Such comments as, I pray to God his nekke mote to-breke quickly revealthat the verbal game of quite involves much more than a free meal to theReeve in The Canterbury Tales (I 3918).
This overreaction, which grabs theattention of the audience and gives it pause, is characteristic of the Reevesostensibly odd behavior, being given to morose speeches followed by violentoutbursts, all the while harboring spiteful desires. Anger typifies theReeves dialogue and his tale, which begs the question why. It appears to be areaction to the Millers insults, but they are not extreme enough to provokesuch resentment. He seem-ingly has no hesitation in articulating his bitterness,yet he and his story are as much marked by suppression as expression. Silenceresounds as loudly as any noise in the Reeves Prologue and Tale. The readeris as puzzled by his utterances as the lack of them: his sudden sermon on deathis matched by the quietness of two couples copulating in a small room of five,none of which are able to hear what the others are doing. The reality is thatthe behavior of the Reeve and the characters in his tale are not random orunaccountable.
The Reeve is continually si-lenced by other pilgrims and himself,which is paralleled in his tale, and in turn suppresses his emotions, whichleads to even more explosive conduct. I. Characterization In order to appreciatethe melancholic and serious temperament of the Reeve, it is nec-essary to viewhim in comparison to other characters, as Chaucer intended. The identities ofthe pilgrims are relative.
They are characterized by their description in theGeneral Prologue, but not fully developed until they are seen in contrast to thepilgrim they are quiting. As the Millers personality is developed byhis dissimilarity to the Knight, so is the Reeve by the Miller. ThereforeRobins enjoyment of life shows just how little Oswald receives from the same.For instance, the Millers large frame and excessive drinking show his delightin small pleasures. The Reeve, however, is a sclendre colerik man whocontrols his beard and hair (in opposition to the unruly strands that grow on awart on the millers nose) as manipula-tively as the accounts of the farm onwhich he works (I 587). The Miller mastered the bag-pipes for entertainment inhis spare time while the Reeve trained with more practical tools: In youthehe had lerned a good myster: He was a wel good wrighte, a carpenter (I 614).Robin is very physical; he is strong and willing to wrestle anything and carriesa sword and buckler at his side.
Oswald only carries a rusty blade, whichindicates that it is not used very often and is only for show. If compelled tofight, he would most likely back down, preferring verbal sparring. The Millersocializes with the group with no regards to the class system, in-terrupting theexpected order to tell his story before the Monk, while Oswald prefers to sepa-ratehimself and ride last among the group. These disparities give the impressionthat Oswald is focused inward while Robin con-centrates on the outward. TheReeve is ruled by his practical mind, which directs him to make as much money aspossible, whether it is through theft or saving or learning useful trades, andto avoid dangerous situations, even if it entails cowardice. The Miller is moreof a Dionysian figure, who does only what pleases him, whether it is knockingheads or ignoring his wifes infidelities. These differences in characterforeshadow the differences in their tales.
They both tell similar dirty storiesbut the nature varies greatly. It is the Millers good-humor that trans-formsthe chivalric tale of the Knight into an account of adultery that is both bawdyand hi-larious. As will be discussed in greater detail in this essay, it is theReeves introversion that causes him to recite his mean-spirited tale ofadultery as punishment. II. Outward Manifestations of Suppressed Emotions TheReeves vindictiveness and mood swings are based in his being repeatedlysilenced and his subsequent suppression of emotions. Oswald speaks three timesin Fragment I, and on the first occasion his wishes are ignored, on the secondhe is told to speak of a more amusing subject, and he is finally allowed tospeak on the third, but only because every pilgrim must tell a tale. TheReeves first words are spoken to the Miller.
He orders Robin to Stynt thyclappe! before beginning his story of a carpenter and his wife which willdefame him and bring scandal to wives in general (I 3144). Instead of forcingthe Miller to wait until he is so-ber so that he will recite a less offensivetale, the Host lets him compete next, disregarding the Reeves and his ownobjections. When the Miller finishes, the Reeve does not introduce his story,but ruminates on his old age and the lifeblood that has been flowing out of himsince he was born. He tells us that his heart is full of mold, that his fire hasburnt out. All that remains are four embers: boasting, lying, anger and greed.And though his body is failing him, sexual cravings and desire in general arestill present: Oure olde lemes mowe wel been unweelde, But wyl ne shal natfaillen, that is sooth (I 3886-3887).
He is expressing his fears andinade-quacies to the group, but they find it too serious. The Host interruptshim and commands that he begin his story. This is a very critical moment in thatthe Host halts the speech in which the Reeve tries to purge himself of all thathas been festering inside of him. The Reeve is an old man close to death and isscared. He feels that he has nothing noble left in him. Just as he can find nosatis-faction for his desire through his feeble body, he can find no release forhis pent-up emotions because he is always being silenced.
