The Existential Dichotomies of Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale
It has become axiomatic of modern Chaucerian studies that the fabliaux in The Canterbury Tales which so shocked 19th century readers have become subject to scholarly exegesis as if to prove that they are indeed works of art worthy of the pen of Chaucer. This often takes the form of analysis of how, for example, The Miller’s Tale, mirrors and satirises The Knight’s Tale or how each of the fabliaux differs in key respects from its original source text (thus implying Chaucer’s greater artistic merit and credentials) or prolonged explanation of how each fabliaux reflects its narrator and how this, learned experts would have us believe, represents in full the cornucopia of life and society that is The Canterbury Tales – warts and all. But with The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale we are still left with tales of farting, snoring and energetic love-making. Delaney (p. 104) argues that
In the pair of fabliaux narrated by Chaucer’s Miller and Reeve, two sets of young clerks have a special function: they are agents of the kind of retributive justice called ‘quiting.’
But I will argue that the differences between the two tales are more profound than Delaney suggests and they go far beyond the Reeve ‘quiting’ the Miller for his original tale of cuckoldry. In this paper I am going to use William Woods’ essay on The Miller’s Tale ‘Private and Public Space in The Miller’s Tale ‘ as a starting point to explore the dichotomies that exist between The Miller’s Tale and The Reeve’s Tale at almost every level, from the most basic to the most profound, and argue, not simply that the tales reflect the tellers (or some such cliché –which has been done before ), but that the two tales reflect radically different views of what it is to be human and what is most valuable in human life. We will see by the end of this paper that The Miller’s Tale offers a view of humanity which is life-enhancing and spirited, and offers a bewildered and confused mankind redemption of a sort; by contrast, we shall see that The Reeve’s Tale offers us a nihilistic vision of a brutish world where there is little pleasure to be had in anything other than violence and solipsism. As Blandeau (p.17) puts it, “The Reeve’s Tale is quite as brutal and brutally delivered as the unfortunate punch that knocks the Miller senselessly onto his bed.” And for once Chaucer deliberately brutalizes his source text, as Beidler (p. 58) points out that in the French original the miller’s daughter did at least offer herself to one of the students.
Woods points out the the spatial setting of The Miller’s Tale takes place on three levels: the room at the top of the house where Nicholas has his astrological implements and sees the future flood and where, later in the tale, John naively hangs the three tubs and awaits God’s flood. The middle room where John and Alisoun sleep; and the street-level shot window where Absolon gets his ‘kiss’ and where he later appears fresh from the forge with the hot iron coulter. These three levels are remarkably reminiscent of the Christian pattern of Heaven, Earth and Hell. The upper room is where Nicolas is allowed insight in to “Goddes prvitee” and where John waits for God’s will; the middle room is earth; and the shot-window with its punishment of Absolon’s naive foppishness and the punishment of Nicolas for taking the joke too far is a sort of Hell – it is a pace of punishment, and, at the end of the Tale, it is where all three men end up – in their fall through the air to self-knowledge and the amusement of the townsfolk, a sort of Hell in itself. This view of the Tale fits appropriately with Rowland’s views of its similarities to English Mystery Plays of the same era. Woods points out that Alisoun has three levels too: her ‘likerous eye’ which promises so much at the top; her ‘nether eye’ which Absolon kisses in error; and her middle – the region around her waist which is what the narrator concentrates on in his description and which is the source of her power over the three men.
The irony really is that paradise lies not on the top storey of the house but in the middle – in Alisoun’s bed, in Alisoun herself. Woods argues convincingly that Alisoun is the most private space in the tale and that each of the male characters attempts to create his own private space with Alisoun at the center. Because Alisoun remains in the house, the house becomes the central setting, the only pertinent setting. The tale consists of five episodes and each episode begins with one of the characters leaving or having left the house creating an opportunity for Nicholas or Absolon to approach Alisoun. Woods argues that each man creates his own vision of paradise with Alisoun: John the vision of Alisoun and him as a new Adam and Eve – survivors of the flood; Absolon getting a kiss from his “swet brid”; and Nicholas making “melodye” in Alisoun’s bed. Only Nicholas’s dream becomes true and he spoils that by his insistence in adding to Absolon’s humiliation –which is also a way of demonstrating to Absolon that he (Absolon) cannot have her. And for this act of arrogant impertinence Nicholas too is punished. As Woods puts it
Towards the end of the tale, this movement from private ideal to public reality engenders a climactic reversal for all three men. Absolon’s sugary lines from the Song of Solomon, Nicholas’s fart-music, and John’s dizzy accusations all receive an appropriate audience response, as each man’s private pretensions are reductively inverted, the private dwindling abruptly into the public... Each man will define himself, and thus expose himself, when he tries to make that private space exclusively his own. (Woods p. 167)
Gallagher writes that Nicholas exudes “a cocky omniscience” and that at the end of the tale he wants “to ascend to a new level of trickery.” (p. 132)
So far much of my argument has relied on Woods, but let us now shifts perspective to The Reeve’s Tale. There are literally no levels in the tale. The miller lives in the middle of the fen and the one room they all sleep in is on the same level. In one sense, it has to be so that the mix ups involving beds and identities can occur, but compared with The Miller’s Tale it represents, I would argue, a literally flatter view of human life. More egalitarian, one might say, but it is presented in such a way that there is no upward aspiration – either visually within the tale or literally within the miller’s house or spiritually and or emotionally within any of the characters. The flatness of the landscape and the room they sleep in is a metaphor for a view of human life and potential which is reductive and narrow.
