Background of Geoffrey Chaucer´s "The Miller´s Tale"

Presentation (Elaboration), 2008

11 Pages


Table of Contents




4.Structure and Style

5.Sources and Analogs


7.The Tale in Context



1. Introduction

Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale” is the second tale of The Canterbury Tales. That this place in the order of the tales is not a result of coincidence but is clearly done by purpose is one conclusion of this paper. The following does not only offer a close look at the single tale and its characteristics, but also shows how these relate to other tales of The Canterbury Tales, especially to “The Knight’s Tale,” which precedes it. It is necessary to shortly describe the tale’s plot at first, which is done in the next chapter. The tale’s genre and how it already relates to the placing in The Canterbury Tales is the content of chapter three. Structure and style of “The Miller’s Tale” can be connected to its preceding tale and will be explained next. Following that, sources and analogs and the tale’s themes will be presented. The context of the tale in The Canterbury Tales is the last important point described in this paper to understand the function of the tale’s characteristics in Chaucer’s tale-collection.

2. Plot

Four main characters appear in “The Miller’s Tale.” These are the old carpenter John, his young wife Alison, Nicholas who is a scholar and lodger at the carpenter’s house, and a parish clerk named Absolon. Nicholas and Absolon both love Alison.

In the story’s course, Nicholas makes Alison fall in love with him and plays a trick on the carpenter: He gets the carpenter to believe a flood worse as Noah’s is approaching and persuades him to hang up three tubs in the roof of the house to save Nicholas, Alison, and himself. The carpenter, exhausted from work, falls asleep in his tub, which gives Alison and Nicholas the chance to sneak out of their tubs and make love.

Absolon, the parish clerk, is tricked by Alison and Nicholas: She makes him kiss her anus and Nicholas makes air come out of his bowels into Absolon’s face. Absolon, in return, burns Nicholas with a hot iron, which makes Nicholas call for water. This causes the carpenter to believe that the flood has approached and to cut off the rope of his tub, believing that he can now safely float away. Instead, the carpenter falls down and breaks an arm. All neighbors, woken by the noise, gather at the carpenter’s house. Nicholas and Alison make a fool out of the carpenter in telling the neighbors that he had gone mad believing in an approaching flood. (Compare CT. “The Miller’s Tale.”)

3. Genre

“The Miller’s Tale” is considered to be a fabliau or an extended form of the fabliau. It is given as an example for the genre in literature-dictionaries (compare “Fabliau” 1998, “Fabliau” 1999, “Fabliau” 1991, and Preminger and Harrison 1993). The fabliau-genre developed in France in the thirteenth century (compare Benson 1987: 7 and others). Its typical features are described in the following, then compared to “The Miller’s Tale” and set in contrast to “The Knight’s Tale,” whose genre is a romance.

As all definitions agree, a fabliau is a short narrative in verse. Its verse is supposed to be octosyllabic, as is mentioned in three of the considered dictionaries (compare “Fabliau” 1991, “Fabliau” 1998, and “Fabliau” 1999); only Preminger and Harrison say that it is “commonly” so (1993). Its content is scurrilous, scatological, and/or obscene in nature, according to Benson (1987: 7). Fabliau-writers use satirical techniques, as is said in NTC ’ s Dictionary (“Fabliau” 1991 and “Satire” 1991), often against women and the clergy (compare “Fabliau” 1991 and “Fabliau” 1999). “[S]imple, vigorous, and straight-forward” style is typical of the genre, according to Benson (1987: 7). The Bedford Glossary states that the fabliau is “designed primarily to entertain” and does not have a moral behind its plot (“Fabliau” 1998), in contrast to the fable (compare “Fable” 1998 and “Fable” 1999). Fabliaux play in the present time (Benson 1987: 7 and others) with real and familiar settings and ordinary characters (Benson 1987: 7). The heroes and heroines of a fabliau are the witty and young, usually those that are disrespected by society, whereas its victims are usually those that are respected by society (Benson 1987: 7). “‘[F]abliau justice’ [...] does not always coincide with conventional morality,” claims Benson (1987: 7). Greed, pride, etc. are punished as well as old age for example (Benson 1987: 7). The plot of a fabliau contains “realistically motivated tricks,” which are overdone concerning the everyday life of the lower and middle class society in the given time (Benson 1987: 7).

