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.