Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - Suppression and Silence in The Reeve’s Tale
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Such comments as, “I pray to God his nekke mote to-breke” quickly reveal that the ver-bal game of “quite” involves much more than a free meal to the Reeve in “The Canterbury Tales” (I 3918). This overreaction, which grabs the attention of the audience and gives it pause, is characteristic of the Reeve’s ostensibly odd behavior, being given to morose speeches followed by violent outbursts, all the while harboring spiteful desires. Anger typifies the Reeve’s dialogue and his tale, which begs the question why. It appears to be a reaction to the Miller’s insults, but they are not extreme enough to provoke such resentment. He seem-ingly has no hesitation in articulating his bitterness, yet he and his story are as much marked by suppression as expression. Silence resounds as loudly as any noise in the Reeve’s Prologue and Tale. The reader is as puzzled by his utterances as the lack of them: his sudden sermon on death is matched by the quietness of two couples copulating in a small room of five, none of which are able to hear what the others are doing. The reality is that the behavior of the Reeve and the characters in his tale are not random or unaccountable. The Reeve is continually si-lenced by other pilgrims and himself, which is paralleled in his tale, and in turn suppresses his emotions, which leads to even more explosive conduct.
In order to appreciate the melancholic and serious temperament of the Reeve, it is nec-essary to view him in comparison to other characters, as Chaucer intended. The identities of the pilgrims are relative. They are characterized by their description in the General Prologue, but not fully developed until they are seen in contrast to the pilgrim they are “quiting.” As the Miller’s personality is developed by his dissimilarity to the Knight, so is the Reeve by the Miller. Therefore Robin’s enjoyment of life shows just how little Oswald receives from the same. For instance, the Miller’s large frame and excessive drinking show his delight in small pleasures. The Reeve, however, is “a sclendre colerik man” who controls his beard and hair (in opposition to the unruly strands that grow on a wart on the miller’s nose) as manipula-tively as the accounts of the farm on which he works (I 587). The Miller mastered the bag-pipes for entertainment in his spare time while the Reeve trained with more practical tools: “In youthe he had lerned a good myster: He was a wel good wrighte, a carpenter” (I 614).
Robin is very physical; he is strong and willing to wrestle anything and carries a sword and buckler at his side. Oswald only carries a rusty blade, which indicates that it is not used very often and is only for show. If compelled to fight, he would most likely back down, preferring verbal sparring. The Miller socializes with the group with no regards to the class system, in-terrupting the expected order to tell his story before the Monk, while Oswald prefers to sepa-rate himself and ride last among the group.
These disparities give the impression that Oswald is focused inward while Robin con-centrates on the outward. The Reeve is ruled by his practical mind, which directs him to make as much money as possible, whether it is through theft or saving or learning useful trades, and to avoid dangerous situations, even if it entails cowardice. The Miller is more of a Dionysian figure, who does only what pleases him, whether it is knocking heads or ignoring his wife’s infidelities. These differences in character foreshadow the differences in their tales. They both tell similar dirty stories but the nature varies greatly. It is the Miller’s good-humor that trans-forms the chivalric tale of the Knight into an account of adultery that is both bawdy and hi-larious. As will be discussed in greater detail in this essay, it is the Reeve’s introversion that causes him to recite his mean-spirited tale of adultery as punishment.
II. Outward Manifestations of Suppressed Emotions
The Reeve’s vindictiveness and mood swings are based in his being repeatedly silenced and his subsequent suppression of emotions. Oswald speaks three times in Fragment I, and on the first occasion his wishes are ignored, on the second he is told to speak of a more amusing subject, and he is finally allowed to speak on the third, but only because every pilgrim must tell a tale. The Reeve’s first words are spoken to the Miller. He orders Robin to “Stynt thy clappe!” before beginning his story of a carpenter and his wife which will defame him and bring scandal to wives in general (I 3144). Instead of forcing the Miller to wait until he is so-ber so that he will recite a less offensive tale, the Host lets him compete next, disregarding the Reeve’s and his own objections. When the Miller finishes, the Reeve does not introduce his story, but ruminates on his old age and the lifeblood that has been flowing out of him since he was born. He tells us that his heart is full of mold, that his fire has burnt out. All that remains are four embers: boasting, lying, anger and greed. And though his body is failing him, sexual cravings and desire in general are still present: “Oure olde lemes mowe wel been unweelde, But wyl ne shal nat faillen, that is sooth” (I 3886-3887). He is expressing his fears and inade-quacies to the group, but they find it too serious. The Host interrupts him and commands that he begin his story.
