Such comments as, I pray to God his nekke mote to-breke quickly revealthat the ver-bal game of quite involves much more than a free meal to the Reevein The Canterbury Tales (I 3918). This overreaction, which grabs the attention ofthe audience and gives it pause, is characteristic of the Reeves ostensibly oddbehavior, being given to morose speeches followed by violent outbursts, all the whileharboring spiteful desires. Anger typifies the Reeves dialogue and his tale, which begsthe question why. It appears to be a reaction to the Millers insults, but they are notextreme enough to provoke such resentment.
He seem-ingly has no hesitation inarticulating his bitterness, yet he and his story are as much marked by suppression asexpression. Silence resounds as loudly as any noise in the Reeves Prologue and Tale.
The reader is as puzzled by his utterances as the lack of them: his sudden sermon ondeath is matched by the quietness of two couples copulating in a small room of five,none of which are able to hear what the others are doing.
The reality is that thebehavior of the Reeve and the characters in his tale are not random orunaccountable. The Reeve is continually si-lenced by other pilgrims and himself,which is paralleled in his tale, and in turn suppresses his emotions, which leads toeven more explosive conduct. In order to appreciate the melancholic and serious temperament of the Reeve,it is nec-essary to view him in comparison to other characters, as Chaucer intended.
The identities of the pilgrims are relative. They are characterized by their descriptionin the General Prologue, but not fully developed until they are seen in contrast to thepilgrim they are quiting. As the Millers personality is developed by his dissimilarityto the Knight, so is the Reeve by the Miller. Therefore Robins enjoyment of lifeshows just how little Oswald receives from the same. For instance, the Millers largeframe and excessive drinking show his delight in small pleasures. The Reeve,however, is a sclendre colerik man who controls his beard and hair (in oppositionto the unruly strands that grow on a wart on the millers nose) as manipula-tively asthe accounts of the farm on which he works (I 587). The Miller mastered thebag-pipes for entertainment in his spare time while the Reeve trained with morepractical tools: In youthe he had lerned a good myster: He was a wel good wrighte,a carpenter (I 614). Robin is very physical; he is strong and willing to wrestleanything and carries a sword and buckler at his side. Oswald only carries a rustyblade, which indicates that it is not used very often and is only for show. Ifcompelled to fight, he would most likely back down, preferring verbal sparring. TheMiller socializes with the group with no regards to the class system, in-terrupting theexpected order to tell his story before the Monk, while Oswald prefers to sepa-ratehimself and ride last among the group. These disparities give the impression that Oswald is focused inward whileRobin con-centrates on the outward. The Reeve is ruled by his practical mind, whichdirects him to make as much money as possible, whether it is through theft or savingor learning useful trades, and to avoid dangerous situations, even if it entailscowardice. The Miller is more of a Dionysian figure, who does only what pleaseshim, whether it is knocking heads or ignoring his wifes infidelities. These differencesin character foreshadow the differences in their tales. They both tell similar dirtystories but the nature varies greatly. It is the Millers good-humor that trans-forms thechivalric tale of the Knight into an account of adultery that is both bawdy andhi-larious. As will be discussed in greater detail in this essay, it is the Reevesintroversion that causes him to recite his mean-spirited tale of adultery asII. Outward Manifestations of Suppressed Emotions The Reeves vindictiveness and mood swings are based in his being repeatedlysilenced and his subsequent suppression of emotions. Oswald speaks three times inFragment I, and on the first occasion his wishes are ignored, on the second he is toldto speak of a more amusing subject, and he is finally allowed to speak on the third,but only because every pilgrim must tell a tale. The Reeves first words are spoken tothe Miller. He orders Robin to Stynt thy clappe! before beginning his story of acarpenter and his wife which will defame him and bring scandal to wives in general(I 3144). Instead of forcing the Miller to wait until he is so-ber so that he will recite aless offensive tale, the Host lets him compete next, disregarding the Reeves and hisown objections. When the Miller finishes, the Reeve does not introduce his story, butruminates on his old age and the lifeblood that has been flowing out of him since hewas born. He tells us that his heart is full of mold, that his fire has burnt out. All thatremains are four embers: boasting, lying, anger and greed. And though his body isfailing him, sexual cravings and desire in general are still present: Oure olde lemesmowe wel been unweelde, But wyl ne shal nat faillen, that is sooth (I 3886-3887).
He is expressing his fears and inade-quacies to the group, but they find it too serious.
