In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which gives them greater powers of perception but also causes their expulsion from Paradise. The story creates a link between clear vision and the ability to perceive the truth‹which, in this case, causes mankind to fall from a state of blissful ignorance to one of miserable knowledge. In the Merchant's Tale, vision and truth do not enjoy such an easy relationship. Vision is obstructed at both the metaphorical and the literal level, and the subversion of the fabliau genre challenges the idea of truthful representation. The Merchant's Tale destabilizes the notion of representation itself, problematizing man's relation to truth.
Chaucer uses a very strange metaphor to describe January's quest for a wife. The teller likens the old knight's mind to a mirror that has been set up in a common market, catching the image of every maiden who passes. January undertakes a near obsessive mental cataloguing of all eligible women:
Thanne sholde he se ful many a figure pace
By his mirour; and in the same wyse
Gan January in with his thoght devyse
Of maydens which that dwelten hym bisyde. (ll. 1584-7)
The more familiar the reader is with the conventions of the fabliau genre, the more likely he is to feel that something is not quite right. First of all, the life of the married couple before marriage and the story of how that marriage took place is not properly the subject of fabliau at all‹and here Chaucer devotes considerable space to it (Pearsall 4/12). Second, there is something so discomforting about the old man's search‹his mind becomes a ...
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...y reveals that there was an act of sexual intercourse between May and a man. But the child becomes an opaque sign because the true identity of the child's father would be a mystery‹not only for the reader and January, but for the adulterers as well.
Works Cited and Consulted
Chaucer, Geoffrey. "The Merchant's Tale." The Canterbury Tales: Nine Tales and the General Prologue. Ed. V.A. Kolve. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1989.
Fichte, Joerg. " Genre in The Merchant's Tale." New Views on Chaucer: Essays in Generative Criticism. Ed. William Johnson. Denver: Society for New Language Study, 1973. 9-16.
Levy, Bernard. "The Meanings of The Merchant's Tale." Chaucer and the Craft of Fiction. Ed. Leigh Arrathoon. Rochester, MI: Solaris, 1986. 385-403.
Pearsall, Derek. The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography. Blackwell, 1992.
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