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What Is the Importance of the Description of Alison in the Context of the Miller's Prologue and Tale?

By stonalisa Jun 22, 2005 829 Words
In "The Miller's Tale", the poet Chaucer depicts the tale of a "hende" man and his attempt to tempt the "primerole" Alisoun to commit adultery and therefore render her husband, John a "cokewold". The Miller's Tale is just one story amongst a collection of greater works known collectively as "The Canterbury Tales". The placing of this tale is significant becomes it comes directly after the Knight's Tale revolving around nobility and chivalry and forms a direct contrast due to the fact it is bawdy, lewd and highly inappropriate. The tale is a fabliau, a versified short story designed to make you laugh; concerned usually with sexual or excretory functions. The plot often involves members of the clergy, and is usually in the form of a practical joke carried out for love or revenge and fabliaux are often viewed as a lower class genre.

One of the central characters in the poem is that of Alison, a woman who is married to an older man called John the carpenter, "this carpenter hadde wedded newe a wyf". Alison's attractions are suggested primarily by animal similes and she is described as radiant "ful brighter was the shining of hir hewe". Alison's beauty cannot be separated from her animation and vitality. This, with a hint of naivety, is suggested by the comparisons to "kide or calf" and (twice) to a colt. Alison is soft as a "wether's wolle" and her voice is like the swallow's. A supple, sinuous quality of her figure is suggested in the simile of the weasel, which is clearly chosen to stress her sexual attractiveness. This is an interesting simile because a weasel has connotations with slyness and deception, both of which we later find out are qualities of Alison. We are also invited to think of Alison as a sexual being in the line "upon hir lendes (loins)" We can also infer that Alison is somewhat promiscuous (and therefore John has a right to "[hold] hire narwe in cage") because we are told that her shoes were laced on "hir legges hye" and we would only know that if her skirt was hitched up. Short skirts in those days had connotations with prostitutes, the same as they do today.

The appropriate attitude for a man to take to such a woman (the Miller thinks) is shown by such terms as "popelote", "primerole" and "piggesnie", for which we can readily find modern equivalents. Alison is suitable as a mistress for "any lord"; as a wife, she can expect at best to marry a yeoman, "for any good yeman to wedde". Among the many other physical details packed into the Miller's set-piece description we learn that Alison has delicately-plucked sloe-black eyebrows; that she is tall and erect ("upright as a bolt") and that her breath is sweet. Much of the account is taken up with an inventory of her clothes. These seem fairly expensive, but John evidently wishes her to spend on her wardrobe. The clothes are stylish and exaggerate her attractive features. We learn that many garments are of silk, that smock and collar are embroidered, that her apron is shaped with "many a goore", and that her purse is decorated with silk and "perled with latoun". The astute eye can see the expense in this display, but it is not flamboyant.

Alison is not presented as a particularly pleasant woman in this section and indeed throughout the play, but her betrayal is diminished partly by her circumstances and partly in the manner of the tale's telling. She is ill-matched in marriage, but we do not know how much choice she has had in the matter. In any case, marrying a wealthy older man may be her only way of improving her material status. She lacks sensitivity and any kind of moral sense (qualities evident in the Knight, and celebrated in his tale) but this may not differ noticeably from many people of her social class; she has not had the benefit of education. In Chaucer's times, many didn't have that privilege and of course only the highly educated, such as monks could read and write.

The description of Alison in the context of the Miller's prologue and tale, serves to provide the reader with a mental image of the character which undoubtedly would feature prominently in the rest of the poem. The rhyming couplets in the description and throughout the poem are used for dramatic effect, often serving as part of a joke, "As clerkes ben ful subtil and ful queynte/ And prively he caughte hire by the queynte." As the reader, you are half expecting what is to follow. Without the full garrulous description, the rest of the fabliau would make little sense. In any good

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