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miller's portrait

literary theory
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Miller’s Portrait

The portraits in the Canterbury Tales General Prologue are often described as a cross section or picture gallery of 14th century society. There is an indication in these phrases of the "enclosed frame" of each pilgrim's description, introduced by the classic rubric of biography ‘the Miller was’ or ‘there was’. Yet this formality implicit in the estates satire is here set against the disorganized piling up if detail, the ‘collusion of impression from the collision of detail’ as Baldwin put it. Contrasted with the accepted description, Chaucer method of contrapuntucal detail and jumping from ‘shinbone to cookery’ gives a suggestive, yet vivid picture. In this passage, the Miller is described by build, beard, and a wart on his noseh, yet the ‘character’ is captured. 

This is further amplified by the paratactic syntax, putting things side by side without much comment, a steady cataloguing of ‘and’. Everything is pulled together with the sense of what Baldwin calls the radix trait, in this case the Miller’s physicality, as well as by a consistently detailed focus, as though the narrator is looking through a magnifying glass – we see the hairs on the ‘werte’. 

This naturalism is also clear in the similes, which Hazlitt described as acting as an index pointing to the subject. In the Miller's portrait the external detail figured metaphorically by the spade, the bristles on a sowe and the furnace all act as indicators of inner character and also link the figure with the tale he is to tell, as the furnace with the smith.

The truthfulness seems at odds with the narrator’s naiveté, made clear in the use of hyperbole. An example in htis passage is ‘wel koude he stele’ where as Hoffman says, the reader seems to be tipped into the act of judging by the sense that if this seems reprehensible, there must be standard by which it appears to be so. The "wel", in its incongruity, adds to the problems this line creates. Howard has argued that Chaucer-pilgrims wide-eyed position is in fact a Christian one, stemming from what he argues is the profound irony of loving the man but hating the sin. Here however, the ‘wel’ seems less a gullible readiness to love the sinner than a genial joke. As Donaldson points out, the narrator does recognise rascals when they are in the lower classes, but at the same time seems to have a kind of grudging admiration for efficient thievery. 

Pearsall and Eberle have commented on Chaucer’s remarkable lack of outrage toward the word of commerce, an ambivalence some have attributed to his ‘Janus like social position’ between the court and his own origins, and the narrator in a sense is given a degree of sophistication here, listing the fault but seeing it as a virtue on a level with musical skill.

The bagpipes are obviously linked with the Miller’s potency and indicate his knowledge of synne, but they are also, like the furnace, a link to his tale, where as Patterson says, Nature is not only accepted but redeemed. This is most obvious in the scene where the ‘belle of luades’ harmonises with Alisoun and Nicholas’s melodye. Music also links with what Lindahl sees as a central structural element in the CT – the medieval festival which account for the emphasis on the group. Howard argued that the idea of serial progression in the GP ought to be discarded, for the view that Chaucer is here presenting society in little, and that thus the GP is realistic in detail, universal in depiction of group tendency and profoundly medieval in it’s recognition that ‘this world is nat so strong’

There is a consistent carnivalesque element in the CT, which is at odds with the pilgrimage, yet also an inevitable part of its dualistic focus as Bisson says. In the passage, it is notable that as opposed to ideal pilgrims all the information we are given is external with four lines of qualities, none of which have any direct connection with the ‘ful devout corage’ of going on pilgrimage. 

Described in terms of bestiality, and with the reference to the sowe, a very clear signal of connection with carnival, his disruptiveness indicated by the anecdotal evidence given matter-of-factly that he uses his head not for rational thought but for breaking down doors. 

written: 2007
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