Themes of Marriage in the Merchant?s Tale
In Geoffrey Chaucer?s ?The Merchant?s Tale?, the theme of marriage is viewed in a few different ways. Although the Merchant uses sarcasm to misconstrue his true opinions of marriage, it is evident by the end of the tale that he thinks it foolish for a man to commit himself to a woman in such a way. To begin, the tale considers marriage to be a religious and holy ceremony in which a man and woman are joined together by God. This view, provided to us by the Merchant, suggests that no other state of matrimony is ?worth a bene? (Chaucer 1263). He believes that being married can be advantageous and highlights the positive qualities a wife can bring to a relationship. In marriage a man can ?Liveth a lyf blisful and ordinaat? (Chaucer 1284). He also suggests that within the bonds of marriage, man and woman have a reason to be faithful to one another and support each other through both good times and bad. ?Who is so trewe, and eek so entenif/ To kepe him, sik and hool, as is his make?? (Chaucer 1288-89). This rhetorical question, posed by the Merchant, emphasizes the vows performed during a customary Christian wedding ceremony in which a man and woman vow to support each other in sickness and in health despite the condition of their financial situation. For that reason, the Merchant believes marriage to be a spiritual connection. In his opinion, to have a wife is to have ?paradys? (Chaucer 1265).
On the other hand, it can be seen that the Merchant is, in fact, being ironic when discussing the benefits of marriage. He has been married for only two months and is already full of regret. During the Merchant?s prologue, he speaks of his own wife and the suffering she has caused him to experience; ?For thogh the feend to hire ycoupled were, /She wolde him overmacche, I dar wel swere? (Chaucer 1219-20). He believes that even if his wife were married to the devil she would still manage to defeat him with her cruelness and deception. He describes her as ?a shrewe at al? (Chaucer 1222). As a result, readers discover the Merchant?s opinion of marriage to be quite the opposite of what he first described. When telling the tale, he describes January as a foolish character.
January, in ?The Merchant?s tale?, believes marriage to be a holy passageway through which he can enter into heaven. He believes that he can atone for his immoral and selfish behavior by seeking out and marrying a single woman; ?I have my body folily despended/ Blessed be God that it shal been amended? (Chaucer 1403-04). It seems noble to attempt to make up for one?s past actions and behavior, however, the word ?despended? reveals the idea that this atonement is more similar to a financial transaction than a sincere proposal. However, marriage in the 14th century was more like a fiscal transaction than a shared love, particularly among the upper classes, where mergence of title, land and money were most prevalent. Therefore, it can be seen that January, ?A worthy knight?, does not seek marriage as a means to find true love but instead to seek an heir to his fortune and assets.
This idea is revealed in January?s expectations and process in finding a wife. He can be observed as conceited and arrogant as he desires a wife who ?shal nat passe twenty yeer, certayn? (Chaucer 1417). January is sixty and the desire for a wife so young suggests that it is physical appearance he is concerned with as opposed to other equally important qualities such as intelligence and social status; ?Oold fissh and yong flessh wolde I ful fayn? (Chaucer 1418). January compares the wife he requests to tender meat, suggesting he seeks her for sexual gratification. The reference to ?yong flesh? also sheds a disturbing light on his sexual fantasies, implying that he desires a physical connection with a woman?s body rather than a spiritual connection with her heart and soul. However, it was not at all uncommon for men in this period of history to seek young wives. It was actually quite normal for elderly men to seek a fertile woman who could provide them with an heir to their fortune. By choosing wives who were younger and healthier, older