Of all of the major character in ‘The Miller’s Tale’, only Alison is physically unpunished. Each of the other characters – John, Nicholas and Absolon – receives some kind of physical punishment for a flaw in their personalities or a mistake that they make. John receives punishment in the form of a broken arm which he obtains “with the fal”. In the middle ages, medicine was nowhere near as developed as today, and broken bones would take a long time to heal.
For John, a carpenter, use of his arms is vital to his livelihood, and so this physical punishment is a lot more damaging to him than one might expect. If his arm did heal, he would be out of work for a considerable amount of time. Not only this, but he has to suffer humiliation, as all of the neighbours “turned al his harm unto a jape”, believing him to be mad. The reason that John is punished is that he has taken a wife much younger than him – “she was wilde and yong, and he was old”. The Miller pokes fun at the carpenter because he does not know that “man sholde wedde his similitude”.
It is unnatural for a man as old as John to take such a young wife, and to keep her “narwe in cage” when she is lively and a creature of appetites that must be satisfied. The Miller suggests that John deserves to be cuckolded for this, and “moste endure… his care”. The reader is meant to feel that John deserves his punishment as we are presented with no reason to feel any sympathy for John. He is extremely gullible, vain and “sely”. Nicholas is punished by being “scalded in the towte”. Nicholas’ flaw that leads to his punishment is his arrogance.
We are first made aware of this trait when Nicholas reassures Alison that he can fool her husband in order to sleep with her – “A clerk hadde litherly biset his while, | But if he koude a carpenter bigile”. It is fitting that as a man of sexual appetites who has committed adultery with another man’s wife, Nicholas’ punishment is presented in quite a sexual way, “amidde the ers”. This hints that the Miller considers the punishment to be just, which in turn suggests that the reader should be of this opinion. Absolon is punished for his affected nature, his effeminacy and his squeamishness.
It is fitting that his punishments – kissing Alison’s “nether ye” and Nicholas breaking wind in his face are made all the more unbearable because of these characteristics, especially his squeamishness. We are led to believe that Absolon deserves this punishment for being so ridiculous. The Miller justifies Absolon’s punishment by liking Nicholas’ “fart” to a “thunder-dent”, which links Nicholas to God. It is almost as if the punishment is being dealt by God himself as a direct and divine punishment for Absolon’s absurd behaviour.
Although Alison does not receive any kind of physical punishment, the reader is left to imagine the consequences of her actions after the tale is done. While her husband held her “narwe in cage” before, one can only assume that now she has proven that she is capable of having an affair, John would be even more restrictive and even more jealous. The overall impression the reader gets is that Alison does not deserve any kind of punishment for her actions. The Miller does not physically punish her during the tale, even though she is an adulteress. The reason for this is Alison’s physical attractiveness.
The Miller describes her as “wilde and yong”, and makes it clear that Alison is a sexual creature. Therefore, with a husband as old as John, Alison would need to look elsewhere for sexual satisfaction, and she should neither be blamed nor punished for doing so. The ending of the tale suggests that all has turned out as it should. The Miller sums up very hastily in five lines, expressing how each of the male characters has been punished. The alacrity of the Miller’s conclusion also hints that we are not meant to dwell on the fate of the tale’s characters.
The tale is not a sermon from which the reader is meant to draw a message or a moral, but it a lewd and bawdy story merely meant to entertain. We are not meant to dwell on whether or not justice has been served because these are not realistic portraits of characters, but merely caricatures. We feel no sympathy for any of them as the Miller has not presented them as complex psychological studies of human nature that we can identify with on a personal level. Instead he uses stock characters that are somewhat two-dimensional to create an engaging and vulgar story.