In Oxford there lives a rich old carpenter. Boarding at his house is a poor young scholar, Nicholas, who is very learned in astrology and can also sing well. The carpenter is very jealous of his eighteen-year-old wife, Alison, who is pretty and flirtatious: the Miller describes her as a frisky young flower.
The rich old carpenter is a parody of the Knight’s noble Theseus. Unlike Hippolyta, an extremely powerful woman who submits willingly to Theseus, Alison is a young flirt who deliberately slips from the carpenter’s control.
One day, Nicholas begins to flirt with Alison. Nicholas grabs her, and though she cries out at first in protest, he coaxes her sweetly and she gives in. However, since the carpenter is such a jealous man, they agree to wait until they can make love in secrecy. Nicholas is confident that, as an educated clerk, he will be able to outwit a carpenter.
Unlike Palamon and Arcite, who only worship their lady love from afar, Nicholas immediately demonstrates his affection crudely and physically, grabbing at Alison and wooing her with caresses rather than only sighing from afar.
On the next holiday, Alison goes to the parish church, where another young clerk, Absolon, spies her. Absolon is vain and finely dressed, with curled hair and fashionable tunic. His one fault, the Miller says, is his squeamishness: Absolon doesn’t like to fart in public. Absolon is smitten with “love longynge”: if Alison had been a mouse and he a cat, he would have pounced.
With his curly hair and fashionable attire, Absolon is a parody of a vain young squire. The rich but silly Absolon also serves as a foil to the crafty but poor Nicholas. Unlike Arcite and Palamon, who are virtually interchangeable in many respects, Absolon is much more ridiculous than Nicholas.
Absolon serenades Alison underneath her window, brings her gifts, and showers her with money, but to no avail––Alison loves Nicholas, and Absolon might as well be her pet monkey.
Absolon’s actions are parodies of the traditional methods of wooing that a courtly lover would use (singing, gift-giving, etc.), but Alison prefers the physical advances of Nicholas.
One Saturday, the carpenter travels to nearby Osney, and Alison and Nicholas form a plan to spend the night together. Nicholas tells Alison to have a day’s worth of meat and drink brought to him in his room and to tell her husband, if he asks, that she does not know where he (Nicholas) is.
Alison and Nicholas openly plot their infidelity, playing off the fact that the carpenter is a foolish old cuckold. Alison feels no qualms about remaining loyal to her doddering husband when the dashing Nicholas is present.
When the carpenter returns on Sunday, he wonders about Nicholas and asks a servant to check on him. After knocking and receiving no reply, the servant peeks through a hole in the door that the cat uses to get in and out and sees Nicholas sitting upright, gaping at the moon.
While the Knight’s Tale is set among ancient mythological characters who take their interactions with the gods and goddesses seriously, the Miller’s Tale parodies Biblical stories—in this case, the tale of the Flood.
The carpenter is convinced that Nicholas has gone mad due to his study of astronomy and declares that this is what men get for inquiring too closely into “Goddes pryvetee.”
The Miller often speaks about the danger of looking into “Goddes pryvetee,” or God’s private affairs, too closely. “Pryvetee” is also a pun on physical private parts.
The carpenter and the servant break down Nicholas’s door and find the scholar sitting still as a stone, gazing into the air. The carpenter shakes Nicholas, saying prayers and calling on Christ to arouse him from his trance. Finally, Nicholas speaks, telling the carpenter that he has had a vision from God.
While the knights in the Knight’s Tale pray sincerely to the gods and receive direct communication with deities, Nicholas only pretends that he is having a vision so that he can hoodwink the carpenter.
Nicholas says that he has discovered through his astrology that on the next Monday night, there will be a wild rainstorm twice as great as Noah’s flood. All mankind, he says, shall die. The carpenter cries out, “Allas, my wyf! / And shal she drenche?” Nicholas replies that he knows a remedy, and that if the carpenter follows his orders, they will all––including Alison––survive the flood.
Nicholas’s false use of astrology to fool the carpenter is a direct parody of the Knight’s obsession with astrological timing throughout the Knight’s Tale: every visit to the deities’ temples in that story, for example, was charted to occur precisely at the appropriate time.
