibilities than many other writers of his age." On the contrary, the condemnation of men for the feminine part of their nature and behavior—a condemnation that is also part of orthodox discourse—cannot logically and does not in the tale's unfolding either redeem human corruptibility or subvert the asymmetrical and internally contradictory alignment of Woman and women with blindness, sensuality, fleshly corruption, and absence. In fact, the characterization of (evil) men as weak, sensual, and therefore unmanly, which reaches a new and unmistakable peak in this tale, uses and hence reinforces the standard hierarchy rather than opens the way to "a more balanced view" or to the possibility of human salvation. What the Merchant's Tale , like
so much Chaucerian fiction, does confront is the lack of proper gender difference and the concomitantly feminized position of many men, and what is even more thoroughly problematized through the Merchant's performance is the possibility of narrating Woman without exposing the provisionality and instability of masculine identity for the narrator and for the misogynistic discourses he is drawn to and from. In one of the clichés that January spouts so that the tale can neatly ironize it, the deluded man claims that women are safe weapons for men to use to their own ends: "'A man may do no synne with his wyf, / Ne hurte hymselven with his owene knyf'" (1839–40). In disproving this claim, the Merchant's Tale runs the risk of affirming that the sharp wife has a life of her own and that she uses her cutting edge to just one end.
This threat to the identity and adult manhood of any male narrator who undertakes the project of representing Woman is also figured both in the identification of the narrator and January, as I have suggested, and in the oft-noted slipperiness of knowing whose tale this is, or who speaks here. To explain the tale, most readers find it necessary to posit the existence of the Merchant, and to use the framing matter, including the portrait in the General Prologue and the headlink, to justify or naturalize his misogyny and to distinguish it from a more palatable authorial position. But as recent critiques of the dramatic approach warn us, this too is particularly risky business for both internal and external reasons. The voicing of much of the tale, as we have seen, contains its own warning to the same effect; and yet, however cautiously, we must continue to imagine the Merchant, or speak of the narrator, as distinct from both author and character, in order to discuss the tale. Characters and narrator alike are at once constituted and deconstructed by the misogynistic discourses that they use, and so again the Merchant's Tale reminds us that the fused problems of identity and writing cannot be divorced from the fundamental problems of gender difference and gender relations. No one escapes into the position of asexuality and nonrepresentability, here—except, more visibly than ever, perhaps, the Chaucer that modern criticism has nervously attempted to discern.