CRITICAL ESSAY

Angela Davis
Dynamics of Power in the Miller’s Tale


.....Power is transient. Those in possession of it are able to shape the lives of those without. The powerless often become meek and passive owing to their situation. Traditionally, men have been the ones perceived to possess the most power, with women residing in a subservient role. “The Miller’s Tale” rejects this idea with the character of Alisoun and her dealings with the three men contained therein.
.....Alisoun is by no means a wilting lily. Chaucer, as the Miller, has taken great pains to make clear her animal nature, most obviously with the comparison of her to a weasel, “Fair was this yonge wyf, and therewithal/As any wezele hir body gent and smale” [I (A) 3233-34; emphasis mine]. This is no meek maiden praying to Diana to preserve her chastity. Much to the chagrin of her new husband, who believes that he has been, or will be, cuckolded, and keeps her locked up inside the house, she is wild and much younger than he.
.....This carpenter hadde wedded newe a wyf,
.....Which that he lovede moore than his lyf;
.....Of eighteteene yeer she was of age.
.....Jalous he was, and heeld her narwe in cage,
.....For she was wylde and yong, and he was old
.....And demed himself been lik a cokewold ..... .....
[I (A) 3221-3326].
.....John is in fact cuckolded before the end of the tale, though the reason for this is more likely to stem from his treatment of her than from an inborn desire to commit adultery. Ultimately, the relationship between the old carpenter and his bonny young bride fails to transcend the barriers of age, leaving one with a ruined reputation and the other unsatisfied.
.....To the men, Alisoun is perhaps merely the sum of her physical parts, as evidenced by Nicholas’ lusting after her and John’s locking her up. This is certainly a faulty conclusion. She takes the active role in her relationships with John, Nicholas and Absolon. It is Alisoun who has ultimate control over which man, if any, will be granted rights to her person. Regardless of whether or not she views herself as a prize to be given away, the crux of the matter is that only she may decide. When Nicholas grabs her by the “queynte,” she protests his advances.
.....And she sproong as a colt dooth in the trave,
.....And with hir heed she wryed faste awey,
.....And seyde, “I wol nat kisse thee, by my fey!
.....Why, lat be!” quod she. “Lat be, Nicholas,
.....Or I wol crie ‘out, harrow’ and ‘allas’!
.....Do wey youre handes, for youre curteisye!” .....[I (A) 3282-87].
Several lines later, she accepts those same advances and states her love for him.
.....This Nicholas gan mercy for to crye,
.....And spak so faire, and profred him so faste,
.....That she hir love graunted hym atte laste,
.....And swoor hir ooth, by Seint Thomas of Kent,
.....That she wol been at his comandement,
.....When that she may hir leyser wel espie” .....[I (A) 3288-93].
.....Upon first glance, this change seems too sudden to be realistic. On the contrary, it is not at all unbelievable. She is a married woman; protesting Nicholas’ advances is a way of reminding him of her status, and of removing any guilt she may feel from being excited. Alisoun soon succumbs to her desire for him, being only human, and assists in the planning of their tryst. This does not make her weak, but rather strong enough to know when her nature is more important than a role proscribed by society.
.....Nicholas risks his position as boarder, and indeed bits of his anatomy, by his overt flirtations. Were Alisoun not receptive to his passions, she would alert her husband to their existence, and Nicholas would certainly find himself in pain and without a place to stay. Despite her acquiescence, there remains the risk that perhaps John is not as dull-witted as he is perceived to be, and will figure everything out on his own. Absolon’s very presence heightens this risk because his position as parish priest, though with the reputation as a dandy, makes his statements more likely to be believed than a random passerby, and he could easily alert John to the affairs of his wife. He takes the risk because he desires Alisoun; she knows this after all of his proclamations, and uses it to get what she wants: satisfaction, and on a more basic level, to assert her freedom. By sleeping with Nicholas, she is asserting that wives are not the possessions of their husbands to do with as they please, and do have needs that must be met and wills that must be obeyed. Through her scorning of Absolon’s passes, it is shown that she is not indiscriminate with her favors; she is no whore, but rather a woman asserting her existence as an entity in her own right, instead of being defined by her husband.