He will soon besilenced forever, and yet is still not al-lowed to voice this or anything ofsignificance while is he alive. Chaucer may only portray the Reeves treatmentby this one group and only for a short time span, but it is reasonable to as-sumethat this is a pattern in his life. Why else would a quiet man mention hissexual prob-lems to a group of relative strangers unless his family andacquaintances were also unwilling to listen and he was desperate to speak it?Therefore, because of this life-long recurrence of being silenced, he suppressedhis feelings. The Reeve is not artistic, preferring the practical over theaesthetic, so when others refuse to listen, he has no choice but to keep hisemotions to himself, there being no other outlet such as art or music in whichto channel this.
As a re-sult, when he believes he is permitted to speak aboutwhatever he wishes, he lets loose all that has been locked inside of him andgives his morose monologue. But the Host denies him this relief, demanding thathe must now tell a story. As expected, the Reeve does not give a hu-morousaccount similar to the Miller.
Instead he directs his anger and his unexpressedemo-tions into his tale. This is the reason why his story is so vindictive. Thisexplains his prayer that the Miller, who previously described how a carpenterwas cuckolded (a very real fear for the married Reeve because of his impotence),would break his neck. His behavior is not irra-tional and his feelings are notnaturally malicious.
Being confined, his negative emotions multiplied and becameamplified as they were freed. As C. G. Jung explains, repression is thehalf-conscious and half-hearted letting go of things that veer fromconventional morality (780). Suppression of antisocial elements, how-ever, isdone deliberately. Repression, but not suppression, is one of the main causes ofneuro-sis.
Suppression amounts to a conscious moral choice, but repression isa rather immoral penchant for getting rid of disagreeable decisions.Suppression may cause worry, conflict and suffering, but it never causes aneurosis. Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suf-fering (780).Since the Reeve is aware of his negativity and conceals it from others and nothimself, he may have unresolved issues but is not guided by a dysfunctionalmind. Therefore, while he does exhibit extreme behavior, he and his actions arestill rational. III. The Influence of Suppression in the Tale The Reeves Talehas been criticized for its single-minded intent to insult and its cold,impersonal tone in comparison to the Millers Tale.
The Miller does poke funat the Reeve and the Knight, but that is not the sole purpose of his story. Hisgoal appears to be entertain-ment. Nicholas and Alisons desires are simple:to have some fun in bed without getting caught by her husband, John. Yet theplot is very elaborate and comic in the unnecessary planning devised to trickthe naïve carpenter.
The characters are well developed for such a shortpiece and, most importantly, are uninhibited in communicating their wants: WhenNicholas courts Alison, he grabs her by the queynte and tells her ofhis secret love (I 3276). Though she protests at first, she gives in to hispleading and promises to love him. Ab-salon, another admirer of Alisons,serenades her while she is lying next to her husband. When he later asks for akiss, she presents him with her backside, and Nicholas impersonates her voicewith a rude expulsion of air. They are as comfortable expressing themselves, inwhatever manner they wish, as the Miller.
The Reeves Tale is starklycontrasted to this. Os-walds characters are as plain as his story, the heightof their scheming consisting of a relo-cated cradle and an untied horse. Thepersonalities of the two university students are irrele-vant; all that mattersis that they deceive the miller.
And Symkyns importance is based only in histhieving nature and his eventual status as a victim, the purpose of the storybeing the Reeves revenge. The mother has a more lengthy character sketch, butonly because it shows that the miller wedded an illegitimate woman. Both womenare objectified and valued only in the distress they cause the miller throughtheir ravishment. Adultery is again committed in this tale, but it is donemechanically rather than from any sexual desire on the part of the students. Thewooing by Nicholas and Absalon may have been brief, but they at least made aneffort to win Alison. John and Alan have intercourse with the wife and daughterbefore any words of acceptance or denial are spoken by them, and just as soon asthey are in the same bed as a fe-male. As I mentioned earlier, the fivecharacters spend the night in the same room, but not all are aware of what isoccurring.
John does know his friend slept with Malyne, but only be-cause Alantold him his plan. The next morning Alan tells the miller, believing he is John,I have thries in this shorte nyght Swyved the milleres doghter bolt upright,Whil thow hast, as a coward, been agast, revealing that he was unaware Johnhad been with the wife the entire night (I 4265-4267). And when Symkyn hearsthis, he becomes enraged, this being the first he learns of it also, since hedid not hear the two couples either.
This lack of noise in such an in-timate actmay appear peculiar, but it is related to the Reeve just as Alison andNicholass enthusiasm is to the Miller. One clear reason for this silence isconnected to the Reeves aversion to the Miller. Since his tale is told toreprise Robin, little else matters. Just like the two-dimensional char-acterization,the actions appear to be performed by rote, done only to make the plot progressto the desired ending. This explains the simplicity of the tale; the Reeve isonly interested in the quickest method of revenge.
