Animalistic Contradictions in the Canterbury Tales
By Tucker Scott
Geoffrey Chaucer, in his Canterbury Tales, invokes the imagery of animals to explicate character’s actions, criticize society, and provide the reader with preconceived notions of characters. More specifically, the concept of animalism within his tales is ironically juxtaposed between the humans of The Miller’s Tale and the barnyard creatures of The Nun’s Priest Tale. While the first uses a subtle, metaphorical, and sexual allusion to animalism, the second provides the exact opposite, depicting the characters as animals themselves, in typical beast fable form.
The Miller’s Tale is told in the style of a fabliau, which usually contains bawdy humor with cuckolded husbands. Chaucer’s reworking of Boccaccio’s story found in his Decameron includes both elements typically found in the fabliaux of the time. The Nun’s Priest Tale is written as a beast fable, which are stories with particular morals in which the characters are animals, but ones whom have been given the thoughts and characteristics of humans.
From the very introduction of The Miller’s Tale, a lewd tone is set in relation to the teller and the characters within, further enhancing the animalizing of Alison. The miller, drunk and belligerent, insists that his tale will match the nobility of the Knight’s tale; this irony permeates into The Miller’s Tale, and further blurs the meaning of nobility and sophistication. In his use of the term “noble” in relation to the characters, the Miller presents us with what is a gross misuse of the word. Over the course of the tale, Alison and her lover Nicholas are revealed to be abhorrently crude and obnoxious people, repeatedly violating standard codes of conduct.
Alison’s reaction to Nicholas’ advances reinforces her already questionable moral fortitude, succumbing to his bold yet cliché attempts to woo her:
Whil that hir housbonde was at Oseneye
And prively he caughte hire by the queinte,
And saide, “Ywis, but if ich have my wille,
For derne love of thee, lemman, I spill,”
And heeld hire harde by the haunche-bones,
And saide, “Lemman, love me al atones,
Or I wol dien, also God me save.”
It is to this sad plea that she caves, giving into her carnal desires with Nicholas, and cheats on her husband. After successfully winning over Alison, the couple participates in a number of boorish pranks involving bodily functions to upset another would-be suitor:
“Speek, sweete brid, I noot nought where thou art.”
This Nicholas anoon leet flee a fart
As greet as it hadde been a thunder-dent
That with the strook he was almost yblent.
It is only suitable that these two uncouth individuals would be eventually outsmarted in their foolish games.
Beyond her questionable morals, it is argued that Chaucer took extra care with the character of Alison in order to make her as animalistic as possible. As Beryl Rowland claims, Chaucer devoted much of Alison’s physical appearance to that of a weasel: “In The Miller’s Tale the brief comparison of Alison to a weasel adumbrates the total portrait of the carpenter’s wife [Alison]” (AN&Q 3). Rowland goes on to illustrate the ways in which Alison is physically representative of the metaphorical weasel: “Alison’s attire is white with a sprinkling of black”, similar to the coloration of the weasel’s winter coat. Rowland continues:
Further details in the portrait of Alison suggest that Chaucer
retains the animal image and gives his heroine distinctively
weasel-like attributes. The description of Alison’s eyes implies
both the lustful quality commonly attributed to the weasel in
folklore, and the actual brightness and color of the animal’s eyes.
From these examples, we can see the bastardizing of nobility through the presence of animalistic features in Alison’s character.
In Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest Tale, the concept of animalism is completely reversed, as the main three characters take the forms of a rooster, hen, and fox. Typical of the beast fable genre, these characters take on the attributes of humans, though they adopt a civility not found in The Miller’s Tale. Within this civility lies a certain falseness, however, which seems to contradict the notion of animalism and instinct.
The most notable difference between the characters of these two stories is their spoken language. While Alison and Nicholas are vulgar and brash, Chauntecleer the rooster and Pertelote, his hen, often speak in the tones of fawning lovers. When Chauntecleer reports that he has been seized by a terrifying dream, Pertelote dotes over him, quoting Cato and offering him the remedy of worms and laxative (Norton 301-303). Chauntecleer responds in kind, politely declining the offer and progresses on to philosophize about the meaning of dreams. During this discourse with Pertelote, Chauntecleer theorizes about the consequences of murder, and concludes with a poorly translated complement to his hens (306). It is ironic that these supposedly lesser beings behave with the manners, and perhaps nobility, the miller sought to impart onto Alison and Nicholas.
The characters of The Nun’s Priest Tale are not without their faults, and the weakness of human nature described in The Miller’s Tale can be seen within all three characters. Chauntecleer’s great sin is his pride, and it is this fault that gets him captured by the fox. Russel the fox, on the other hand, utilizes deception to get what he desires, although ultimately its effectiveness is rendered void. Pertelote’s great foible is her thoughtless nagging of Chauntecleer about the lack of pertinence his dream had, when in the end, it was a direct premonition of the events to come. Again, the irony of animalism comes in the fact that these “sins” pale in comparison to the acts committed by Alison and Nicholas.
The final animalistic conclusion that can be drawn from these two tales lies in the disparity between the story’s conclusions themselves. After escaping Russel the fox, Chauntecleer learns the lesson of when to hold one’s tongue: “God yive him meschaunce / That is so undiscreet of governaunce / That jangleth whan he sholde holde his pees” (Norton 312). In The Miller’s Tale, however, no solid conclusion is reached, beyond the fact that young wives of older husbands will eventually commit infidelities. Every character in The Miller’s Tale ends up worse off than when they started, which illustrates the difference between the two sets of characters; the humans, supposedly more noble, cannot learn a moral value from their debauchery, while the prideful chicken claims to have found a greater understanding of the nature of pride. By distorting our preconceived notions of what entails nobility and sophistication, Chaucer provides an interesting commentary through the use of animalism within these two tales.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Miller’s Tale. The Norton Anthology. Ed. Stephan Greenblatt. NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. 239-255.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Nun’s Priest Tale. The Norton Anthology. Ed. Stephan Greenblatt. NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006. 299-312.
Rowland, Beryl. “Alison Identified (“The Miller’s Tale”, 3234)”. American Notes and Queries. September 1964. 3-4.
© Tucker Scott