The Complex Character of the Merchant in The Canterbury Tales

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Sometimes a character is not fully revealed right away in order to surprise and convey a specific purpose later on. Chaucer demonstrates this idea in The Canterbury Tales, specifically with the Merchant character. In the General Prologue, Chaucer portrays the Merchant as a respectable character; however, he hints aspects of the Merchants personality that question this respectable image. The Merchant’s entire personality is later revealed in his Prologue and Tale, as it is made evident of his cynical and pessimistic outlook, making him less respectful. In this novel, the Merchant is categorized as a salesman and trader who imports and exports wholesale goods from several countries. Toward the end of the 14th century, merchants had an economic and political position, resulting in the rise of their social class (Reale 95-96). Chaucer’s first mention of the Merchant pilgrim describes his appearance; his “forking beard and motley dress” (Coghill 10) are an indication of his social class and type of profession. The bright clothing indicates a lower class and a specific London merchant group, or “livery,” suggesting a lack of integrity. However, the outlandish clothing allows this Merchant to stand out and gain attention, so people can remember him and what he is selling (Reale 94-95). In contrast, he wore “upon his head a Flemish beaver hat and on his feet daintily buckled boots,” (Coghill 10) items he could obtain since he was a trader. These clothing items were symbols of wealth and suggests he traded mostly wool, especially since he traded in “Harwich–Holland”, or referred to as Orwell and Middelburg on the Dutch Coast (Reale 95-96). Thus, his entire outfit indicates that although he is of social decline, he still is able to obtain ... ... middle of paper ... ...." The English Review (2009): 1-4. Student Resources in Context. Web. 3 December 2013. Reale, Nancy M. "Chapter 9: A Merchant Was There With a Forked Berd." Chaucer’s Pilgrims: An Historical Guide to the Pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. Ed. Laura C. Lambdin and Robert T. Lamdin. Westport: Praeger, 1999. 93-107. Print. Owen, Charles A., Jr. “The Design of the Canterbury Tales.” Companion to Chaucer Studies. Rev. ed. Ed. Beryl Rowland. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Print. Schoeck, Richard J., and Jerome Taylor. Chaucer Criticism; an Anthology. University of Notre Dame, 1960. Print. Stillwell, Gardiner. “Chaucer’s Merchant: No Debts?” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology. University of Illinois Press, 1958. 192-96. Print. Zesmer, David M. Guide to English Literature: from Beowulf through Chaucer and Medieval Drama. New York: Barnes, 1961. Print.
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