The young clerk Nicholas is in love with his landlord’s wife Alison. She will not agree to any tryst with him, however, unless he can manage to get her jealous husband out of their way. Drawing upon his expertise in astronomy, Nicholas feigns he has a message from God: the world will experience a second Flood, and the only way for the household to survive is if they construct three separate boats, hang them from the ceiling, and wait for the rain to come. His landlord credulously falls for this story and begins work, giving Nicholas and Alison the perfect opportunity to sneak away together.
As a fabliau, “The Miller’s Tale” is definitely one of the bawdier contributions to The Canterbury Tales, offering a stark contrast to the courtly love story that the knight tells just before it. Readers will realize fairly early on that they are in for a wild ride; after all, Nicholas rather forwardly grabs at Alison’s crotch while pleading his love to her and is hardly rebuked for the action. And, of course, the entire plot centers on how Nicholas and Alison can contrive to cuckold her husband. The raunchiness is definitely enough to amuse many readers. However, the characterizations, details, and wider themes are also worth looking at.
Alison herself is a very compelling place to start. Although it may not be entirely clear if one starts reading The Canterbury Tales at the beginning (since the miller’s is only the second tale in the book), most of the stories center on marriages and women. The question here might then become: how much do readers sympathize with Alison? For my part, I have trouble excusing or empathizing with adultery in most fiction—and it is worth nothing that, however much a fool her husband might be for believing his tenant had a vision about a second Flood, he was apparently concerned for his wife’s safety.
Nonetheless, the story does not seem to ask readers to dwell on this. It observes fairly early on that old men should not wed young women; they are too different from each other and the wife is unlikely to be happy. If one believes this, it in some way excuses, or at least explains, Alison’s behavior. The ending of the tale also does not do much to bolster the husband’s standing. Nicholas may get a comeuppance himself, for misusing Scripture and abusing his position of knowledge, but the only one who really escapes unscathed is Alison herself. And while the audience is laughing at everyone’s antics, moral considerations may get lost in the mix.
I have to admit that “The Miller’s Tale” is not my favorite. While I do believe it introduces many themes that continue to be raised throughout The Canterbury Tales and does a good job of explicating them within this specific tale, as well, the fabliau may simply not be my genre. Bawdiness does not really appeal to my sense of humor, and I mostly thought it sad how poorly things turn out for all the characters. (Even if one side character—Absolon—is fairly amusing.)