After swearing the carpenter to secrecy, Nicholas tells him to get three tubs, instructing him to fill them with enough food to survive for a day (the water, he explains, will subside the next day) and to hang them high from the roof. The carpenter must also bring an axe so that when the waters subside, they can cut the tubs loose and float away.
After making the carpenter believe that he is receiving communication from God, Nicholas engineers the whole plan very specifically so that the carpenter will not be close enough to Alison to hear when she leaps out of her tub to join Nicholas in bed.
They will climb into the tubs before nightfall, says Nicholas, and they will not speak a word to each other the entire time. The carpenter and Alison, Nicholas says, must not hang next to each other so that they will not be tempted to sin. Weeping and wailing, the gullible carpenter leaves to make his preparations, telling Alison everything in strictest confidence (although she, of course, knows the whole plan already).
Although Nicholas’s scheme is ridiculous, the carpenter is so blinded by his jealous love for his wife that he falls for the trick. Nicholas’s overly complex scheme is traditional for a fabliau, the type of bawdy fable that the Miller is telling.
On Monday night, the carpenter, Nicholas, and Alison climb into their tubs and say their prayers. The carpenter falls asleep, and Nicholas and Alison promptly hop out of their tubs and tumble into bed with each other.
Nicholas has arranged his whole complicated plan so that he and Alison can sleep together and cuckold her husband right under his nose.
That same Monday, Absolon happens to be in Osney, and, inquiring after the carpenter is told that he is either out of town gathering timber or at home. Absolon, who has been by the carpenter’s house and has not seen him there, decides that he will go there at dawn and confess his love to Alison.
Absolon is a parody of the traditional courtly lover who comes to woo his lady love by singing songs underneath her window.
Absolon chews cardamom and licorice to sweeten his breath, and at the first cock’s crow, he knocks on Alison’s window and begs for a kiss. She rebuffs him, saying that she loves another. Absolon begs her, and she opens the window, telling him to come quickly. He carefully wipes his mouth dry, but in the pitch-dark, he kisses her “naked ers” that she has stuck out the window. Alison and Nicholas laugh as the furious Absolon rubs his lips with dust and woodchips.
Unlike Arcite, who is so lovesick that he grows gaunt and unrecognizable, Absolon is vain and takes care of his appearance while he woos Alison. The trick that Nicholas and Alison have plotted against the carpenter turns into a trick against Absolon.
Screaming and cursing, Absolon goes to his friend the blacksmith and borrows a hot iron. He returns to the window, knocks, and tells Alison that he has brought her a gold ring and that he will give it to her in exchange for a real kiss.
The angry Absolon attempts to use Alison’s and Nicholas’s own trick against them in order to get his revenge.
Nicholas, who has gotten out of bed to urinate, sticks his rear end out the window. Absolon tells Alison to speak so that she can let him know where she is, and Nicholas lets fly a fart as loud as thunder.
Chaucer makes lots of fart jokes in the Canterbury Tales, and this is probably the best one: Nicholas describes Absolon’s empty speeches, quite literally, as hot air.
Though nearly blinded, Absolon strikes Nicholas’s rear with the hot poker and brands the skin. Nicholas cries for help and for water. The carpenter wakens at the cry of “water!” and, thinking that the flood is coming, cuts the cord, and his tub crashes to the floor.
Nicholas’s two tricks converge: his rear end is on fire, so he wants water, but he has told the carpenter that there is going to be a massive flood, so the carpenter takes the cry for water as a warning.
The carpenter lies in a swoon, his arm broken. The neighbors rush in to see the spectacle. Nicholas and Alison tell everyone that the carpenter is crazy, and no one will listen to the carpenter’s story about Noah’s flood. The townspeople all laugh.
Although the carpenter is telling the truth, he has been proven to be such a fool that Nicholas wins the day and no one is punished for infidelity.
The Miller sums up the tale: the carpenter’s wife has been “swyved” by Nicholas, despite the carpenter’s jealousy; Absolon has kissed her lower regions; and Nicholas has been scalded in the buttocks. “God save al the rowte!” says the Miller.
The Miller merrily concludes his jolly fabliau without any sort of moral or ethical takeaway: this is a tale of pure pleasure.