The narrator of "The Reeve's Tale" doesn't spend a lot of time commenting upon the things he's telling us, despite the fact that what we learn about the characters is sometimes shocking. For example, we learn that Symkyn regularly cheats his customers with "A theef he was for sothe of corn and meele / And that a sly, and usuant for to stele" (85-86). That's it, and the narrator makes no comment upon this piece of information, quickly moving on to discuss Symkyn's name and family connections. So, where we might expect outrage or moralizing, we get "just the facts, ma'am," plain and simple, a manner of delivery that's indicative of this narrator's straightforward style.
Sometimes the narrator does attempt to draw lessons from what he's just told us, like when he tells us that "jalous folk been perilous everemo" to explain Symkyn's aggressive possessiveness of his wife. Even this, though, is presented as a matter of fact, and not something that needs to be argued. This straightforward tone comes in particularly handy at the end of the tale, when it enables the narrator to interpret the rape of Symkyn's wife and daughter, and Symkyn's beating, as simple "payback" for the corn he stole. We're so accustomed by this point to accepting the narrator's words as plain statements of fact that we might not stop to question the validity of this interpretation, which is probably what the narrator's counting on.
"The Reeve's Tale" starts out trying to be a comedy. All the signs of comedy are there: a miller who regularly cheats his customers, two buddies on a road trip, a night spent all together in close quarters that culminates in several cases of mistaken identity… Yet somewhere along the way, "The Reeve's Tale" becomes very, very dark. It's hard to find the humor in what we might call Aleyn's rape of Symkyn's daughter, or the brutal beating Symkyn receives.
Nevertheless, the tale continues to attempt to make us laugh, parodying the genre of the "dawn song," the address with which newly-coupled lovers say farewell after a night of passion, in Malyne's goodbye to Aleyn; or trying to milk the humor out of Symkyn's wife's confusion of her husband's bald head with the white cap of a clerk. It's possible to read all this as comedic. On the other hand, we might read it as evidence of the narrator's pleasure in the punishment Symkyn receives.
Defining "The Reeve's Tale" as a "family drama" might make more sense, especially given the long discussion of Symkyn's wife's family ties and Malyne's potential inheritance. Although the conflict in the tale is at first limited to the miller and the two clerks, the whole family gets drawn into it in the end, justifying a label for "The Reeve's Tale" as a family drama. In fact, "The Reeve's Tale" might even be making a point about how the "sins of the father" rebound upon his whole family when all is said and done.
In medieval England, a reeve was someone who managed the estate of a lord, balancing its books and making sure its operations ran smoothly. In the General Prologue, Chaucer tells us that the reeve on this pilgrimage earns incredible profits for his lord, mainly by being extremely vigilant to make sure that none of the businessmen with whom he works are cheating him. Who were these businessmen, and how might they cheat a reeve?
Well, one businessman with whom a reeve might have worked was a miller, a person who ground corn and grain into flour. A miller could cheat his customers by giving them less flour than they paid for, sometimes by "padding" their sacks with a less expensive substance. Our Reeve, however, is an expert in avoiding this sort of trickery: there's no one with whom he does business, says Chaucer, whose "sleighte and his covyne" (tricks and treachery) the Reeve doesn't catch (General Prologue.606).
The Reeve's obsession with avoiding trickery might have something to do with why he tells a story about two students who try to prevent a miller from cheating them. The subject of this story, then, is one way in which this is definitively a reeve's tale. However, in the General Prologue, we also learned that the Reeve was once a carpenter. When the Miller tells a story making fun of a rather dense carpenter named John, the Reeve takes this as an insult upon all carpenters, and begs to be allowed to "quite," or answer, "The Miller's Tale" with his own. So this tale is also definitively "The Reeve's Tale" in the ways it punishes a fictional miller as a way of answering the "real" one.
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.
The narrator is very specific about the location of the mill where most of the action takes place in "The Reeve's Tale": it's "at Trumpygtoun, not far from Catebrigge" near a little brook with a bridge going over it (67). From a practical standpoint, this makes sense: a mill needs to be close to a water source in order to power its grinding mechanism. This mill's location not far from Cambridge, a university town, means that the narrator can use the interaction between the more learned, scholarly clerks with the lower-class miller as a source of conflict.
