An Analysis of "The Miller's Tale" in Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales"

Updated on September 18, 2017
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Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

Chaucer's "The Miller's Tale" Overview

The second tale in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a fabliau told by the Miller. In his tale, he tells of a carpenter named John, John’s wife Allison, and their story of courtship and deceit.

In the tale, Allison is a young bride who is sought after by two other men, Nicholas and Absolon. The story continues to explain how Allison and Nicholas devise a plan to distract John, so that they can sleep together. The character Absolon is also in love with Allison and attempts to win her over through song. However, she will not have it and she and Nicholas decide to play a joke on Absolon.

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Narrative Point of View

Throughout the tale, the story can be seen as a reflection of the Miller’s character as told by Chaucer–the narrator. It is clear that the narrator wants to separate himself from the Miller’s character as he states several times that he is merely “rehearing” what the Miller had said. “M’athynketh that I shal reherce it here. And therfore every gentil wight I preye, For Goddes love, demeth nat that I seye Of evel entente, but that I moot reherce” (ll. 3170-73).

Throughout the tale, the narrator frames both a objective and a subjective depiction of the Miller’s character. In the end of the Miller’s Prologue, the narrator states that, “The Millere is a cherl, a ye knowe wel this / And harlotrye they tolden bothe two” (ll. 3180-3184). Before the passage even begins, the narrator is apologizing for the tale’s obscenities and requests that we do not put blame on him for repeating the tale of such a horrid man.

Previously, in the General Prologue, the Miller’s character is framed in an objective sense. We are told that he is a powerful and strong man, “he was of brawn, and eek of bones” (l. 546). He is described as a man who can break down doors with his head and is a “knotty fellow.” Aside from his brute strength, the Miller is described as a man with a “berd as any sowe or fox was reed” (l. 551).

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"The Miller's Tale" Symbolism, Characterization, and Allusion

In the Miller’s Prologue, the Knight (who told the first story) had finished his tale, and the Host offered the next turn to the Monk. The Miller is drunk, though, and declares that he shall be next. He cuts off the Monk and the Host, and makes it his duty to tell a tale of a carpenter named John and young bride Allison. The Miller cutting in the way he did already begins to frame his character before the actual tale even begins. The narrator also apologizes for the crude humor that is soon to come in the tale. It is to the narrators regret that the Miller begins his tale.

The Miller's tale creates a fine line between the gullible religious orthodox and the sideways humor of trick-playing upon other people. Part of the tale is told by the Miller as a humorous classic of a man who is tricked into believing a flood is coming, but in reality it is not at all comical because the man ends up badly injured and his wife in bed with another man.

This furthers the subjective description of the Miller’s character. One can see the delusion of the reality of the situation and the troubled fantasy that is portrayed by the drunken Miller. He imagines the adulterous act of sleeping with the young bride, and the small but significant battle for her loins between the husband and her suitors.

The tale is set in somewhat of a biblical sense with John being a carpenter, and John believing Noah’s second flood is coming to his house. The Miller’s subjective character is once again framed as he goes into intimate detail of Allison and Nicholas devising a plot to get rid of John. The sneakiness of Allison going behind John’s back alludes to the negative aspect of the Miller’s character. He seems to take pleasure in their plans as they “speke in privitee,” and “as the cat was wont in for to crepe” (ll. 3492, 3440). The Miller shows his darker side, and just as red has been associated with the devil and his work, the red-bearded Miller is associated with the deceitful plans of the adulterous lovers, and their scheme to trick John into exhaustion. “Of derne love he coude and of solas; and therto he was sleigh and ful privee” (ll. 3200-01).

The Miller’s character is also subjectively described through the language that is used. First, he is instantly shown to be a cruel and jealous man with his wife. Several times she is described as being locked away in a cage or a secluded chamber, “Jalous he was, and heeld hire narwe in cage” (l. 3224). His character was not at all intelligent, and this also reflects the Miller. “He knew nat Catoun, for his wit was rude” (l. 3227). The Miller’s intelligence is played upon in several ways throughout the passage. First, with a clear objective picture, the Miller is in a way a part of all the characters. He is like John who is so gullible, that he believes the flood is coming. He is like Allison in the fact that he is lustful and thinks of young women making love with other men aside from their husbands. Finally, he is shown as a crude man with an even cruder tongue.

