Human Nature and Human Folly in the Merchant's Tale

Human Nature and Human Folly in the Merchant's Tale

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How effectively does Chaucer depict human nature and human folly in
the Merchant's tale?

"Dream as if you'll live forever, live as if you'll die today"
==============================================================

January our main character of this tale shows a resemblance to this
quotation, particularly in how it effects his behavior. What the late
James Dean is trying to tell us simply is that try and make each day
count, and never waste a minute because you could drop down dead. Now
for most this appears to be a little dramatic lets say, but for
January who has already outlived his peers and now sits at a grand age
then it all becomes relevant. With this is mind we can look at how
Chaucer has let January become the character he is partially down to
the fact of his age. We know January is highly sexually driven there
is no argument. Yet Chaucer leaves us believing this is down to his
personality and character, his age is not used as a justifiable tool
to any extent; so what if the man is 60 he still wants to have sex
right, yet our author plays this fact more on the person he is than
his age.

We are told that January does have a sexual appetite and does
regularly feed it mostly with a selection of middle aged women, so
when he requires himself a young and "untouched" girl for a wife we
are taken aback. Now Chaucer throws age into the mix and we begin to
see just how January thinks and more precisely what he desires.

Justinus and placebo's scene with January for me is more like him
talking to himself and there being an angel on one shoulder and a
devil on the other. Placebo is the "devil" and the free thinking no
conscience side of |January whilst Justinus is the angel who shows
conscience and justice. Chaucer has used this scene well to show us
exactly the knight's thoughts. As the characters tell him what they
think, inversely it is really what he thinks; by the way he chooses to
ignore Justinus we know that he throws the proper thinking aside, and
by listening to Placebo he listens to what he wants.and desires.

The folly for January is his great lack of realism. Not only is it
portrayed by the way he expects to have a young wife at the age of 60,
but by the way he thinks that he "still has it" and that his age has
not effected his status with women. This is one of the seven sins that
Chaucer uses in all of the Canterbury tales; VANITY.

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It is reinforced
by the way he totally refuses to listen to Justinus, as he is the
"truth" that he totally ignores.

"A man can do and be what he wants"

Lawrence of Arabia

Whether you consider the quote to be arrogant or noble it is the way
that January is portrayed to think by Chaucer. Although he is a
bachelor right unto the point where he meets May and marries her, we
have been given little or no real background to his life only where he
lives, his age and that he chased women. The total expectation of a
"young and fair" wife is surely meant to be interpreted as arrogance.
Yet the way January voices his expectation one can perhaps drop the
idea of arrogance and even pick up one of empathy. The reason this can
be done is because the way which he prays to god for a wife and even
remarks,

"True as god is king to take a wife is a glorious thing".

Chaucer has created two sides to the knight, one of blissful ignorance
and total arrogance, the other a noble and respectful god fearing
Christian; although the latter is the least pronounced of the two.

May the eventual wife of January really stumbles upon the scene and
again we are given little background to her and how they presumed to
marry. Chaucer has evidently done this to give the impression of May
simply marrying January for his wealth, this is furthermore apt when
we learn that she is but barely a woman and a virgin at that. For
which woman of this status would want to marry a 60 year old man? She
only makes an impact upon the reader shortly after their wedding; when
she is perceived to be a victim. The whole scene where January
cremates the marriage is graphic and leaves you feeling deep sympathy
for May, Chaucer does this well by describing Januarys rough hanging
skin upon his neck rubbing her soft fair skin.

GREED has obviously been the major if not only reason as to why May
has married January at all. This is her folly. For she regrets it,
even though this emotion is not greatly put across by Chaucer it is
definitely felt to be true.

Our next character of probing is the squire and pupil of January,
Damien. Who as soon as he realizes has married his master goes to his
bed and falls ill with woe. Chaucer writes this whole act surely as a
reference to courtly love, the true art of romancing etiquette. This
by gives our squire a very fresh and immature feel, linking himself
and May in their age and adolescence.

When the two realize that each other likes one another they plot to
meet up and this is where we first become aware of May deceitful and
calculated side of her personality, Chaucer gives her the lead role
out of the two, the dominant female.

The use of January's secret and locked garden is presumably a
reference by Chaucer to the Garden of Eden where woman tempted man,
ironically the same happens here. The idea of May being the stronger
willed of the young pair is made clear here as she guides Damien into
the garden and then tells him to get up a tree to which he does with
no hesitation. Chaucer then has her getting up to Damien upon her
husbands back deep irony is played here as he is helping her cheat on
him. Chaucer has also given May a very cruel and sadistic shade also
because at this time January is blind and can therefore be portrayed
as a victim of May.
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