The Miller’s Tale is the second story in the medieval collection written by Geoffrey Chaucer. The stories are told by eleven pilgrims to each other as they travel on their way to Canterbury. The first story is told a by a knight, about two princes who fall in love with Emelye at first sight. Next, the miller gets his turn.
It has been argued that the Miller’s tale reflects a fall in social status a from the noble intentions of the characters in the Knight’s Tale, and their noble standing as well, in contrast to the commoners in the latter’s tale: a carpenter, a scientist interested in astrology, and a poet.
This paper will give a critical review of the Miller’s tale focusing on the theme of jealousy as portrayed by the major characters. The article by Charles Smith on the theme of jealousy in Chaucer’s stories will be used to better elaborate this theme as it is presented in the Miller’s Tale.
It has been noted that there is a striking resemblance between the Miller’s Tale and another poem which appeared at around the same time as Chaucer’s story did. The anonymous poem is also about a married woman Alison who is desired by two men. It is debatable whether Chaucer’s story is based on the anonymous poem.
In the Canterbury Tales, after the knight has finished telling his story, it is the miller’s turn. The miller tells the story of a carpenter by the name of John, who lives with his newly married wife Alison, and a scientist Nicholas who is interested in astrology.
John is very protective of his young wife; he fears that because of the difference in their ages and her beauty he might lose her to another man. Nicholas, the clerk is enamored by Alison, and the situation is not helped after he comes upon her inflagrante delicto when her husband is away.
Nicholas decides that he will woo Alison into becoming his lover and develops the habit of flirting with her in her husband’s absence. At the same time, there is Absolom the poet and clerk who is just as enamored. He on the other hand woos Alison the proper way; by standing outside her window and serenading her after dark.
However, Alison prefers Nicholas and makes a mockery of Absolom’s courtship and agrees to be Nicholas’ lover. They hatch an elaborate plot in which they deceive the carpenter into thinking there is a great flood coming and he needs to put wooden tubs in the attic where they will spend the night on the day the flood is to commence so that they can be safe.
Nicholas and Alison take the chance on the night preceding the flood to creep downstairs and spend the night in each other’s arms. At dawn, when Absolom comes to do his serenade, Alison comes to the window, and out of mischief lets him kiss her ass.
Furious, he goes to the blacksmith from where he gets a red-hot hoe and brands Nicholas ass with it. The commotion rouses John who falls from attic all the way into the cellar breaking an arm. When other people come to investigate what the problem might be, the two lovers accuse the carpenter of being mad. And there ends The Miller’s Tale.
Charles Smith, writing in the Chaucer Review, picks the theme of jealousy on which to elaborate upon. He starts by pointing out that the miller wants to tell a tale that will mock a jealous husband. Smith on the kind of jealousy that the Miller understands the kind of jealousy that is inspired by envy and selfishness, not that which stems from the need to uphold the chastity of one’s wife.
The former kind is the one which the miller mocks. The author goes ahead to state that the miller sets out to ridicule the carpenter and the Reeve because of the results of their jealous actions. However, he might just as well be mocking himself because the way he talks openly about his own marital concerns relay an underlying insecurity.
To better understand the context of jealousy as it is played out in the Miller’s Tale, Charles Smith begins by explaining Biblical jealousy of the Old Testament. He states that the God of the Old Testament is very possessive, with constant demands of faithfulness to Him and Him alone.
Whenever His adherents went astray, He visited His wrath upon them. He illustrates this with the example of God talking to Moses on the Mount, reaffirming that he should not worship any other God other than Yahweh, and with Paul in the New Testament who passes on the message that the commitment required of God’s believers is as that of a virgin to her husband upon marriage.
From this point, he expounds that in medieval times, such as that in which the Miller’s Tale is set, it was to be expected for a husband to be totally outraged upon the spouse’s indiscretion. So much so that he may even resort to violence. In some cases, the husband would proceed to a court of law and file for a divorce.
Smith further elaborates that in medieval times, a husband’s love had to have an aspect of godly jealousy because the husband was interested in maintaining the ‘spiritual well-being’ (Smith n.p) of the spouse. This kind of jealousy had a wrathful vindictiveness that dictated punishment for going astray.
Quoting Berchorius, who says that God’s love for the human soul is a jealous type of love, and that when a man tries to go astray, then God brings him back to the fold but punishes him so that he may not stray again. Jealousy is taken as a sign of love because if a husband is not jealous of his wife it means that he is indifferent and thus cannot have deep-seated feelings for her.