In the General Prologue, he is described as a teller of vulgarities. His intelligence is first downplayed by the fact that he is in a drunken stupor telling his story out of turn. Next, he often uses short abrupt words that do not describe a setting or scene, but more of a noise or vulgar emotional state whenever he speaks. The best example of this crude use of language is when Absolon is at Allison’s window requesting a kiss. “This Nicholas anon leet fle a fart, As greet as it had been a thonder-dent” (ll. 3806-07). The vivid act of and imagery the “fart” portrays the Miller’s grotesque mannerisms. In our day, such an act or speaking of such an act is frowned upon and considered repulsive; however, in the Miller’s medieval setting, it must have been troubling to the ears in mind to imagine such an act, especially with a lady present both in the telling of the tale and within the tale itself.

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The Miller as the Antagonist

In classic literature, when a character is described with red hair, they are most commonly depicted as a type of antagonist, a character negative to those who are seen as good. This negative attribution is furthered when the Miller is described with, “A werte ... / Upon the cop right of his nose ...” (ll. 554-55). The Miller is no prince, he is the closest a man can come to being a large brute like ogre, without actually being one. As well, the Miller is described as a crude man with a foul mouth and even fouler stories to go along with it. “He was a janglere and a goliardeys, And that was most of sinne and harlotryes” (ll. 560-61). Instantly it is concluded that the Miller’s character is often frowned upon by the other characters. He is an ugly and ill-mouthed man; this detail is further described in his tale.

"The Miller's Tale" vs. "The Knight's Tale"

The Miller’s tale sets itself far apart from the Knight’s tale. First, in the language used, the Knight’s tale offers long and drawn out speeches, whereas whenever a character in the Miller’s tale speaks, it is often short, abrupt, and filled with small talk but epic and crude imaginative detail. The Knight’s tale is much longer than the Miller’s, and it portrays an honorable battle between to Knights for the love of a single woman. The Miller’s tale reflects the Miller’s negative character as two unchivalrous men fight for the love of a woman who is already married to an outside man–John. They do not try to win her through bravery or honorable battle; instead they sneak and plot their way into her life.

The tale is a polar opposite to the Knight’s, and if the Knight’s tale could be seen as a honorable discourse, the Miller’s is that of scum and dirt; it reveals the sick and twisted side of men’s hearts and minds. In the end of both tales a man is badly injured or dead from no result of the other characters within the tale. Arcite is killed by his horse, a problem not resulting from any outside force, and John is fallen, pale and hurt with a broken arm, due to his own misfortune and misinterpretation. However, the results of these accidents are not the same.

In the Knight’s tale, Arcite does die, but his cousin Palamon ends up with his love. Palomon weeps for his lost cousin, but in the end is extremely appreciative of his wife for the rest of his life. The ending to the Knight’s tale reflects the Knight’s character. It is honorable, it ended for one character on the battlefield, and in the end the honorable man gets the girl. In the Miller’s tale, the persuader of adultery–Nicholas–ends up with a burned behind. The husband–John–although faithful and loving to his young bride, ends up mocked and injured. He kept her imprisoned in their home, hidden from the world.

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Final Thematic Reflections

In the end, it seems that what goes around comes around. We leave the story off with him being mocked not only for believing a flood was coming, but also with a broken bone. He will most likely have to bedridden and also locked in his house just as he once did to his wife. His wife cheats on him, and just as the story reflects the negative aspect of the Miller’s character, the ending ends poorly for the character. The tale truly tells of trickery and sneakiness being rewarded with nothing good. Just as the Miller was probably mocked for his red hair and large wart, the story ends with John being mocked for his stupidity and blind outlook of his life and the life that his wife had taken part in.

The Canterbury Tale: The Miller's Tale

© 2017 Luke Holm

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