notes on The Miller's Tale

The Miller's Prologue

1.The Miller's Interruption

2. The Miller's Apology

3. The Miller says that his tale will be "a legende and a lyfe/ both of a carpenter and of his wife/ How that a clerk hath set the wrightes cappe." (3141)  In such an explicit religious context (a legend meant a story about a saint), Chaucer's audience might anticipate a story signifying Mary and Joseph. 

4. The Reve immediately interrupts (3144). Why the Reve? Either because (1) he is a carpenter or (2) he has religious pretensions and thus he objects to what he assumes is the coming religious blasphemy, or (3) he merely objects to what he presumes will be a bawdy tale. "It is a synne" he cries (3146). 

5.  The Miller's theme: (3164): "A housbonde shall not been inqusityf / Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf." On one level the phrase simply means that husbands shouldn't inquire too closely into God's secrets, nor into their wives' secrets. The analogy between the two is blasphemous enough. But there is another level to the word play. Pryvetee refers to privates, genitals. In the Middle Ages it always carries this resonance. Thus the phrase says literally, we shouldn't inquire too closely into God's genitals.

6.   Consider as well, the application to Mary and Joseph. Joseph is repeatedly depicted in the Cycle Plays as a jealous husband. Mary is pregnant. She claims the Angel Gabriel came down to her and announced that God has chosen her to bear the Messiah. Joseph, always depicted as an older man, is afraid that maybe God came to his wife "cleverly disguised" as a Roman soldier. Consider the analogy of Mary and Joseph with Alisoun and John.

7. Chaucer's Apology

The Miller's Tale

1. a fabliaux, a versified short story designed to make you laugh; concerned usually with sexual or excretory functions. The plot often involves members of the clergy and is usually in the form of a practical joke carried out for love or revenge. Usually, an older (Father) figure is cuckolded by a younger man whom the older man has himself brought into the house.

2. The Miller repays the Knight: The Miller's Tale shows how far from the idealism of romance much of actual life is led. For the two nobles we get two clerks (a university student and a minor functionary in the parish church). The lady is a wench, far from distant and idealized. The older man is a "rich gnof," stupid and credulous. We get love among the common people here, and the sympathetic characters (Nicholas and Alisoun) are the ones who behave naturally and practically. Thus The Miller's Tale parodies the literary qualities of the "Knight's Tale" and ridicules the circumstances it describes, the resolution it comes to, and the tone in which it is told. If the first tale inspires us by expressing the human capacity for heroism and generosity, the second speaks to our fear that men are nothing more than creatures of duplicity and selfish desire, who, for all their cleverness, are incapable of self-control or self-knowledge.

3. Nicholas described (3187-3220): Astrological interests are foregrounded, especially as related to weather forecasting. Then this plant is burried. Note his sautrie, and his song, The Angel to the Virgin, suggesting the Annunciation.

4.Why is Alisoun described as she is? Alisoun is owned by her husband. John has bought her, as evidenced by her very expensive clothes. Thus she is a slave (whom he holds 'narwe in cage'), and as a slave she has (from our point of view) a moral right to free herself. The Narrator's (The Miller's) attitude toward her is that she is simply a "wench" (3253-3254). She is really just a prostitute which the mercantile image following emphasizes. The Narrator seems to dismiss her as a wench, but the imagery suggests or might elicit a more complex set of responses valuing wildness, freedom, naturalness, spontaneity over the conventional cage of tyranny and slave/master relationships social custom supports.

5. "The Knight's Tale" (from one perspective) emphasized the working out of God's (The Firste Moevere's) Providential Order. Theseus (substitute father/God figure) gives a long speech (2986-3046, N.B. last lines) stressing the uselessness of any individual's assertion against this order. But from the Miller's "Marxist" perspective, acceptance of such order implies the acceptance of the whole fabric of political/social/religious order which to him is bondage. That is why he is so angry! Nicholas asserts himself against that Order, and in doing so he creates his own order. 

6. Nicholas Plan: Nicholas tells the Old Man that a great flood is coming. John's first thought is for his wife. (3521-3522 N.B. the rhyme.) Nicholas reminds John of the trouble Noah had with his wife and suggests that Noah would have been better off if his wife had had her own boat. Tells John:

1. Go get each of us a big tub and food enough for a day.

2. Don't tell anyone, not even Robin or Gill (the maid). 3558: Can't tell God's "privetee."

3. Hang these three tubs high in the roof where no one will see.

4. Be sure to have an ax handy, so that when the water comes they will be able to release themselves.

5. None of them must speak, except to pray. This is God's command. (Nicholas is like Gabriel!)

6. 3589ff: You and your wife must be far apart (flatters him) so that there won't be any sin between you.

7. The Bawdy Conclusion: What of the "gigantically grotesque sign" that hangs suspended over the rest of the action until John's fall? "Two round containers and an oblong one, each big enough to hold a person: the "knedying trogh," "tub," and "Kymelyn" (3620-21)? "If the oblong trough were hung parallel to the ground, which it would have to be to serve as a boat, what would this trinity of containers look like from underneath? Might the carpenter's installation not look like the crude figure of huge male genitals in erection, a burlesque, carnivalesque version of "Goddes pryvetee."