Study Guide

Absolon in The Canterbury Tales: The Miller's Tale

By Geoffrey Chaucer


Since "The Miller's Tale" is supposed to be an answer to "The Knight's Tale," and in "The Knight's Tale" we had a love triangle of a damsel and two knights (who, we should mention, were virtually indistinguishable from one another), it's not at all surprising that "The Miller's Tale" gives us a second student in love with the parish clerk Absolon. Like Nicholas's portrait, Absolon's makes him seem somewhat effeminate: he has curly golden hair, which he carefully parts down the middle, and he wears a blue tunic over red hose "fetisly," or prettily, laced.

The impression of femininity in Absolon's portrait is not quite as strong as it is in Nicholas's, though. Instead, the most important thing about Absolon is that he's extremely tidy and fastidious and pays great attention to his personal grooming. He always makes sure that his hair is combed nicely, his breath smells sweet, and his shirt is free from wrinkles. With this fastidious personality comes a phobia important to the plot: Absolon is "somdeel squaymous / Of fartyng" (229-230), or disgusted by farting, a point that becomes very important at the end of the story.

Absolon participates in various artistic endeavors: he dances well in twenty different styles, sings (in a thin treble, another feminizing characteristic), and plays the giterne, or guitar. He uses his artistic talents to try to impress Alisoun, singing and playing outside her window and taking a major dramatic role in the local play.

In his seduction, Absolon reveals himself to be – depending on your point of view – either determined or obstinate to the point of stupidity. Despite Alisoun's repeated rejections, Absolon just won't quit. Perhaps his persistence is due to his passionate nature: we learn that he is kept awake night and day by his love-sickness, and he tells Alisoun he's about to die of it.

The speed with which Absolon's devotion turns to anger, though, makes us think his desire for her – despite being couched in romantic terms – is not love but lust. In fact, Absolon's role in the plot may be to serve as another face of lust – another shape it can take. In contrast to Nicholas, who doesn't bother to disguise his true motives when he roughly grabs Alisoun and has his way with her, Absolon expresses his lust with the same romantic conventions we see in "The Knight's Tale." When he waits for his kiss and hopes it will be followed by sex, his true motives are revealed. This unmasks not only Absolon but also the courtly love language he's so fond of using. Nicholas and Absolon turn out to be two sides of the same coin: they may be calling it different things, but both of these guys are looking for sex.