The Host interrupts him and commands that he begin his story. This is a very critical moment in that the Host halts the speech in which theReeve tries to purge himself of all that has been festering inside of him. The Reeve isan old man close to death and is scared. He feels that he has nothing noble left inhim. Just as he can find no satis-faction for his desire through his feeble body, he canfind no release for his pent-up emotions because he is always being silenced. He willsoon be silenced forever, and yet is still not al-lowed to voice this or anything ofsignificance while is he alive. Chaucer may only portray the Reeves treatment by thisone group and only for a short time span, but it is reasonable to as-sume that this is apattern in his life. Why else would a quiet man mention his sexual prob-lems to agroup of relative strangers unless his family and acquaintances were also unwilling tolisten and he was desperate to speak it? Therefore, because of this life-longrecurrence of being silenced, he suppressed his feelings. The Reeve is not artistic,preferring the practical over the aesthetic, so when others refuse to listen, he has nochoice but to keep his emotions to himself, there being no other outlet such as art ormusic in which to channel this. As a re-sult, when he believes he is permitted to speakabout whatever he wishes, he lets loose all that has been locked inside of him andgives his morose monologue. But the Host denies him this relief, demanding that hemust now tell a story. As expected, the Reeve does not give a hu-morous accountsimilar to the Miller. Instead he directs his anger and his unexpressed emo-tions intohis tale. This is the reason why his story is so vindictive. This explains his prayer thatthe Miller, who previously described how a carpenter was cuckolded (a very real fearfor the married Reeve because of his impotence), would break his neck. Hisbehavior is not irra-tional and his feelings are not naturally malicious. Being confined,his negative emotions multiplied and became amplified as they were freed. As C. G. Jung explains, repression is the half-conscious and half-heartedletting go of things that veer from conventional morality (780). Suppression ofantisocial elements, how-ever, is done deliberately. Repression, but not suppression, isone of the main causes of neuro-sis. Suppression amounts to a conscious moralchoice, but repression is a rather immoral penchant for getting rid of disagreeabledecisions. Suppression may cause worry, conflict and suffering, but it never causes aneurosis. Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suf-fering (780). Since theReeve is aware of his negativity and conceals it from others and not himself, he mayhave unresolved issues but is not guided by a dysfunctional mind. Therefore, whilehe does exhibit extreme behavior, he and his actions are still rational. III. The Influence of Suppression in the Tale The Reeves Tale has been criticized for its single-minded intent to insult andits cold, impersonal tone in comparison to the Millers Tale. The Miller does pokefun at the Reeve and the Knight, but that is not the sole purpose of his story. Hisgoal appears to be entertain-ment. Nicholas and Alisons desires are simple: to havesome fun in bed without getting caught by her husband, John. Yet the plot is veryelaborate and comic in the unnecessary planning devised to trick the nave carpenter.
The characters are well developed for such a short piece and, most importantly, areuninhibited in communicating their wants: When Nicholas courts Alison, he grabsher by the queynte and tells her of his secret love (I 3276). Though she protests atfirst, she gives in to his pleading and promises to love him. Ab-salon, anotheradmirer of Alisons, serenades her while she is lying next to her husband. When helater asks for a kiss, she presents him with her backside, and Nicholas impersonatesher voice with a rude expulsion of air. They are as comfortable expressingthemselves, in whatever manner they wish, as the Miller. The Reeves Tale is starklycontrasted to this. Os-walds characters are as plain as his story, the height of theirscheming consisting of a relo-cated cradle and an untied horse. The personalities ofthe two university students are irrele-vant; all that matters is that they deceive themiller. And Symkyns importance is based only in his thieving nature and his eventualstatus as a victim, the purpose of the story being the Reeves revenge. The motherhas a more lengthy character sketch, but only because it shows that the millerwedded an illegitimate woman. Both women are objectified and valued only in thedistress they cause the miller through their ravishment. Adultery is again committed inthis tale, but it is done mechanically rather than from any sexual desire on the part ofthe students. The wooing by Nicholas and Absalon may have been brief, but they atleast made an effort to win Alison. John and Alan have intercourse with the wife anddaughter before any words of acceptance or denial are spoken by them, and just assoon as they are in the same bed as a fe-male. As I mentioned earlier, the fivecharacters spend the night in the same room, but not all are aware of what isoccurring. John does know his friend slept with Malyne, but only be-cause Alan toldhim his plan. The next morning Alan tells the miller, believing he is John, I havethries in this shorte nyght Swyved the milleres doghter bolt upright, Whil thow hast,as a coward, been agast, revealing that he was unaware John had been with the wifethe entire night (I 4265-4267). And when Symkyn hears this, he becomes enraged,this being the first he learns of it also, since he did not hear the two couples either.