The mother and daughter donot speak or struggle after learning the intentions of the clerks because it isinconvenient for them to do so. Their pur-pose in existing is to be disparaged.Any efforts against this may cause the miller to wake, dis-rupting the greaterscheme. They are as quiet during the sexual act as the clerks because any typeof sound would expand their characterization at the expense of the plot. Thedaughter does speak the next morning, but only to further the narrative bydivulging the location of the stolen corn so the students can reclaim it.
Unexpectedly, Malyne begins to cry at the thought of Alans departure. This isactually done for the sake of his reputation. The Reeve wants to make Robinappear foolish, but knows that turning his protagonists into rapists willonly cause the audience to turn against himself. Because Malyne despairs thatthe night has ended, the audience assumes that she enjoyed the experience. Thesame can be said for the mother who so myrie a fit ne hadde she nat fulyore (I 4230).
So even though John and Alan initiate the act with force, thewomen received pleasure, which cancels out the offense in the pil-grimsminds. Thus, the characters and their satisfaction are mere tools used to createa de-sired result. The lack of expression exhibited by the actors in this sceneis also related to the si-lencing of the Reeve.
He is accustomed to beingquieted when his thoughts are not agreeable to his audience. Because of this, hecensors himself even as he is releasing all that is trapped inside of him. Inhis prologue, the Reeve does not keep speaking of the rapid progression of hisdemise, but changes subjects as soon as the Host orders him to do so, directinghis emo-tion into the more acceptable form of his tale. Occasionally, the buildup of feeling forces him to release it, but he always expresses them within thebounds of decency, even if he does stretch those bounds. It is necessary for theplot that the two couples have sex in the same room.
He does not shy away fromthe subject and informs the audience of what is occurring as clearly as theMiller, if not more so. But Nicholas and Alison have intercourse downstairs inprivacy, away from John. In the Reeves tale, a mother is committing adulteryin the same room in which her daughter is having premarital sex. This can easilybe construed as sexual perversion, to put it lightly. Yet the Reeve believesthey can be somewhat redeemed if they are not aware they are participating inwhat amounts to an orgy.
If the couples make no noise and do not hear oneanother, then, in a sense, they are in private. To have the clerks and womenvoice their pleasure and the mother and daughter realize the others actionswould have been unallowable. Because of this, the Reeve stifles them so as tonot offend his audi-ence and thus be allowed to finish his tale. But theReeves manipulation and censorship of the characters does not mean he com-pletelyseparates himself from them. He channels his sexual frustration into the storyalong with his anger. Since he cannot use his body to find satisfaction, he mustuse his imagination. The Miller, who gratifies his appetite in the real world,builds up the tension between Nicho-las and Alison through the long wait beforeconsummation, but barely mentions the act itself: And thus lith Alison andNicholas, In bisynesse of myrthe and of solas, Til that the belle of laudes ganto rynge, And freres in the chauncel gone synge.
The reverse occurs in theReeves story, with John and Alan engaging in sex with Malyne and themillers wife almost as soon as the thought comes to their minds. Hisdescription is short as well, but much more detailed: He priketh harde anddepe as he were mad (I 4231). In this line, which is referring to the causeof the wifes pleasure, John appears to embody Oswalds frustration.
TheReeve is as mad to find satisfaction, both sexually and emotionally, asJohn is. The Reeve lives through the students, finding an alternate outlet thisway. He creates two characters who have no qualms about taking another manswife and daughter in the same room to perform a rather twisted fantasy. Thesilence and objectification of the females also supports this. In the ReevesTale, there is no seduction; the wife and daughters willingness is ignored.The Reeve does not view them as participants, but as the objects of desire. Itwould not do to have sexual objects demand courtship or become too humanlike, inwhich case they would have the power of rejection and dissatisfaction.
Becausehe is living through the bodies of the clerks, the females must not be anythingbut pleased by the students, so the Reeve can hold the notion of himself asvirile and sexually desirable to women. Thus, the bedroom scene becomes asubstitute reality for the Reeve, in which he subtly releases his lasciviousnessinto a more socially acceptable form, the fabliaux. The Reeve and his talemanage to be, simultaneously, both complex and simple. Os-wald and hischaracters seem to fit snugly into a stereotype when they are first described,but then their actions seem to be guided by an unpredictable force. The pilgrimsare confused by the Reeve even as he is explaining his motivation to them. Sothey cut him off from the group even as he is attempting to connect with them.They will only listen to his tale out of obliga-tion, and hear nothing more.
So,while his story seems uncomplicated, it is anything but, due to the fact thatall of his unspoken thoughts have been conveyed within it. It may be vindictiveand base, but the Reeves Tale contains something far more interesting than amoral: the inner workings of his mind.BibliographyJung, C.
G. Psychology and Religion: West and East. New York: Hull, PantheonBooks, 1958.English Essays