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...
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... tale it preveth weel'" (2424-25). He quickly returns to his own good sense, though, as he jokes, "'eek my wit suffiseth nat therto,/ to tellen al, wherefore my tale is do'" (2439-2440). Ultimately, the Merchant's desperation to sell discloses his own stunted emotional capacity.
The Merchant's revealed nature, however, combats the very destruction of creation and individual that he tried to attain. As the Merchant tries to subsume the reality of marriage, love, and relationship under his own enviously blind view, Chaucer shows us another individual, significant and important in his own way. Instead of acting as a totalizing discourse, Chaucer uses the Merchant's tale to reveal his depraved envy and to reveal him as no more than a wanton cynic. Thus, Chaucer provides the very perspective that the Merchant tries to steal from his audience.
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