The dichotomies between the two tales range from the most simple and basic to ones which give us profound insights into the world view of each narrator. One tale is set in Oxford, a busy town; the other in its rival university town, Cambridge, but in a village south of the city. The one student of The Miller’s Tale is contrasted with two in The Reeves Tale. There are three levels in John’s house and we have seen their wider implications; in the miller’s house there are three beds but all on the same level. John and Simekin are both possessive husbands. John’s house is big, the miller’s small. The Miller’s Tale is filled with “melodie” – Nicholas’s singing and playing, Absolon’s singing and playing, and the “melodie” (l 466) of Nicholas and Alisoun’s love-making; in The Reeve’s Tale all we hear are the sounds of wild horses and the drunken snoring of the miller and his family. Even from these simple differences we may be able to detect a totally different view of the potentialities of human life as presented in both tales.
But the major difference lies in the difference between Alisoun, John’s young wife whom he keeps “narwe in cage” and the wife of the miller. In The Reeve’s Tale the miller and his wife are obsessed with social status – all because she happens to have been the illegitimate child of the local priest and has been brought up in a nunnery. Brown argues that the pair have “an air of defensive superiority” (p. 138) with the wife “parading at church with haughty manners, he ready to strike a blow at anyone who would besmirch her reputation.” (p. 138)
A full fair sight was it upon hem two –
On holidays biforn hir wold he go
With his tippet wound about his heed,
And she came after in a gite of red,
And Simekin had hosen of the same.
There dorste no wight clepen her but “dame.”
Was none so hardy that went by the waye
That with hir dorste rage or ones playe,
But if he wold be slain of Simekin,
With panade, or knife or boidekin;
For jalous folk been perilous evermo –
Algate they wold hir wives wenden so.
And eek, for she was somedeel smoterlich,
She was as digne as water in a ditch,
And full of hoker and bisemare.
Hir thought that a lady sholde hire spare,
What for her kinred, and hir nortelrye
That she had lerned in the nonnerye. (Chaucer, The Reeve’s Tale, lines 31-48)
This whole passage drips with sarcasm and is, we shall see later, a complete contrast to Alisoun, not just in attitude but in the methodology of description. Here we are given one physical detail – she wore ‘a gite of red’: the rest of the passage is about her husband’s brutish behaviour and her attitude, not her physicality. In terms of giving us a physical impression of Simekin’s wife this passage is empty –as empty as their social pretentions. But in this Tale that is all they have – there are no private spaces, no places to aspire to, to dream about. The miller’s wife, from this description, has nothing tangible about her that is at all attractive – it is all to do with her background and manners.
So if each man in The Miller’s Tale has an imagined private world in which he possesses Alisoun, in The Reeve’s Tale only the public world has any importance. There is certainly no privacy in the miller’s house, thus allowing the bed-trick to take place, but also because Simekin and his wife have an over-weaning pride in her imagined higher social connections. The church is satirized mercilessly here as the narrator describes the priest’s plans for his granddaughter:
The person of the town, for she was fair,
In purpose was to maken hir his heir
Both of his cautel and his mesuage,
And strange he made it of hir marriage.
His purpose was for to bestow hir hye
Into some worthy blood of auncetrye,
Fro hooly chirches good moot been dispended
On hooly chirches blood that is descended;
Therefore he wold his hooly blood honoure,
Though that he holy chirche shold devoure. (Chaucer, The Reeve’s Tale, lines 57-66)
The way Chaucer repeats ‘hooly’ in each of these lines condemns the worldiness and corruption of the priest and exposes the public world of the village as meaningless. As Brown puts it:
The sexual profligacy, social ambition and corruption of the priest, which enabled their union and sustains their aspirations, are described in vituperative terms, and add further to the sense that Simekin’s belief in his own importance is illicit and an overstepping of boundaries. (p. 139)
His overstepping of boundaries is clearly referring to his violent brutality and his theft of corn from all and sundry, protected only by his weapons and the threat of physical violence.
This dichotomy between the two tales works in almost every level. Nicholas, for all his ‘punishment’ at the end of the tale, is clever and sophisticated. Chaucer or the Miller as narrator take s a loving and affectionate view of his books and the tools of his study which are described in detail and with relish:
His Almageste, and bookes grete and smale,
His atrelable, longynge for his art,
His augrym stones layen layen faire apart,
On shelves couched at his beddes heed:
His presse ycovered with a falding reed;
And al above there lay a gay sautrie,
On which he made a-nyghtes melodie. (Chaucer, the Miller’s Tale, ll.22-28)
Here the detailed way the narrator describes the arcane and esoteric tools and instruments of astrology, and their careful arrangement – both in Chaucer’s verse and in Nicolas’s bedroom – present the objects as things to be revered and valued in themselves. We will see a similar physical enjoyment of the inherent value of material things, even material and quotidian things, in the narrator’s long description of Alisoun.
Similarly his elaborate plan to spend an entire night with Alison is highly detailed and clever, based on delusion and trickery and superb manipulation of John’s credulity – we and Nicolas seem to take as much pleasure from the plan as from its objective.
By contrast, the students in The Reeve’s Tale have nothing to set them apart from any other human being– no musical talent, no psychological understanding of the needs of women – just brute opportunistic revenge and comic Northern accents. They are easily duped by Simekin freeing their horse into the fen and their cuckolding of the miller is due to luck and happenstance, not careful planning and the intricate world of make-believe that Nicholas conjures up. The world of the reeve is a barbaric one with no redeeming features, whereas The Miller’s Tale is full, by contrast, of what we might go so far as to call finer feeling. Even Absolon’s pretentiousness and lack of self-knowledge, his preening vanity and his belief in his appeal to the ladies is at least an aspiration to rise above the limitations of what it is to be human – but there is no such aspiration in The Reeve’s Tale.