The narrator describes the hilarity that ensues after the Miller's tale, with the whole company laughing and playing, except for the Reeve. The Reeve is offended because he is a carpenter and takes the Miller's tale as a personal insult.
The Reeve declares that he can "quite," or top, the Miller's tale with a story about how a miller gets tricked, were it not for the fact that he is too old to engage in the kind of sexual joking he has in mind for his tale.
The Reeve elaborates upon how old he is, using various metaphors to describe old age. He describes himself as a horse that is confined to the stable, and a rotten fruit.
The problem with being old, says the Reeve, is that like a green onion, you have a white head (i.e., an old, feeble body) but a green tail (you're horny all the time). Though your body's not up to it, you constantly want sex.
The four powers of the elderly, says the Reeve, are boasting, lying, anger, and covetousness.
As soon as he was born, says the Reeve, "death drew the tap of life and let it run" – i.e., his time began to run out. Like beer in a barrel, the Reeve's life is now at the bottom – almost over.
All that is left to the elderly, according to the Reeve, is to talk about the wretched things that happened before. All they have to look forward to now is old age.
The Host interrupts the Reeve to complain that the Reeve is preaching, which is not the proper activity for a Reeve. He remarks that much time has passed, and that it's time for the Reeve to begin his tale.
The Reeve asks the other pilgrims to forgive him if he offends them, but he's got to answer the Miller's tale with a similar kind of tale.
The Reeve expresses his belief that the Miller told his tale about a foolish carpenter out of scorn for him, the Reeve. Now the Reeve promises to "top" him in his own, churlish, or low-born, terms.