This is a very critical moment in that the Host halts the speech in which the Reeve tries to purge himself of all that has been festering inside of him. The Reeve is an old man close to death and is scared. He feels that he has nothing noble left in him. Just as he can find no satis-faction for his desire through his feeble body, he can find no release for his pent-up emotions because he is always being silenced. He will soon be silenced forever, and yet is still not al-lowed to voice this or anything of significance while is he alive. Chaucer may only portray the Reeve’s treatment by this one group and only for a short time span, but it is reasonable to as-sume that this is a pattern in his life. Why else would a quiet man mention his sexual prob-lems to a group of relative strangers unless his family and acquaintances were also unwilling to listen and he was desperate to speak it? Therefore, because of this life-long recurrence of being silenced, he suppressed his feelings. The Reeve is not artistic, preferring the practical over the aesthetic, so when others refuse to listen, he has no choice but to keep his emotions to himself, there being no other outlet such as art or music in which to channel this. As a re-sult, when he believes he is permitted to speak about whatever he wishes, he lets loose all that has been locked inside of him and gives his morose monologue. But the Host denies him this relief, demanding that he must now tell a story. As expected, the Reeve does not give a hu-morous account similar to the Miller. Instead he directs his anger and his unexpressed emo-tions into his tale. This is the reason why his story is so vindictive. This explains his prayer that the Miller, who previously described how a carpenter was cuckolded (a very real fear for the married Reeve because of his impotence), would break his neck. His behavior is not irra-tional and his feelings are not naturally malicious. Being confined, his negative emotions multiplied and became amplified as they were freed.
As C. G. Jung explains, repression is the “half-conscious and half-hearted letting go of things” that veer from conventional morality (780). Suppression of antisocial elements, how-ever, is done deliberately. Repression, but not suppression, is one of the main causes of neuro-sis. “Suppression amounts to a conscious moral choice, but repression is a rather immoral ‘penchant’ for getting rid of disagreeable decisions. Suppression may cause worry, conflict and suffering, but it never causes a neurosis. Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suf-fering” (780). Since the Reeve is aware of his negativity and conceals it from others and not himself, he may have unresolved issues but is not guided by a dysfunctional mind. Therefore, while he does exhibit extreme behavior, he and his actions are still rational.
III. The Influence of Suppression in the Tale
The Reeve’s Tale has been criticized for its single-minded intent to insult and its cold, impersonal tone in comparison to the Miller’s Tale. The Miller does poke fun at the Reeve and the Knight, but that is not the sole purpose of his story. His goal appears to be entertain-ment. Nicholas and Alison’s desires are simple: to have some fun in bed without getting caught by her husband, John. Yet the plot is very elaborate and comic in the unnecessary planning devised to trick the naïve carpenter. The characters are well developed for such a short piece and, most importantly, are uninhibited in communicating their wants: When Nicholas “courts” Alison, he grabs her by the “queynte” and tells her of his secret love (I 3276). Though she protests at first, she gives in to his pleading and promises to love him. Ab-salon, another admirer of Alison’s, serenades her while she is lying next to her husband. When he later asks for a kiss, she presents him with her backside, and Nicholas impersonates her voice with a rude expulsion of air. They are as comfortable expressing themselves, in whatever manner they wish, as the Miller. The Reeve’s Tale is starkly contrasted to this. Os-wald’s characters are as plain as his story, the height of their scheming consisting of a relo-cated cradle and an untied horse. The personalities of the two university students are irrele-vant; all that matters is that they deceive the miller. And Symkyn’s importance is based only in his thieving nature and his eventual status as a victim, the purpose of the story being the Reeve’s revenge. The mother has a more lengthy character sketch, but only because it shows that the miller wedded an illegitimate woman. Both women are objectified and valued only in the distress they cause the miller through their ravishment. Adultery is again committed in this tale, but it is done mechanically rather than from any sexual desire on the part of the students. The wooing by Nicholas and Absalon may have been brief, but they at least made an effort to win Alison. John and Alan have intercourse with the wife and daughter before any words of acceptance or denial are spoken by them, and just as soon as they are in the same bed as a fe-male. As I mentioned earlier, the five characters spend the night in the same room, but not all are aware of what is occurring. John does know his friend slept with Malyne, but only be-cause Alan told him his plan. The next morning Alan tells the miller, believing he is John, “I have thries in this shorte nyght Swyved the milleres doghter bolt upright, Whil thow hast, as a coward, been agast,” revealing that he was unaware John had been with the wife the entire night (I 4265-4267). And when Symkyn hears this, he becomes enraged, this being the first he learns of it also, since he did not hear the two couples either. This lack of noise in such an in-timate act may appear peculiar, but it is related to the Reeve just as Alison and Nicholas’s enthusiasm is to the Miller.
