Chaucer’s ‘The Miller’s Tale’ is one of the most recognised forms of fabliaux, a short story written in verse about people of lower class, in which the common plot of a love triangle between the stereotypical characters of a cunning young student, a jealous old husband and his young beautiful wife is contained. The characters that fulfil these roles in the Tale are Nicolas, John and Alison, as well as Absolon, the character who takes a shine to Alison, is tricked and later seeks revenge, adding humour and irony to the Tale.
When reviewing the characters in the Tale, it is recognisable that there are events that merit the reader’s sympathy, however, though we are aware of their suffering, Chaucer presents the characters in such a way that amusement, rather than sympathy, is provoked. Few of the characters and their actions deserve admiration; however certain qualities of the character’s personalities can be seen as admirable and it is these that will considered later in greater detail.
In ‘The Miller’s Prologue’ the reader is promised a tale of a carpenter who becomes the laughing stock of his town when a young student cuckolds him, “a clerk hath set the wrightes cappe”. At this point, the reader will become aware of the ensuing Tale’s connections to fabliaux after the Miller promises to tell “a legende and a lyf… of a carpenter and of his wyf” including the reference to a student who outwits the elder male character.
Though the reader is expectant of a carpenter to be the butt of the Tale, it is noticeable that the character of John is criticised more for being foolish and uneducated by the Miller, than as a representative of his craft. John, from the outset, is conveyed as both old and uneducated, and therefore by implication, stupid. The Miller criticises John for marrying unwisely, and claims that although he “knew nat Catoun”, his common sense should have prevailed and caused him to realise his marriage was ill fated from the beginning.
The character of John is typical of the fabliau format, as it is the role of the resentful elderly husband that he occupies. The reader is told of how John keeps Alison in a metaphorical cage, ” heeld hire narwe in cage”, but they are able to recognise themselves that John himself has “fallen in the snare” by marrying her since “youthe and elde is often at debaat”.
When John speculates on Nicholas’s disappearance, the joke sustained within the passage is of John’s warning about how prying into the future and seeking to understand the secrets of God will lead to a fall, considering that in ‘The Miller’s Prologue’ the reader is already warned against being “inquisitif Of Goddes privetee”. John recounts the cautionary tale of a star-gazer who fell into a well, the story’s original moral being aimed at those foolish enough to believe that the future could be read from the stars.
Even though it is John that tells this tale, it does not prevent him later being fooled by Nicholas’s highly improbable prediction that he is to be the second Noah, the outcome being irony provoked here by Chaucer. As John decides to check on Nicholas’s well being, he discovers him “sat ay as stille as stoon” and “evere caped upward In the eir”. It is Nicholas’s accomplished acting skills that the reader finds humour in, as well as finding John’s concoction of prayers that occur later on in the passage laughable.
It is in his prayer that John’s faith is exposed as being both superstitious and childish, a revelation of his ignorant piety. In his fooling of John, Nicholas asks him if had heard of the story of Noah’s flood, to which John replies that he had; however John’s ignorance of the Biblical story is conveyed through his belief in Nicholas’s prophesy when the Bible states that never again would a similar flood strike the Earth. John is sworn to secrecy by Nicholas and it is in his protests that he is “nam no labbe” that John comes across as hypocritical, since he is a well-known gossip.
Chaucer conveys John as arrogant and conceited in his belief of Nicholas that he has been appointed as the ‘second Noah’ and it is as a result of incidents like these that the reader lacks sympathy for John’s later downfall. Although this passage develops John’s character as being both gullible and opinionated, it is his concern for his wife that maintains the balance between sympathy and ridicule, keeping the reader interested in what happens to him.
With John, as with the fellow characters in the Tale, the reader’s sympathies are engaged just enough to keep us interested in what happens to him, but not quite enough to make the reader care or feel compassion for him. It is his characteristics of being foolish, self-important and uneducated, that prevents the reader feeling either empathy or respect for John. Though it is debatable whether John’s cuckolding is worthy of compassion or not, his unwise choice in marriage and jealousy of Alison’s youth, may cause the reader to feel that he is deserving of the humiliation of being cuckolded.
The reader may feel sympathy for John in the outcome of the Tale where he is thought to be “wood” by “al the toun”; however, it is Chaucer’s presentation of John throughout the Tale as “sely” that prevents us from truly sympathising with his situation. Furthermore, the reader lacks admiration for John since Chaucer invites the reader to ridicule his gullibility and ignorance and the only incident throughout the Tale where John comes across as likeable is in his worrying for Alison’s well being at the prospect of the flood occurring.
Through the description of Nicholas’s room, the reader is presented with a description of Nicholas’s personality and it has been suggested that his name could have been derived from Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of sweet smells and young girls. From the beginning of the Tale Nicholas is referred to as ‘hende’, almost as if it were part of his name. The adjective has been translated as ‘courteous’ or ‘handy’, giving insight to Nicholas’s character, and it is an example of one of Chaucer’s literary techniques, as the two other male characters in the Tale both have adjectives before their names, John’s being ‘sely’ and Absolon’s ‘joly’.
Nicholas’s main personality traits of self-confidence, sharp wit and intelligence make him a more attractive character to the reader; however his vanity and blasphemy prevent us from truly liking him. Though he is over confident, fools his landlord and sleeps with Alison, Chaucer invites the reader to admire Nicholas’s cleverness in his wooing of Alison, through the detail of his plan and his gulling of John. One can admire Nicholas’s wooing techniques, though admittedly crude, as he manages to get the girl in spite of having competition.