This background information provided by Charles Smith helps us to gain a better understanding of John the Carpenter’s insecurity about his wife’s infidelity; not eased by the fact that he was way older than her, and she was very attractive. He was mortified by the thought of being the cuckolded husband.
However, Smith points out that the miller Robin is victim to jealousy without showing much concern for his wife’s soul (Smith n.p). The conclusion can then be drawn that though the miller is outraged by his wife’s actions, he is not jealous, and thus it cannot be that he loves her.
Charles Smith further elaborates how the theme of jealousy was regarded in popular medieval literature. He says that there was understood to be two categories of jealousy: the jealousy of true and lasting love, where the two lovers have earned each others’ trust and their jealousy is driven by a need to safeguard the other’s soul.
The other kind of jealousy is the one that is inspired by lack of trust in the other, picking on a negative trait to accuse them of what they are capable of doing, even if they have not done so (Smith n.p).
Geoffrey Chaucer in the Miller’s Tale, explains Smith, expounds on these two different types of jealousies. The first kind is the one that arouses baseless suspicion and brings shame upon the couple, and the second kind which ensures that a woman does not commit adultery against her husband (Smith n.p).
It is apparent that the jealousy felt by the carpenter towards his wife is the virtuous kind of jealousy. He understands that the wife is young and beautiful, and her head may be swayed by charming men her own age such as Nicholas. Hence, he illustrates a deep concern for her spiritual well-being by keeping close guard over her. It is his love for her that drives him to keep her so closely watched.
The miller on the other hand, is driven by a baser type of jealousy; by exposing his wife’s shame in public, he makes it apparent that what bothers him is not really her fall from grace but rather, how the deed reflects on him. By not having a grasp on the concept of godly jealousy, the miller ends up being the one who looks the fool instead of the carpenter as he intended.
Absolom, upon discovering the two lovers and being disgraced further by the act of kissing Alison’s behind, is engulfed in a jealous rage. His cannot be the noble kind of jealousy that Chaucer exalts.
One, he is not married to Alison, and thus has no right to be jealous over her actions. Secondly, he should not even be pursuing her for she is a married woman. His jealousy is driven by his own shame for being rejected, and the shame of being made to kiss Alison’s behind.
His jealousy is self righteous, like the miller’s feeling towards his wife, Absolom the clerk experiences a jealousy that is self-serving. The last thought he has in mind is how to preserve Alison’s virtue. If this had been the case, he might never have pursued her in the first place.
It is interesting to note that while Charles Smith points out that a godly jealousy as was expected of love in medieval times demanded retribution, Alison gets off scot free for her infidelity. It was the husband’s role to guard his wife’s virtue, as john attempts to do with Alison.
However, when she takes on Nicholas as her lover, then his anger and his wrath should have been so great that she should have felt it. Either, he should have resorted to physical violence, or ‘divorcement’ (Smith n.p) in the natural course of things.
But neither of these things happens. She gets away with the act unpunished; it is her husband who actually comes away the worse for wear, with a broken arm and certified mad for believing in Nicholas’ apocalyptic prophesy of end time floods.
The fact that John actually believes Nicholas false prophesies, as what crosses his mind first upon hearing them is his wife and her safety; that he is willing to go to the extent of hanging three wooden tubs in the attic goes to reinforce his genuine love for her. Indeed, his fierce protection of her stems from a sincere adoration, and it is this jealousy that dictates him to guard her virtue so closely.
The Miller’s tale is an engaging read. It is much shorter than the Knight’s Tale, not exhibiting the lengthy dialogues that are the trademark of the Knight’s Tale.
It takes a lighter tone as well, with the events turning out quite contrary to how such medieval tales would have at the time; the cuckolding wife who gets away without censure, the brazen and uncouth Nicholas whose advances are not snubbed but rather he actually gets the girl, the romantic Absolom who should have been rewarded is made the fool.
Jealousy as a theme recurs between the miller and his wife, and the subject of the miller’s tale- John the carpenter and his wife Alison.
The miller sets out to tell a tory that will subvert the virtues of love as portrayed by the knight, as being noble and chivalrous, and worth dying for. He portrays love as callous, fickle, ridiculous and leading to shame and disgrace. Part of the miller’s attitude arises from his own troubled relations with his wife.
In attempting to make the carpenter look the fool, the joke is turned upon him for whereas the carpenter guards his wife virtue from a righteous sort of jealousy and love, the same cannot be said about the miller. In the end he turns out to be the butt of his own joke.
Smith, R. Charles: “Jealousy: Chaucer’s Miller and the Tradition” The Chaucer Review 43 (1) 2008: 16-47. Web. 8, Dec. 2010