One clear reason for this silence is connected to the Reeve’s aversion to the Miller. Since his tale is told to reprise Robin, little else matters. Just like the two-dimensional char-acterization, the actions appear to be performed by rote, done only to make the plot progress to the desired ending. This explains the simplicity of the tale; the Reeve is only interested in the quickest method of revenge. The mother and daughter do not speak or struggle after learning the intentions of the clerks because it is inconvenient for them to do so. Their pur-pose in existing is to be disparaged. Any efforts against this may cause the miller to wake, dis-rupting the greater scheme. They are as quiet during the sexual act as the clerks because any type of sound would expand their characterization at the expense of the plot. The daughter does speak the next morning, but only to further the narrative by divulging the location of the stolen corn so the students can reclaim it. Unexpectedly, Malyne begins to cry at the thought of Alan’s departure. This is actually done for the sake of his reputation. The Reeve wants to make Robin appear foolish, but knows that turning his “protagonists” into rapists will only cause the audience to turn against himself. Because Malyne despairs that the night has ended, the audience assumes that she enjoyed the experience. The same can be said for the mother who “so myrie a fit ne hadde she nat ful yore” (I 4230). So even though John and Alan initiate the act with force, the women received pleasure, which cancels out the offense in the pil-grims’ minds. Thus, the characters and their satisfaction are mere tools used to create a de-sired result.
The lack of expression exhibited by the actors in this scene is also related to the si-lencing of the Reeve. He is accustomed to being quieted when his thoughts are not agreeable to his audience. Because of this, he censors himself even as he is releasing all that is trapped inside of him. In his prologue, the Reeve does not keep speaking of the rapid progression of his demise, but changes subjects as soon as the Host orders him to do so, directing his emo-tion into the more acceptable form of his tale. Occasionally, the build up of feeling forces him to release it, but he always expresses them within the bounds of decency, even if he does stretch those bounds. It is necessary for the plot that the two couples have sex in the same room. He does not shy away from the subject and informs the audience of what is occurring as clearly as the Miller, if not more so. But Nicholas and Alison have intercourse downstairs in privacy, away from John. In the Reeve’s tale, a mother is committing adultery in the same room in which her daughter is having premarital sex. This can easily be construed as sexual perversion, to put it lightly. Yet the Reeve believes they can be somewhat redeemed if they are not aware they are participating in what amounts to an orgy. If the couples make no noise and do not hear one another, then, in a sense, they are in private. To have the clerks and women voice their pleasure and the mother and daughter realize the other’s actions would have been unallowable. Because of this, the Reeve stifles them so as to not offend his audi-ence and thus be allowed to finish his tale.
But the Reeve’s manipulation and censorship of the characters does not mean he com-pletely separates himself from them. He channels his sexual frustration into the story along with his anger. Since he cannot use his body to find satisfaction, he must use his imagination. The Miller, who gratifies his appetite in the real world, builds up the tension between Nicho-las and Alison through the long wait before consummation, but barely mentions the act itself:
And thus lith Alison and Nicholas,
In bisynesse of myrthe and of solas,
Til that the belle of laudes gan to rynge,
And freres in the chauncel gone synge.
The reverse occurs in the Reeve’s story, with John and Alan engaging in sex with Malyne and the miller’s wife almost as soon as the thought comes to their minds. His description is short as well, but much more detailed: “He priketh harde and depe as he were mad” (I 4231). In this line, which is referring to the cause of the wife’s pleasure, John appears to embody Oswald’s frustration. The Reeve is as “mad” to find satisfaction, both sexually and emotionally, as John is. The Reeve lives through the students, finding an alternate outlet this way. He creates two characters who have no qualms about taking another man’s wife and daughter in the same room to perform a rather twisted fantasy. The silence and objectification of the females also supports this. In the Reeve’s Tale, there is no seduction; the wife and daughter’s willingness is ignored. The Reeve does not view them as participants, but as the objects of desire. It would not do to have sexual objects demand courtship or become too humanlike, in which case they would have the power of rejection and dissatisfaction. Because he is living through the bodies of the clerks, the females must not be anything but pleased by the students, so the Reeve can hold the notion of himself as virile and sexually desirable to women. Thus, the bedroom scene becomes a substitute reality for the Reeve, in which he subtly releases his lasciviousness into a more socially acceptable form, the fabliaux.
The Reeve and his tale manage to be, simultaneously, both complex and simple. Os-wald and his characters seem to fit snugly into a stereotype when they are first described, but then their actions seem to be guided by an unpredictable force. The pilgrims are confused by the Reeve even as he is explaining his motivation to them. So they cut him off from the group even as he is attempting to connect with them. They will only listen to his tale out of obliga-tion, and hear nothing more. So, while his story seems uncomplicated, it is anything but, due to the fact that all of his unspoken thoughts have been conveyed within it. It may be vindictive and base, but the Reeve’s Tale contains something far more interesting than a moral: the inner workings of his mind.
Jung, C.G. Psychology and Religion: West and East. New York: Hull, Pantheon Books, 1958.