Comparing Women in the Merchant's Tale and the Manciple's Tale

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Women in the Merchant's Tale and the Manciple's Tale

The Wife of Bath's extraordinary prologue gives the reader a dose of what is sometimes missing in early male-written literature: glimpses of female subjectivity. Women in medieval literature are often silent and passive, to the extent that cuckolding is often seen as something one man (the adulterer) does to another (the husband). Eve Sedgwick argues in Between Men that in many literary representations, women are playing pieces or playing fields in struggles between male players. By default it seems, male writers cannot help but create shallow constructions of women; heroism occurs in male spheres of activity, while the wives and daughters make the background, and
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(ll. 1746-9)

The narrator begins with a disclaimer, saying that even her surface appearance must remain inaccessible to those reading the tale. This disclaimer is followed by an amazingly unhelpful simile: May is like the morrow of May. The element of cliché is not the only problem with the simile. Especially in a literary context, the reference to the month is already contained in May's own name. The simile becomes sadistically repetitive. In text, the word "May" (the name of the woman) becomes not only the signified but the signifier; her own name, in a way, calls us to liken her to the month. Consequently, the line likening her to the month shoves one metaphor back into itself, and then this simile becomes not one of A=B but rather A=A or even A within A. If a simile's two parts are too similar, then the simile ceases to be a simile, thus losing its poetic power to describe. Chaucer drives the point home by rhyming "May" with "may," setting up a parallel situation between his simile and his rhyme; "may" cannot properly be said to rhyme with "May"‹they are homophones. So in describing May on the night of the wedding feast, Chaucer first creates an aura of mystery, then intimates that much may be unknown about the bride, then finally gives the reader completely undescriptive lines about May's

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