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The Miller’s Tale: The True Feminist or Anti-Feminist Debate

November 9, 2011

When reading the works of Geoffrey Chaucer, the possibility of a violent feminist versus anti-feminist debate among audiences is readily apparent.  When discussing feminism in Chaucer’s works, the first person to come to mind is the Wife of Bath, who has created many polarizing debates on if she is a feminist or anti-feminist figure.  Yet it is overlooked that she is not the only one to inspire this controversy in Chaucer’s works.  In The Miller’s Tale, readers are introduced to a character with a very similar name; Alison, whose actions and what they reveal of Chaucer’s ideas of women are just as confusing as the Wife of Bath’s.  On first glance it would seem that Alison is just another overlooked female used to further a plot. A closer examination, however, reveals that she truly may personify the idea of feminism.

On the surface, The Miller’s Tale seems to convey an obvious anti-feminist view of women.  The main character, Nicholas, is the protagonist in this story, and suitably detailed.  The reader learns of his occupation, a clerk, and that he knew the secrets of love and was “sly and ful privee” (Chaucer 93).  Beyond his secretiveness, it is shown that he is interested in the dark arts, something not suitable to his profession, but that give insight into his personality.  The readers can look at his actions and interpret the reasons behind them fairly easily.  In turn, John the carpenter can be viewed as an antagonist.  He is not given as much spotlight as Nicholas and is generally viewed in a less favorable light, despite being a seemingly nice guy.  In “Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale,” R.T. Lambdin describes John as “a God-fearing, hard-working, good man who loves and jealously guards his much younger wife.”  These traits are certainly not bad to have, in general.  Lambdin continues that he is “naïve and anti-intellectual, but he is not ‘ill-mannered.’”  He does, after all, take the time to visit his sick boarder.  When he first hears of the flood, his first thought is to his wife’s safety.  It is quickly apparent that John is a sweet, but not very bright guy, and nobody says that someone must be brilliant to be a good person.  Overall, we can see that John is also a well-rounded character.  The least expanded upon of the three men is Absolon, the clerk that causes the most intentional, malicious harm to Nicholas and is an obvious adversary.  He has only a small role to play, but the audience is still given some information into his desires and can understand the rationale behind those actions.

So what about Alison?  Of all the characters in this tale, she is the least fleshed out character.  We are given some idea of her desires, but they are mostly the reflections of the protagonist.  Nicholas sees her as a temptation.  He wants to sleep with her and, though she initial rejects him, basically is more than willing for a secret tryst.  The readers are not given any reasoning behind these actions either other than that Nicholas “spak so faire, and profred him so faste” (Chaucer 181).  These lines imply that all it takes to convince a woman to break the vow of marriage is a few sweet words, showcasing that she has no loyalty to the husband that cares so much for her.  That if a woman at first rejects the advances of a man in favor of her husband, then that man should just keep trying until he succeeds.

Yet Absolon was just as well spoken and persistent.  The readers are not told why she finds Absolon so repulsive compared to Nicholas or why she married someone so much older than her in the first place. Beyond her actual actions in the tale, all the readers are given is a very detailed summary of her appearance.  Chaucer is able to spend 35 straight lines describing her slender and delicate body and even her shoes were laced high, but cannot tell us if she has any actual desires or any basic personality traits.  In this time period, and in most time periods, a person’s inward disposition was much more important than the outward one.  Chaucer, for example, spends much time discussing the Knight’s nature, then talks merely of Squire’s appearance.  It is clear, then, that Alison is similarly seen as the less important character and more of another pretty face.

There are other displays of an anti-feminist viewpoint, of course.  For instance, aside from being a raunchy comedy, this tale showcases the idea of karma, for the most part, by punishing the characters for their misdeeds. While karma has no direct correlation with a feminist stand point, it can be seen that it is the great equalizer, in that it occurs for everyone.  Yet, in this case, it is shown that they are not equal.  Absolon, Nicholas, and John are all punished, for the most part fairly, for their misdeeds, but Alison who is a liar and an adulterer, at least, remains unscathed.  The other characters are shown that their actions have meaning by the punishments.  Absolon is, at first, a pest at worst, and so his punishment is mostly humiliation as “with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers” (Chaucer 626).  Nicholas, on the other hand, takes advantage of the man housing him and maliciously uses the nature of the people around him by seducing his kindly landlords wife and deceiving him with a nasty trick, and receives a harsh and humiliating punishment as seen when it is stated that, “The hote cultour brende so his toute/ That for the smert he wende for to die” (Chaucer 705-706).

John’s punishment could be seen as the worst of all of them when he suffers humiliation as the town’s laughingstock and the physical pain of a broken arm.  His punishment is a little disproportional to his crime, which, at worst, was being stupidly trusting and naïve.  It is still understandable, though, because the point of the tale was for the Miller to show jealousy is a ridiculous emotion and “An housbonde shal nought been inquisitive/ Of Godess privetee, or of his wif” (Chaucer 55-56).  In his opinion, the wife is of so little importance that as long as she is there when he wants her and she does what he expects of her, who cares what else goes on in her life.