The setting at a mill puts the focus of the tale on the everyday economic transactions of a medieval village, which also become a source of conflict: the miller cheats his customers, leading the clerks to attempt payback. Even the sex between the clerks and Symkyn's family members is swallowed by this framework, described as "esement" (payback) for a wrong that's been done.
Another important setting in "The Reeve's Tale" is the bedroom of Symkyn's house. There's only one, which means that all the family members and their guests have to sleep close together, which provides the perfect opportunity for the clerks to extract their "esement" on the bodies of Symkyn's female family members. The setting of much of the tale in the bedroom also marks "The Reeve's Tale" as a "domestic" drama – one that's concerned with the day-to-day life and interactions of an ordinary medieval household.
A little bit shorter and with a plot that's quite a bit simpler than many of those in the other Canterbury Tales, "The Reeve's Tale" is a good "starter tale" for those wanting to try out Chaucer for the first time. The only potential difficulty to be aware of is the northern English dialect in which John and Aleyn speak, replacing the o's in their words with a's and using some obscure regional colloquialisms. With a good edition of the Tales that has a glossary and notes, though, you should be just fine.
(See the discussion of iambic pentameter in the "Writing Style" section of our guide to the "General Prologue & Frame Story.")
An important aspect of the style of "The Reeve's Tale" is Chaucer's attempt to imitate the northern dialect of the clerks. This dialect replaces many of the o's in words with a's, and contains some words that would have been unfamiliar to someone who spoke the London dialect of English. So when the clerks first arrive at the mill, they say to John, "by God, nede has na peer. / Hym boes serve hymself that has na swayn" (172-173). In these sentences, o's have been replaced with a's, making the word "na" instead of "no." And instead of using the middle English word "moste" for "must," they've used the word "boes," a usage particular to the Northern dialect Chaucer is imitating here.
Horses were a symbol of sexuality in medieval culture. The horse in "The Reeve's Tale" is especially a symbol of sexuality because he's a stallion, released into a field with a bunch of mares. He eagerly runs off to copulate with a joyous cry of "wehee!" (212). The difficulty the clerks have in catching him probably represents the difficulty of containing the sexuality of young and lusty people (like these two clerks). It's also a foreshadowing of the rampant sexuality soon to come in the miller's house that night, when John and Aleyn have sex with Symkyn's wife and daughter. The horse's release might be the story's way of signaling that a period of sexual freedom has begun. It's also a way of signaling that what we're reading here is a bawdy story – one that's all about sex, sex, and more sex.
A few of the non-sexual events that occur in "The Reeve's Tale" are described in such a way that they make us think of sex. Remember that moment when John proposes to stand right by the "hopur" to see how it goes "to and fra," and Aleyn declares his intention to stand below it and watch "how that the mele falles doun / Into the trough" (188-189)? Well we might compare the up-and-down / in-and-out motion to the act of sex.
Another moment like this occurs when Aleyn and Symkyn fight. The narrator tells us that "they walwe as doon two pigges in a poke; / And up they goun, and doun agayn anon" (424-425). Coming after the sexually-charged events that have just occurred, it's not just the dirty-minded who see a likeness to sex in this description. All of this sexual imagery is likely present to signal to the reader that this is a bawdy story. In this kind of story, everything, even something as mundane as grinding corn into flour, is somehow related to sex.
The Reeve, the narrator of "The Reeve's Tale," is able to get into just about everyone's head, an ability he uses to great effect at key moments in the tale. When Aleyn and John announce their intention to watch the corn being ground, for example, we are privy to Symkyn's thoughts. We're told that the miller is aware that the clerks are trying to prevent him from cheating them, and privately promises to get the better of them anyway. This cues us in to be on the lookout for what Symkyn will do to trick them.
After Symkyn has released their horse, however, the narrator's focus shifts to the reaction of John and Aleyn – their frustration at having been cheated and, finally, their plan to get "esement" (payback) by having sex with Symkyn's daughter and wife.
Finally, we are given access to Symkyn's wife's thought process as she joins in the fray the next morning – how, mistaking her husband's bald head for a clerk's white "volupeer" (cap), she clocks him on the noggin by mistake. This last moment of narrative omniscience adds to the comedy of the tale by making fun of the miller's baldness. Throughout the tale, then, the narrator uses his omniscience to create both suspense and comedy.
