“What do we learn of Chaucer’s merchant from the information provided in the General Prologue and the prologue to the tale itself? How does his presentation compare to what is known of merchants in Chaucer’s day and how do you respond to him as a reader? ” Chaucer describes the Merchant in a subtle but detailed way. The Merchant is presented as favourable and yet several indistinct statements challenge this initial portrayal. Chaucer’s typical use of irony excels here for the reader to interpret the Merchant openly.
Taken literally, the Merchant could be seen as a conservative member of the developing middle class and yet the more popular interpretation, taking into account that the ambiguous statements are ironic, implies that the Merchant is enigmatic and somewhat dubious. The General Prologue gives us a clear physical description of the Merchant. He is well-dressed and considered contemporarily stylish with his “Flaunderissh bever hat”, his “bootes clasped faire and fetisly” (line 274-75) and his “forked berd” (line 272).
This makes him appear as a successful merchant who can afford to dress in the fashionable way. He is also described as “His reasons he spak ful solempnely”, which again describes him as a respectable member of society, “solempnely” meaning “with dignity”. However, the next few lines undermine this image of him being a dignified citizen as they describe him boasting about his profits, which is seen as a distasteful quality at this time. We hear that “Ther wiste no wight that he was in dette”.
This technically could mean that nobody knows of his debt because there wasn’t any, but the line implies that there was and the fact that he harks on about his profits suggests that he is covering for his losses to make him seem more successful than he actually is. This paints him as a man full of his own self-importance and one who may be slightly deluded as to how important he actually is in society. The phrase “hye on horse he sat” perhaps suggests that he is a man who makes himself look more impressive than he is and who tries to give out false impressions of himself in order to cover up the reality behind his career choice.
This would relate to the modern day saying describing someone who is full of themselves as “sitting on their high horse”, a phrase commonly used in the 21st century. The final couplet of the Merchant’s section of the General Prologue adds two ironic statements to our already depleting view of the Merchant. So far we see him as a somewhat mysterious character who seems to be resistant to giving us a deep insight into who he really is. We know he boasts about his profits and we know that this is probably because he is in debt.
After attempting to portray a very favourable image of himself, it has perhaps resulted in the reader feeling rather negatively towards the Merchant. The final couplet adds to this weary feeling that may have already been established by Chaucer. Line 285, “he was a worthy man with alle”, is a rather superficial phrase, the irony resulting from the lines that precede it. One is made to question is “worthiness” because of the image that has already been painted of him and so this line immediately becomes questionably ironic.
Line 286 says “But, soothe to seyn, I noot how men calle”, meaning that nobody knows his name, This may seem strange to a reader of the Cantebury Tales because Chaucer does not name many of the pilgrims and yet the Merchant is the only one that Chaucer specifically mentions is without a name. The irony here is that the Merchant seems to be the character who is longing to be known and admired and yet here is given the rejection of being nameless. The prologue to the tale itself further embellishes our view of the Merchant as a very secretive person.
He tells his audience about his particular hardship in his brief married life. He says that he has endured so much that he feels unable to go into any details. This seems like yet another evasion of detail into the Merchant’s life and calls us again to question his integrity. The audience is made to wonder what it is that his wife could possibly have done to offend him so much. He describes his wife as “the worste that may be” showing us that he no longer thinks very fondly of her. This may inform the audience that the Merchant’s tale will not speak fondly of marriage.
The Host suggests that he uses his pain and knowledge to tell a story about marriage. The Merchant agrees but says that he cannot talk anymore about his own marriage. The audience may question whether the Merchant was even married at all or if he was, was it really the wife that ended it all. Obviously it is impossible to tell whether the Merchant is telling the truth or not but the overall portrayal of him certainly causes us to be weary of his honesty as readers, which is probably Chaucer’s intention.
Overall the Merchant is painted as a rather mysterious character who perhaps is not the best person to trust. He comes across as somewhat secretive in a dodgy kind of way. We do not know much about him, and he seems rathe reluctant to inform us of any detail. This may be because he is too ashamed of it or because he has criminal tendencies. Either way, Chaucer is very distinct in ensuring that the Merchant is protective over his private life. This causes us to question how much we can trust what he says, in the prologue and the tale itself.