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"REEVE'S TALE, THE" Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1390) "The Reeve's Tale" appears in the first fragment (or group A) of "The Canterbury Tales," after the General Prologue, "The Knight's Tale," and "the Miller's Prologue and Tale." It is followed by the extremely short, and obviously incomplete, Cook's Tale. This first group forms a tightly knit unit, in which the various tellers respond to each other, under the attempted orchestration of Harry Bailly, the Host. In the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the Reeve and the Miller, as is socially appropriate, are to be found in the last group, together with the Sum-moner, the Pardoner, the Manciple, and Chaucer the Narrator. As the Miller disrupts the orderly, class-based sequence of narrations suggested by the Host by intervening directly after the Knight, so does the Reeve speak deliberately after the Miller, and his motives in doing so are made clear in his long Prologue.
Here the Reeve (a word indicating the Steward of a manor), a man of choleric disposition and one of the less likeable among Chaucer's pilgrims, laments the infirmities associated with old age and reveals his animus against the drunken and overbearing Miller, who has spoken before him and has allegedly offended him. His harangue is rudely interrupted by the Host, who reminds him that "The devel made a reve for to preche" (l. 3903) and urges him to begin his story. The tale proper begins, and it is clear from the start that it is conceived as a riposte to the Miller, since the Reeve fancies himself parodied in the portrait of the old and gullible carpenter in the previous tale.
The narrative is set at Trumpington, near Cambridge. Symkyn, a grasping and bold miller, lives there, and he is equally in love with money and with his (mostly imagined) social position. The long description of this character emphasizes his apelike face and body, his boastful bearing, the excessive weaponry he always wears, his outrageous thievery, and his family pride. He fancies himself well-connected since his wife is the illegitimate daughter of the parson, and the two of them project their ambitions on their 20-year-old daughter, Malyne (whose quick physical description marks her as far from the conventional beauty of the type), and on their small baby, who, though only six months old, is already "a propre page" (l. 3972).
Having been sent by the master of their college to have their corn ground, Aleyn and John, two poor scholars of Cambridge, visit the mill. While the miller foresees another opportunity to steal on the correct measure of flour, the two scholars are fatuously certain that they will not be cheated, as they think their learning far outshines the miller's native ingenuity. They are determined to watch the miller's every move, but he proves more than a match for them: Not only does he steal their flour and give it to his wife to knead into a cake, but he also makes their horse bolt, forcing them into an undignified scramble across the fields to recapture the animal; thus the miller proves that "The gret-teste clerkes been noght wisest men" (l. 4054).
By the time the scholars manage to detach their horse from its company of wild mares, night has fallen and they are forced to ask for Symkyn's hospitality. The provisions and ale they send for become the occasion for an impromptu feast at which both the Miller and his wife get drunk, and when they all go to bed (in the same room, as was the custom), the two older people's (and their daughter's) snores are a sonorous accompaniment to the scholars' rueful nightly meditations. But they also provide the cover under which the two students undertake their revenge by "swyving"— that is, having sex with, the Miller's wife and daughter. First, Aleyn slips quietly into Malyne's bed and rapes her before she has a chance to cry out; then John, shamed by his friend's boldness, moves the cot where the baby sleeps from the proximity of the parents' bed to his own, so that when the miller's wife has to get up, she mistakes the bed in the pitch-dark room and ends in John's arms, enjoying his enthusiastic lovemaking in the drunken conviction that it is her husband's.
Dawn arrives, and the denouement begins with a mock aubaude: Malyne's tearful adieus to her "lem-man" ("sweetheart," l. 4240), who in his turn swears, "I is thyn awen clerk" (l. 4239). This is soon forgotten, however, as Aleyn, equally tricked by the displaced cot, enters the miller's bed and boasts of his success. The uproar caused by the miller's discovery of his daughter's undoing causes a furious fight with Aleyn, which is abruptly ended when the wife, persevering in her mistake, deals her husband a stunning blow. With dishonor upon both women and the recapture of the stolen flour, the students' revenge is completed, and they can go back to Cambridge victorious.
