Guest Post – Jenny Adams: Humor, Guilt, and Ethical Choice: The Trials and Tribulations of Teaching the Miller’s Tale

We are fortunate to have another friend of MassMedieval as a guest. Please read and enjoy her thoughts about teaching the Miller’s Tale. Thank you, Jenny!

Jenny Adams is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of MassachusettsShe has articles in Studies in the Age of Chaucer, the Journal of English Germanic Philology, Essays in Medieval Studies, The Chaucer Review, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching, and the Journal of Popular Culture. Her book, Power Play: The Literature and Politics of Chess in the Late Middle Ages (University of Pennsylvania Press) was published in 2006, and her edition of William Caxton’s The Game and Playe of the Chesse (TEAMS Middle English Texts series) appeared in 2009.

By any measure, the Miller’s Tale contains the funniest lines of Chaucer’s oeuvre.  It all starts when Alison puts her ambiguously identified “hole” out the window for Absolon to kiss, which he does “ful savourly.”  On the heels of this comes Nicholas’s attempt to “amenden al the jape” [improve the joke] and flaunt his own naked “ers.”  His ensuing fart helps Absolon brand him with the red hot coulter, an act that delivers the story’s coup-de-grace.  As Nicholas cries out “Water!” John, who sleeps in the barn and awaits the second flood, cuts down the tub he has so carefully hung from the barn roof, thereby injuring his own body and exposing himself as a fool.   I’ve taught this story for fifteen years, and it still makes me smile.   But the Miller’s Tale no longer makes me laugh. 

It was not always thus.  When I first came to the Miller’s Tale, I was like Alison.  No, I was not weasel-like in body, nor were my eyebrows “ful smale ypulled.”  Rather I had the innocence with which the Miller imbues her.   At age 18 (Alison’s own age, incidentally), I shared her “Tee Hee” at her silly antic, one that subsequently puts in play a chain reaction of jokes.  Minutes later, my “Tee Hee” soon morphed into a full belly laugh, one that upset the woman next to me at the UCLA library.  It made me love Chaucer.  It turned me into a medievalist.

Today, though, I gaze on the Miller’s Tale with a more Reeve-like eye, suspicious of the story and his motives for telling it.  Unlike Oswald, I’m not so foolish as to read myself into it. Nevertheless, I cannot help but read the tale’s riotous ending in context that, while not excluding the story’s humor, doesn’t account for it.   As I try to impress on my students, these lines necessarily provoke a more complicated reaction than a simple “Tee Hee.”  John’s injury ultimately leaves us frustrated by his ignorance and also angry at the clerical failure on display.  We can definitely blame John for willful insistence on ignorance, but the parish officials must share some of the blame for his duping.  Similarly, Nicholas, whose lines echo those of Arcite, forces us to read the Miller through the lens of the Knight’s Tale as we wondered about the ways the tension between free will and fate in turn shape our capacity for ethical choice.  And finally, the weirdly prescient mind-reading of Nicholas—“A berd!  A berd!” he cries in response to Absolon’s thinking of the same word—raises questions about the relationships between men, both here and in the other tales around it.

All of this is well-trodden ground in Millereque interpretation.  Today, when I taught it, I posed no radical readings, my goal being simply to open up the text to my students so that they could 1) understand the complications embedded in it, and then 2) come to their own conclusions about it.

Yet this act itself represents an ethical choice on my part and a bit of guilt.  For opening up these lines in academic ways necessarily forecloses them in others.  Once one starts reading closely, it’s hard to go back to the “Tee Hee.”  Which in turn makes me realize that while my first reading makes me Alison, my subsequent readings make me John.  While his willful repression of some knowledge might literally cripple him, there is a way I, too, yearn to overlook Chaucer’s “privitee,” to ignore the preaching of the academic glossers, and to recapture my “Tee hee.”

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Filed under Chaucer, Guest Post, Teaching

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