.....As the Miller states, “Who hath no wyf, he is no cokewold” [I (A) 3152]. John is then a cuckold only because he has married Alisoun, rather than keeping her as his mistress. Nicholas would not be made a cuckold were Alisoun to sleep with her husband or Absolon, or indeed any man she were to meet. The Miller has made a cynical statement that beats the notion that all women cheat into the reader’s head, and while this is certainly not true of all women, it does occur, just as men do cheat as well. The Miller’s statement then supports her existence as a free entity, by admitting that women do by nature have their own desires and stray from their marriage beds. Men must not force such women to dally; if they wish to, then they will. .....Attempting to keep a woman whose desires are well formed and healthy locked up inside the house, away from other men, will only serve to make the other men appear more desirable to her. This grants the other man the status of a big red button: the more you tell her she cannot have him, the more she will want him. John has done this well, holding her “narwe in cage.” It is only natural that this also works in the reverse order. Alisoun is married to John, which is a sign that she is unavailable to other men, and this serves to make her more desirable to both Nicholas and Absolon. She is the one thing that they are not supposed to have.
.....Absolon provides a great deal of entertainment for Alisoun. She is able to make him do anything she wants because of his attraction to her, which he mistakenly believes to follow the pattern of courtly love.
.....She loveth so this hende Nicholas
.....That Absolon may blowe the bukkes horn;
.....He ne hadde for his labour but a scorn.
.....And thus she maketh Absolon hire ape,
.....And al his ernest turneth til a jape ..... .....[I (A) 3386-90].
.....Here it is apparent that to Alisoun, Absolon is but a plaything of no consequence. She has already decided in her own mind that she will never be his, even were he to win the unofficial contest among the men. She delights in using her powers over Absolon to amuse both herself and the man she has chosen to love, Nicholas. That she continues to toy with him suggests that she is well aware that it is she who controls him.
During the scene in which Absolon kisses her “naked ers,” Alisoun is most definitely in the position of control. He trusts that she will comply with his small request, and makes himself vulnerable by waiting patiently in the dark. She destroys this trust when she abuses her power by sticking her bum outside the window instead of her face, tricking him for the purpose of her own amusement.
.....Derk was the nyght as pich, or as cole,
.....And at the wyndow out she putte hir hole,
.....And Absolon, hym fil no bet ne wers,
.....But with his mouth he kiste hir naked ers
.....Ful savourly, er he were war of this ..... ..... [I (A) 3731-35].
.....In the darkness, Absolon would have had a difficult time discovering his mistake before making it, and is without the ability to alter the course she has chosen. This turn of events of course angers Absolon, who decides to get even with her by way of a hot ploughshare shoved up her bum. This does not happen the way he planned, as Nicholas sticks his bum outside the window, thinking to better the joke. There is a transference of power from Alisoun to Nicholas here, with the swapping out of their bodies, which is then taken from Nicholas by Absolon, through his use of the hot ploughshare. Who takes up the active role gains power over those who are passive. That Alisoun receives no repercussions for her actions is in sync with her possession of power. Were Absolon to overstep his bounds and harm her, he would face the wrath of the man she has used her wiles to catch, Nicholas, as well as those of the man she is wife to, John. In this respect these men are as her lackeys, who will do her bidding and protect her, even as they believe they are controlling her.
.....After that scene, with its homoerotic undertones, we see Alisoun and Nicholas running out to convince the neighbors that John is unhinged. Since the latter heard Nicholas’ cries for water and thought that the flood had arrived, he cut the ropes of the tub he was in and fell to the ground. By causing all of this ruckus, Alisoun and Nicholas are deflecting the focus of everyone else from their tryst, so as to keep it from being made public.
.....Up stirte hire Alisoun and Nicholay,
.....And criden “Out” and “Harrow” in the strete.
.....The neighebores, bothe smale and grete,
.....In ronnen for to gauren on this man, …
.....They tolden every man that he was wood,
.....He was agast so of Nowelis flood
.....Thurgh fantasie that of his vanytee
.....He hadde ybought knedyng tubbes thre,
.....And hadde hanged in the roof above .....[I (A) 3824-27 … 3833-38].
They are here wielding their power over other people to convince them of something that is, in actuality, primarily untrue. Their words cause the neighbors to laugh at John, whose reputation is thus ruined as they all believe him to be mentally deficient. Here Alisoun especially has power over her husband, because she could easily run to his aid and defend him to everyone, and instead causes them to laugh at his misfortune. That she does not suggests she is through with her subservience to her husband, or indeed to any man, and will no longer be bound by social dictates concerning how a wife should act toward her husband. She has found her power and refuses to yield it to anyone.
By the end of the tale, Alisoun has successfully rebelled against her caged position using the tools given her by grace of nature. It is a personal triumph and not a societal one, and it has changed nothing about her overall standing. .....To most she will remain the “carpenteris wyf,” but to herself she will forever be Alisoun. She has indulged her desires and found a sense of self that, under the thumb of John, she would not have been able to do. It is necessary to peek beneath the surface of appearances to see that, while it seems that she has no control over her life, she is nonetheless the puppet-mistress behind the scenes, tugging the strings of those who would contain her.