Whether or not we choose to identify the narrator of ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ as the Merchant described in the ‘General Prologue’, this narrative voice is certainly not Chaucer’s own, and it augments the malignity of the tale it tells. The narrator attacks a naїve fool from a disenchanted perspective, but unwittingly reveals the continuing blindness within his own knowing stance. The tale debunks all the noble, even sacred ideals it presents, and characterizes them as foolishly innocent elevations of the spiritual in a world defined by the body in its grossest aspects. The narrator’s rhetorical tropes, floridly presented and habitually misused, gesture towards a sordid reality that they pretend to gloss over. Yet despite itself, the tale implies a psychologically healthy middle ground outside the experience of the narrator or his characters, where body and soul, real and ideal, experience and innocence can meet.
John M. Fyler is Professor of English at Tufts University, and Lecturer at the Bread Loaf School of English. His books include Language and the Declining World in Chaucer, Dante, and Jean de Meun (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and Chaucer and Ovid (Yale University Press, 1979), and he edited the House of Fame for the Riverside Chaucer.