Two naïve young clerks think they can easily get the better of the miller who cheats all his customers. They propose to their headmaster that they be allowed to take a trip to the mill to watch their corn being ground, and brag to all their friends that they will achieve success where older and wiser people have failed. Little do they know that getting the better of Symkyn is harder than it might first appear.
The two clerks are jovial and care-free when they arrive at the mill, thinking they've got everything figured out. One clerk proposes to watch the corn as it goes in the hopper, or grinding mechanism; the other will watch it when it comes out. This way they'll guarantee that Symkyn doesn't cheat them of corn, right? Everything seems to be going perfectly for these two.
The clerks have no choice but to chase after their horse, despite knowing that their absence from the mill will give Symkyn the perfect opportunity to steal from them. Catching the sexually-excited stallion proves to be extremely difficult, and by the time it's over the clerks know they've failed at protecting their corn. Not only that, but it's gotten so late that now they have no choice but to spend the night with the devious miller, giving him more opportunities to cheat them.
The nightmare in question here is actually for Symkyn's wife and daughter, as the two clerks sexually assault them. When the large and aggressive Symkyn awakes, however, John and Aleyn are in serious trouble.
The clerks manage to defeat the "monster" in the form of an aggressive and enraged Symkyn, whom they leave unconscious on the floor of his house. Making their exit in a hurry, they pick up their stolen corn thanks to some information from Symkyn's daughter, Malyne. Having fulfilled their boast after all, John and Aleyn will have a happy homecoming.
All of the elements for a really good conflict are in place with this set-up: Symkyn's more blatant than usual cheating of the university prompts John and Aleyn to boast that they'll prevent him from doing it again; having publicly announced their intention, they can't back out now. But we know Symkyn's a proud guy, not to mention supremely unethical. Will he figure out a way to cheat the students despite their stratagems?
Symkyn makes the conflict between himself and the clerks totally clear. He also clarifies that he sees the conflict as one between the learning of clerks and the common sense street-smarts of peasants like him.
Just when we thought the conflict was over and Symkyn the clear winner, John and Aleyn decide it's too late to go home tonight. The fact that they bed down in the family's shared quarters, in close proximity to Symkyn's wife and daughter, and that they've got a bone to pick with Symkyn, leads us to suspect that something naughty will soon be afoot.
Aleyn and John get "payback" for their stolen corn. Everything in the story has been leading up to this, from numerous double-entendres in the tale's scenes and language to the opportunity presented by those shared sleeping quarters. When Aleyn calls sex with Malyne "esement," meaning both payback and physical release, we know that the sex is pretty much a done deal.
The minute John moves that cradle, we know disaster's about to strike. Sure, it causes Symkyn's wife to hop into bed with John, but since Aleyn doesn't know a thing about it, he's sure to hop into the wrong bed, too! Sure enough, he does, and to make matters even worse, he brags about sleeping with Malyne to the last person he should. Now the reader is left wondering how Symkyn will react to this slight to his daughter's honor.
The tensions that have been brewing between the characters, and the suspense that has been slowly building, get released here in physical violence. Finally, the rivalry between the clerks and the miller, which was never stated outright but always implicit, is out in the open.
John and Aleyn are the clear winners in this conflict, getting not only their full amount of corn, but also something "extra" in the sex they have with the miller's wife and daughter and the beating they give Symkyn. The narrator draws a moral from the story, saying that this punishment served Symkyn right for cheating his customers.
John and Aleyn travel to the mill to have their corn ground, but fail to prevent Symkyn from cheating them when they must catch their horse instead. The two decide to spend the night at the miller's house, and end up sharing a room with the whole family.
Seeking recompense for their stolen corn and the rough day they've had, John and Aleyn use their close proximity to all of Symkyn's family to debauch his wife and daughter. Trying to make it back to his own bed in the morning, but not realizing that John has moved the cradle, Aleyn crawls into bed with Symkyn by mistake. Thinking he's talking to John, Aleyn boasts to Symkyn that he had sex with Malyne all night.
John rises in a rage, and punches Aleyn in the nose. Symkyn tumbles into the bed where his wife and John are sleeping, waking them. Symkyn's wife grabs a staff and hits her husband over the head by mistake. After beating Symkyn up, John and Aleyn flee his property, picking up their stolen corn on the way out.