English 201: English Literature to 1700
The best beginning procedure is always to read the assignment all the way through, keeping track of characters, so that you know what's happening. If possible, read the whole work first. Try to get the big picture of the book (or section, or chapter) before getting bogged down in details. Read through, then go back and clear up details. Then you're ready to read the work closely with these questions in mind. (In the discussion below, page and line numbers in parentheses refer to The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed., vol. 1  unless otherwise indicated.)
The Miller's Prologue
The Miller's Tale
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Important CharactersJohn, a carpenter
Alison, his wife
Nicholas, a clerk, their lodger
Absolon, a parish clerk
The Miller's Prologue (pages 235-237)
First, read the description of the Miller in The General Prologue, lines 547-568, p. 228. What sort of person is he portrayed as in this description? Also, be sure to read the description of The Knight's Tale on p. 235.
Who should tell the next tale after the knight, according to the Host (lines 1-11)? What does this say about the Host's attitude toward social class?
Who interrupts and offers a tale instead (lines 12-19)? What condition is he in? How does the Host respond, and with what results (lines 20-27)?
What sort of tale does the Miller say he is going to tell (lines 28-35)? Who will be his main characters? Why does the Reeve react so negatively (lines 36-41)? For a clue, read the description of the Reeve in The General Prologue, lines 589-624, pp. 229-230, especially line 616.
How does the Miller respond (lines 36-58)? What does he mean by lines 55-58?
What does the narrator warn us about (lines 59-78)? Whose fault is it that this tale appears in The Canterbury Tales? What else does he tell us not to do (lines 77-78)?
The Miller's Tale (pages 237-252)
What do we learn about the carpenter at the beginning of the tale (lines 79-81)? What relation to him is Nicholas? How is Nicholas described (lines 82-112)? What does it mean for the narrator to call him "hende Nicholas"? (See note 8 to line 91, but keep the term in mind as you read the tale.)
What might be a problem with the marriage of the carpenter and his wife (lines 113-124)? Read her description carefully (lines 125-162). What kinds if images dominate in this description? We learn in line 293 that her name is Alison; to see some of the traditional connotations of this name, see the short lyric Alison (p. 351). Pay particular attention to some of the similarities in the way the woman is described. Does the lyric give us a good description of the Alison of The Miller's Tale? While you're at the lyric, note the word "tholien" in line 35 and compare its appearance in Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf (line 14, p. 32). This is an important word for Heaney, as you can read in his introduction to his translation, available at http://www.wwnorton.com/nael/beowulf/welcome.htm .
How subtle of a wooer is "handy" Nicholas (lines 163-173)? Does his language match his action? How successful is he as a wooer (lines 174-198)? What will they need to do, and how successful does he expect to be (lines 190-192)?
Who is Absolon and what does his name suggest (lines 304-230)? (There should be a note; see in the Bible 2 Samuel 13-18; most to the point here are 14:25-26 and 18:6-15.) Read the description carefully, noting the kinds of images that dominate the description. What does he especially dislike (lines 229-230)?
What happens to Absolon while he is swinging the censer in church (lines 231-243)? What does he do about it, and what response does he get (lines 244-261)? What does he do to woo Alison, and how successful is he (lines 262-290)? Notice at line 261 that the carpenter's name is John. Now we have the characters in place and are ready to begin the story. Notice that we have two triangles: Alison-John-Nicholas, and Alison-Nicholas-Absolon.
And so the plan is set up (lines 291-314). What happens when John returns home (lines 315-381)? Who is Robin (line358)? Who else have we met with that name? (See line 21 on p. 236.) What "athletic" activity do both Robins share? (Compare lines 551-553 of The General Prologue, p. 228, and lines 361-363 on p. 243.) What does John find when he enters Nicholas's room (lines 364-381)?
What does Nicholas tell John (lines 382-492)? Be sure you understand what they are to do, as described in lines 430-487. Note the echo in line 450 of lines 55-56. (For another version of Noah's flood, see the mystery play on pp. 381-391.) Why has Nicholas told this plan to John? Does John fall for it? (See lines 493-523.)
What happens when they get into the tubs (lines 524-539)? What do Nicholas and Alison then do, and why (lines 540-548)? Has the plan worked?
What does Absolon do and why (lines 549-578)? What happens when he arrives at the carpenter's house (lines 579-635)? Does he get the kiss he asks for? Is he happy? Be sure you understand what has happened in lines 619-627. How do Alison and Nicholas respond (lines 632-635)?
How does Absalon respond (lines 636-681)? What does he bring with him when he returns to the carpenter's house? What happens this time when he asks for a kiss (lines 682-707)?
What does line 707 cause to happen? (See lines 708-715.) Is this what was supposed to happen?
How well do Alison and Nicholas handle this emergency (lines 716-731)? How do they explain John's fall? How do the people respond to John's plight (lines 732-741)? What happens when John tries to tell them his version of what happened (lines 735-736)? Has John been treated fairly for his mistake in marrying a young wife? Is this a class putdown?
Is the Miller's summary effective? Is it correct? (See lines 742-746.)
In the Miller's breaking down of the social hierarchy in his interruption of the Host's plans we may be able to see a bit of the social disruption that occurred on a much larger scale in the Rising of 1381. For more on this important event, see page 10 of the Introduction and a description and some documents in the Norton Topics Online (http://www.wwnorton.com/nael). Look at the material on the Rising of 1381 in the first topic of the Medieval section, Medieval Estates and Orders.
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