“The Miller’s Tale” is an expanded, very detailed form of this genre. In addition to the above features, Chaucer uses detailed descriptions, long dialogues, and offers two major lines of action, which are the kiss-trick paralleling the flood-trick (compare Benson 1987: 7). The parodic features of the genre are completely exploited by Chaucer, says Benson (1987: 8). “The Miller’s Tale” has ten syllables in each line, which might also be an expansion compared to the usually octosyllabic verse. Concerning the plot set in everyday life, the tale was regarded as improper for the time and reader and was thus left out in several translations in earlier times (compare Ross 1983). This shows that the “realistically motivated tricks” (see above) are really overdone in being realistic during Chaucer’s time.

The Miller’s fabliau stands in strong contrast to the Knight’s romance, as all scholars agree. A fabliau concerns basic human functions, which are usually sex or even excretion (Cooper 1989: 95 and Preminger and Harrison 1993), whereas a romance concerns “ideals and idealized love” (Cooper 1989: 95). “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Knight’s Tale” are like “cunning and folly [versus] virtue and evil,” according to Cooper (1989: 95) or simply like fun versus seriousness. In the fabliau, serious things are used to create comedy (Ross 1983: 12). In “The Miller’s Tale” the seriousness comes from the bible (Noah’s Flood), from Cato (equality in marriage), and many others (compare Ross 1983: 12). Bédier, comparing the two genres, adds that in the fabliau we have the chivalric and in the romance the bourgeois world (qtd. in Ross 1983: 9). He also explains that the two literary genres are made for the two different groups: “here, the poetry of the castle; there, that of the streets” (qtd. in Ross 1983: 9). This shows how much the two tales differ from each other already by their genre and raises the question for which kind of reader Chaucer has written his tales or if his range in genre (from romance to fabliau) was intended to reach as many readers as possible. Further comparison of the two tales will be given in chapter seven, which considers “The Miller’s Tale” in the context of The Canterbury Tales.

4. Structure and Style

“The Miller’s Tale”’s structure parallels its plot. A detailed character introduction is followed by a series of scenes with minimum transitions. This turns the reader’s attention from one scene to another. In the end, one forgets the carpenter hanging in the roof, because the attention is at Absolon, Nicholas, and Alison and their first direct interaction. The falling together of the plot lines leads to the tale’s climax at this point: The carpenter literally crashes back into the reader’s attention and that he was forgotten makes it even more effective. (Compare Cooper 1989: 99-100 and Jordan qtd. in Ross 1983: 43.)

Cooper claims that “The Miller’s Tale” is written in a low style (1989: 105). According to Nykrog, it contains comically moves “from the romantic (high) to the realistic (low) style” (qtd. in Ross 1983: 44). Ross supports this, in saying that the tale shifts “from the amusingly blunt monosyllable to the language of courtly romance” (1983: 3). These shifts can be seen by comparing the colloquial language of the carpenter and that of the wooing Absolon for example. The discontinuity or abruptness in the tale’s structure (compare Jordan qtd. in Ross 1983: 44) is thus reflected by its incongruity in style. Another perfect example of this is the rhyming of kiss with piss in lines 3797-8 (compare Cooper 1989: 107). The structure and language throughout the tale shift between the idealistic and the pragmatic or the religious and the lustful (compare Cooper 1989: 107). Bolton claims, that “[t]he organization and the success of the Tale depend on the juxtaposition of courtly and common, sacred and profane, realistic and fantastic, in a single ironic statement” (qtd. in Ross 1983: 43).

The tale has uncomplicated syntax and mainly short words (Cooper 1989: 104). “Polysyllabic words tend to occur in clusters, only to be identified as jargon and pushed aside,” according to Cooper (1989: 105): “A word such as ‘cynamome’ is deflated by rhyming with ‘speketh to me’ ([ CT. ‘The Miller’s Tale’] 3699-700),” for example (Cooper 1989: 105). Abstract nouns are significantly rarely used, because they are just not required for the tale’s plot, explains Cooper (1989: 105).

Another significance of the style of the tale is its fast pace. It “reads aloud at almost twice the rate of the knight’s,” according to Cooper (1989: 104). The “strong regularly iambic tone” (Southworth qtd. in Ross 1983: 47) supports this.

The direct speech, which is very frequently used in the tale (compare Cooper 1989: 104), is carefully constructed to fit each character: Nicholas, for example, being a clerk, speaks in a wide range of vocabulary and over several lines, in opposition to John who is a carpenter and thus uses simple vocabulary and short speeches (compare Cooper 1989: 105). This technique provides further information about the speaking character and his or her level compared to the one he is speaking to or his status in society in general.


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Background of Geoffrey Chaucer´s "The Miller´s Tale"
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Helga Mebus (Author), 2008, Background of Geoffrey Chaucer´s "The Miller´s Tale", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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