Once again, this brings the readers back to Alison.  While she may not have been the one to plan the trick on the carpenter, she certainly helped arrange it and was even the cause for it.  She was the one who first tricked Absolon, and on her own accord.  Where is her punishment?  The answer is in the role she plays in this tale.  Her basic use is to get the plot moving and provide a reason for the other characters to act the way they do.  Her actions have no repercussions because they are not viewed as the actions of a character, but are a foregone conclusion of the behavior of women.  She is not punished by either the other characters or the tale teller because, to them, her actions are either dependent on someone else or just part of working with that character type.  They do not punish the poker for being hot and they do not punish the women for her actions.  A non-character is not expected to have the possibility of growth, so why bother punishing the character if they will not learn anything from it?

Yet, despite all this, Chaucer may yet be shown to only misogynistic themes with the purpose to ridicule them (Jordan).  For instance, though exuding sexuality might seem counterproductive for women in this day and age, it was not viewed in the same manner during this time period.  Today, it is a fashion trend to dress promiscuously and can lead to the, sometimes accurate, belief that some females are getting opportunities for the wrong reasons, and unflattering reputations based on this.  The days of Chaucer, however, displayed a much more modest time and females using sexuality to get ahead was much more unconventional and sometimes the only way to get what they want.  Chaucer writes from line 125 to 162 of all the facets of her beauty and calls her “wilde and yong” (117).  Her somewhat promiscuous nature proves her able to think for herself, not to mention her vehement first refusal of Nicholas’ affections and her continuing dismissal of Absolon.  Tracey Jordan says that Alison’s presence is entirely and overwhelmingly physical, and this factor helps determine her strength as a character and as a woman.  She is comfortable and knowledgeable of her body and the animal physicality of Alison gives her an air of power that most female figures would be missing.  This power, born of the image and beauty she radiates, is the only thing that allows her to gain any position of power between the men.

Nicholas, for instance, wants to be with Alison.  This means he desires something from her, putting her in the position of power. However, his intelligence and seduction skills cause her to want him in return, causing them to be equal.  His intelligence and his ability to formulate a plan, however, cause the power to slip into his hands.  John, though, seems to be her equal due to his desire loyalty, yet he lacks the intelligence and charm to fully have it.  She, on the other hand, wants to keep living in the manner she is accustomed to which is something he has the power to take away.

The character of Absolon, on the other hand, may be the only proof of her power.  She definitely holds a position of power over him. We can see this in the manner he obsesses over her and the way he praises her.  Peter Beidler makes the claim that in his song to her, “Now, deere lady, if thy wille be/I praye yow that ye wole rewe on me” (Chaucer 253-254) he is truly likening Alison to Mary, mother of Jesus.  He wants her really badly and, because she wants absolutely nothing from him, this puts her in the definite position of power.  The only point he has on his side is the threat of violence, but this is played out on Nicholas and not her.

This idea of sexuality and promiscuity is a similarity she shares with the Wife of Bath, but possibly not the only one.  As mentioned before, the readers are not told all of the character Alison’s motivations for her actions, but do know she married a reasonably wealthy man who was far older than she is when she was reasonably young (though not as young as twelve).  The reader can also reasonably infer that she went out of her way to charm him because she is “a wif/ which that he loved more than his lif” (Chaucer 113-115) and his first words when hearing of the flood were “Allas my wif!/ And shal she drenche? Allas, myn Alisoun!” (Chaucer 414-415).  It might be reasonable to assume, then, that she followed a similar path to the Wife of Bath and craftily got a husband that would be worth the effort which, once again, might not be the feminist ideal, but shows an assertiveness and intelligence that seem out of place in an anti-feminist work.

The readers can then interpret that Alison’s lack of punishment was chiefly sue to her success as the true winner in this story.  Successful women of this time period had to have a certain amount of masculinity to get what they wanted and Martin Blum says that “take-charge attitude makes her the most successful and the most masculine character in both erotic exchanges.  She is rewarded for being the most successful ‘man’ of the tale” (Forbes).  In the end, after all, it is Nicholas who is punished for the adultery and Alison who gets away with it.  She is uses a mixture of her feminine wiles and masculine actions as a means of achieving social legitimacy (Forbes).  Alison’s tendency toward masculine attitude, and even physical traits, represent a shifting identity that works well from a feminist stand point to demonstrate how women, even in the medieval age, can cross the traditional gender boundaries to not only survive, but to become the winner in a group of men (Forbes).  It is equally as important, though, that she keeps track of her feminine identity while doing so, making her a true feminist.




Works Cited

Beidler, Peter G. “‘Now, Deere Lady’: Absolon’s Marian Couplet in the Milller’s Tale.” Chaucer Review: A Journal of Medieval Studies and Literary Criticism 39.2 (2004): 219-222. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 7 Oct. 2009.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Miller’s Prologue and Tale.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume A The Middle Ages. 8th ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 2005. 239-55. Print.

Forbes, Shannon “‘To Alison Now Wol I Tellen Al My Love-Longing’: Chaucer’s Treatment of the Courtly Love Discourse in The Miller’s Tale.” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 36.1 (2007): 1-14. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 7 Oct. 2009.

Jordan, Tracey “Fairy Tale and Fabliau: Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale.” Studies in Short Fiction 21.2 (1984): 87-93. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 7 Oct. 2009.

Lambdin, R. T. “Chaucer’s ‘The Miller’s Tale’.” Explicator 47.3 (1989): 4-6. MLA International Bibliography. EBSCO. Web. 7 Oct. 2009.


From → Essays

  1. Donald permalink

    Who is the writer of this article?

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