The Canterbury Tales: The Reeve's Tale
by Geoffrey Chaucer
Analysis: What's Up With the Ending?
The Reeve ends his tale by summarizing the punishments its miller has endured, then explaining these punishments with the proverb "Hym that nar wene wel that yvele doth" ("he who does evil fares badly") (466). The point he's trying to make is that the miller deserves the horrible things that happened to him – the rape of his wife and daughter, a brutal beating – because he has a history of cheating his customers. The narrator emphasizes this point even further with another proverb-like saying that "a gylour shal hymself bigyled be" (a cheater will himself be cheated) (467).
From one perspective – the one in which people's (and particularly women's) bodies are just more commodities on an open market – this depiction of the miller's punishment as a just punishment for the things he's done makes sense. But a thoughtful reader might reflect upon just how much actual similarity there is between cheating people of corn and raping or beating them. To a modern reader, the Reeve's idea that the tale's ending is fair and balanced may seem a little skewed.
Finally, the last line of "The Reeve's Tale" is his proclamation that with it, "Thus have I quyt [answered] the Millere in my tale" (470). This declaration causes us to reflect upon the ways in which "The Reeve's Tale" is an answer to the Miller's. One way, obviously, is in how a miller is punished in the course of it, just as a carpenter was in "The Miller's Tale."
We might also see the miller's punishment as similar to the carpenter's, for both men endure the loss of their wives' bodies to other men. But again, the surface similarities between the Miller's and Reeve's tales quickly give way to their very important differences, like how the sex in "The Miller's Tale" is definitely consensual, while in "The Reeve's Tale" it's only questionably so. Here again, the Reeve's attempt to "read" his tale – to control how his audience will interpret it – ultimately breaks down upon closer inspection.