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There once lived a Knight named January in the town of Pavia in Lombardy. He had lived a life of wantonness for nearly sixty years and was suddenly overcome by a strong desire to marry. He believed that marriage was earthly paradise and wished to marry a beautiful young maiden who could beget him a son and heir. He accordingly began his search for a suitable wife.
The Merchant then sarcastically launches into an exaggerated praise of the divine institution of marriage. He ironically praises a wife as being a gift of God and then gives the examples of the wise counsel given by women such as Rebecca, Judith, Abigail, that had in actuality only caused destruction. While praising wives he ironically quotes Cato and Seneca.
January then discussed his problem with his friends and expressed his desire to marry a very young maiden of not more than twenty years old. This led to a great debate and a dispute between the Knight’s brothers named Placebo and Justinus. While Placebo told January to take his own decision without taking anybody’s opinion into consideration, Justinus counseled against marriage since women are fickle. January then decided to get married.
January looked over the young girls who lived nearby and finally decided to marry one of them named May.
January’s happiness didn’t last long and unfortunately he suddenly lost his eyesight. He became sad and grew increasingly jealous of his young wife and feared that he would be deceived. He grew extremely possessive of her and would not let her go alone anywhere. This upset May who could not only send messages to Damian. Finally May contrived to get Damian into the January’s personal garden and told him to hide in the pear tree.
In the meanwhile the God Pluto and his wife Prosperina were watching the entire scene from a far corner of the garden. There arose a dispute among them when Pluto denunciated the treacherousness inherent in women. Pluto resolved to -restore- the old Knight’s eyesight at the very moment that May betrays him while Prosperina resolved to provide May with the perfect answer for her misdemeanor.
May then climbed up into the tree. May and Damian then embraced each other and made love. At this moment Pluto -restore-d January’s eyesight and he saw his wife embraced by Damian. However May claimed that she was only struggling with Damian since she had been told that by doing so she could -restore- her husband’s sight. When January said that it was more than a simple struggle, May told him that his eyes were weak and he had been deluded. January is convinced with May’s reply and fondly embraces her.
The Merchant’s Tale takes into account the bitter realities of life. The Merchant s tale reflects the disgust that he feels with himself for getting married and he heaps scorn on old January’s decision to marry after leading a carefree life as a bachelor.
The Merchant’s Tale has is a serious discussion of the problem of marriage.
Pluto -restore-s January’s sight and makes him see his wife’s betrayal but Prosperina endows May with the ability to satisfy January with her smart answer. The point that the Merchant makes is that marital happiness can only be achieved by self-imposed blindness. When January’s sight is -restore-d, he allows himself to be blinded to the true facts. He can see May and Damian locked in an embrace and still lets himself believe that his wife is faithful. The resolution of the plot is thus ironic. The tale could have very well ended in a tragedy but Chaucer makes the conclusion comic. Chaucer allows January to live in a fool’s paradise.