This lack of noise in such an in-timate act may appear peculiar, but it is related to theReeve just as Alison and Nicholass enthusiasm is to the Miller. One clear reason for this silence is connected to the Reeves aversion to theMiller. Since his tale is told to reprise Robin, little else matters. Just like thetwo-dimensional char-acterization, the actions appear to be performed by rote, doneonly to make the plot progress to the desired ending. This explains the simplicity ofthe tale; the Reeve is only interested in the quickest method of revenge. The motherand daughter do not speak or struggle after learning the intentions of the clerksbecause it is inconvenient for them to do so. Their pur-pose in existing is to bedisparaged. Any efforts against this may cause the miller to wake, dis-rupting thegreater scheme. They are as quiet during the sexual act as the clerks because any typeof sound would expand their characterization at the expense of the plot. Thedaughter does speak the next morning, but only to further the narrative by divulgingthe location of the stolen corn so the students can reclaim it. Unexpectedly, Malynebegins to cry at the thought of Alans departure. This is actually done for the sake ofhis reputation. The Reeve wants to make Robin appear foolish, but knows thatturning his protagonists into rapists will only cause the audience to turn againsthimself. Because Malyne despairs that the night has ended, the audience assumes thatshe enjoyed the experience. The same can be said for the mother who so myrie a fitne hadde she nat ful yore (I 4230). So even though John and Alan initiate the actwith force, the women received pleasure, which cancels out the offense in thepil-grims minds. Thus, the characters and their satisfaction are mere tools used toThe lack of expression exhibited by the actors in this scene is also related tothe si-lencing of the Reeve. He is accustomed to being quieted when his thoughts arenot agreeable to his audience. Because of this, he censors himself even as he isreleasing all that is trapped inside of him. In his prologue, the Reeve does not keepspeaking of the rapid progression of his demise, but changes subjects as soon as theHost orders him to do so, directing his emo-tion into the more acceptable form ofhis tale. Occasionally, the build up of feeling forces him to release it, but he alwaysexpresses them within the bounds of decency, even if he does stretch those bounds.
It is necessary for the plot that the two couples have sex in the same room. He doesnot shy away from the subject and informs the audience of what is occurring asclearly as the Miller, if not more so. But Nicholas and Alison have intercoursedownstairs in privacy, away from John. In the Reeves tale, a mother is committingadultery in the same room in which her daughter is having premarital sex. This caneasily be construed as sexual perversion, to put it lightly. Yet the Reeve believes theycan be somewhat redeemed if they are not aware they are participating in whatamounts to an orgy. If the couples make no noise and do not hear one another, then,in a sense, they are in private. To have the clerks and women voice their pleasure andthe mother and daughter realize the others actions would have been unallowable.
Because of this, the Reeve stifles them so as to not offend his audi-ence and thus beallowed to finish his tale. But the Reeves manipulation and censorship of the characters does not meanhe com-pletely separates himself from them. He channels his sexual frustration intothe story along with his anger. Since he cannot use his body to find satisfaction, hemust use his imagination. The Miller, who gratifies his appetite in the real world,builds up the tension between Nicho-las and Alison through the long wait beforeconsummation, but barely mentions the act itself: And thus lith Alison and Nicholas, In bisynesse of myrthe and of solas, Til that the belle of laudes gan to rynge, And freres in the chauncel gone synge.
The reverse occurs in the Reeves story, with John and Alan engaging in sex withMalyne and the millers wife almost as soon as the thought comes to their minds. Hisdescription is short as well, but much more detailed: He priketh harde and depe ashe were mad (I 4231). In this line, which is referring to the cause of the wifespleasure, John appears to embody Oswalds frustration. The Reeve is as mad tofind satisfaction, both sexually and emotionally, as John is. The Reeve lives throughthe students, finding an alternate outlet this way. He creates two characters who haveno qualms about taking another mans wife and daughter in the same room toperform a rather twisted fantasy. The silence and objectification of the females alsosupports this. In the Reeves Tale, there is no seduction; the wife and daughterswillingness is ignored. The Reeve does not view them as participants, but as theobjects of desire. It would not do to have sexual objects demand courtship orbecome too humanlike, in which case they would have the power of rejection anddissatisfaction. Because he is living through the bodies of the clerks, the females mustnot be anything but pleased by the students, so the Reeve can hold the notion ofhimself as virile and sexually desirable to women. Thus, the bedroom scene becomesa substitute reality for the Reeve, in which he subtly releases his lasciviousness into amore socially acceptable form, the fabliaux. The Reeve and his tale manage to be, simultaneously, both complex andsimple. Os-wald and his characters seem to fit snugly into a stereotype when they arefirst described, but then their actions seem to be guided by an unpredictable force.
The pilgrims are confused by the Reeve even as he is explaining his motivation tothem. So they cut him off from the group even as he is attempting to connect withthem. They will only listen to his tale out of obliga-tion, and hear nothing more. So,while his story seems uncomplicated, it is anything but, due to the fact that all of hisunspoken thoughts have been conveyed within it. It may be vindictive and base, butthe Reeves Tale contains something far more interesting than a moral: the innerBibliography:Jung, C.G. Psychology and Religion: West and East. New York: Hull,Pantheon Books, 1958.
Cite this Suppression and Silence in the Reeves Tale
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