"The Reeve's Tale" is a fabliau, a short, comic, and scurrilous tale in verse, generally dealing with lowborn characters, set in the present or in a not-too-distant past, so as to make the setting and characters (however generic or stereotyped) immediately recognizable to the audience. Born of the Reeve's bitter desire for revenge, however, this tale is less light and humorous than its companion piece, "The Miller's Tale," and the fate it metes out to innocent characters such as the miller's daughter helps us understand the fabliau's darker side. Yet the comedy is far from sacrificed, and the tightly constructed plot turns the final scene into a triumph of slapstick comedy, a farce of clock-like inevitability. Faithful to the spirit of the genre, Chaucer does not pass judgement on any of his characters, nor do any of the pilgrims comment on the scholars' outrageous revenge. However, Chaucer avoids the transformation of the comedy into mechanical farce and the representation of the miller and his rival as mere puppets by preserving the individuality of each character, giving most of them a name, often unforgettable physical traits (such as the "camuse nose" marking the kinship between the miller and his daughter), and a distinctive personality, while these characteristics preserve evident links with the types of the genre tradition.
Critical attention to "The Reeve's Tale" has tended to focus on individual characters, as they are distinctive enough to warrant in-depth analysis and may suggest literary analogues and echoes beyond the fabliau tradition. The miller, for instance, has suggested analogies with Simon the Magician as represented in Dante's Inferno; he has also evoked outright analogies with the devil or, given his name and simian appearance, with the ape. The two students, with their association with one of the most famous and ancient universities in Europe, have prompted analyses of their role in medieval scholarly tradition, suggesting derivations from Richard de Bury's Philobiblon (1473) or other conventional treatises on scholarly life. More generally, biblical analogies are suggested by the Reeve's declaration, in his Prologue, that his rival the Miller "kan wel in myn eye seen a stalke, But in his owene he kan nat seen a balke [beam]" (ll. 3919-20), and recent studies have used the biblical analogy as a possible interpretative key for the tale. Some attention has also been dedicated to the animal imagery in the tale, and to its associations with allegorical images of pride, wrath, and lust.
A number of parallels in French, Italian, German, and Flemish literature have been identified for this tale, and a number of studies have concentrated on its relation to its sources and analogues. The most important are two anonymous French fabliaux, Le Meunier et les II Clers and De Gombert et des II clers, and Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron Book 9, Tale 6, along with another Italian novella and two German tales. In all cases, the plot is substantially the same, especially in regard to the bed trick, although the characters' social status and the motivations differ. This might make the reader think that Chaucer's tale is too constrained by the tradition to which it belongs, but "The Reeve's Tale" demonstrates the poet's ability in handling and renovating traditional material. It is also unique in the "bed-trick" tradition in its almost complete absence of romantic overtones. This motif, in which two characters unknowingly have sex with each other because of mistaken identity, was particularly popular in fabliaux. The mock aubade concluding Malyne's and Aleyn's "night of love" is also unique to Chaucer's text.
Another aspect that has attracted critical attention is Chaucer's use of dialect, as he offers the first extensive representation of a dialect in English literature. Critical studies have lately focused on linguistic details in an attempt to pinpoint the exact dialect Chaucer used and his accuracy in reproducing it.
More recently, the use of space in the tale's final scene—a use anticipated by the miller's ironic consideration that the scholars may consider themselves welcome in his house, since, though it is narrow, they can "by argumentes make a place/A mile brood of twenty foot of space" (ll. 4123-24)—has triggered critical discussion on the use of space and place in the tale, and on the concept of sight and its association with knowledge. It has also helped to put the miller's pride in a new perspective, linking it with his "greet sokene" (l. 3987)—that is, his monopoly on grain-grinding and his dreams of his great estate, which he wants to enlarge through marital alliances, thus effectively founding an imaginary dynasty. The ambition of this character is thus not simply a comical trait predetermining his downfall, but a marker of social unrest. Chaucer may also have hidden in his description of the miller's pride a satirical note against holy orders and the abuse of church privilege. For instance, the parson in the Tale diverts church goods for his own use. At the same time, the rivalry between the miller and the scholars has been reassessed in terms of a competition between university and country wits, transcending the usual class war inherent in fabliaux to suggest how the expansion of the universities in the 14th century might create new social problems. The expansion challenged the traditionally established class structure by inserting a new order, that of the clerks, who, while conscious of their intellectual superiority and their financial disadvantages, were made aggressive and perhaps violent by the uncertainty of their status.
Finally, feminist scholarship has investigated the "comic" treatment of rape and deception within the tale, focusing primarily on the "no really means yes" aspect of Malyne's and Aleyn's sexual encounter. Another avenue of investigation involves the use of innocent women to punish men.
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