Paper: The Dilemmas of Desire
Chaucer caricatures the 14th century’s obsolete standards through the use of his characters by criticizing the utopian view of a married life and the role of women in it. The Canterbury Tales reveal his view of behaviors and manners of people of the late Middle Ages. He depicts two contrasting women through the personages like May and Dorigen. By the use of the description of her gestures, words and actions in the Merchant’s Tale, May serves as an illustration of a dissenter female, that most fully acts on her desire. On the contrary, we see Dorigen, who is a finer model of womanhood of that period; she is virtuous and of a moral high ground. These Chaucer’s ...view middle of the document...
Chaucer makes fun of January, who falsely believes that Damian is a “prudent, discreet, and trusty” man and sends his wife to visit this “sick” man, who takes advantage of the situation and confesses about how he feels towards May in his letter. May is touched and decides to commit adultery:
I do not care whom this matter displeases, for here I promise to love him best of all, even if he had no more than his shirt (413).
Soon she writes him back with a promise of “her favor”. Hence, one can clearly see that May is acting in conformity with her desire, described by Lacan. She disobeys ethical codes of being a “good” wife, imposed on her by her husband and society, and arranges the pear-tree affair that serves as a denouement of The Merchant’s tale.
Interestingly, Chaucer uses of the word “wax” in his tale, in order to draw a parallel between January’s and May’s desires. When January describes his future wife, he compares her to a “warm wax”, his intention is to mold her to make her a perfect wife as he sees it. Moreover, May uses wax to make a copy of the key to a garden, where she would fulfill her sexual desire with her lover. One can assume that May is against the image of being a good wife, who can be controlled in any way by her old husband. She is intended to do whatever she wants.
Consequently, we can assume that May is not one of Chaucer’s submissive characters, which has to conform to God’s demands, like Emily in the Knights Tale. May doesn’t feel obligated to any rules, ethical norms or society disapprovals. In fact, her ego is weaker than her desire, or pursuit of sexual desire, to be certain.
Surprisingly, at the very beginning Chaucer gives May a description of almost a “courtly love” character:
It seemed like magic to look on May, she sat with so gracious a countenance – so meek a look she had that Queen Esther never gazed with such an eye on Ahasuerus (399).
May’s inconsistency between her appearance and her interior shows throughout the story. She almost never expresses herself in any way and the first time we can grasp her inner world, when she directly lies to her husband:
I pray to god that the day may never dawn when I do not die as disgracefully as a woman can if I ever do such shame to my family or so mar my name as to be false. And if I commit that sin, have me tripped, and put in a sack, and drowned in the nearest river (423).
May gives a loquacious speech to January ensuring him that she is being good and faithful wife. In fact, whenever she speaks during the Merchant’s tale, she is not honest. One can clearly see a conflict between what she says and then does. Her real motives can be revealed to us only through her gestures and actions. In fact we are very limited in what she thinks and dreams about. In the situation when May comes to visit Damian the second time, the sexual tension is very clear between them. May is intended to follow her sexual desire and sleep with Damian. Chaucer’s description of the...