Symkyn is a bald, pug-nosed miller who lives near Cambridge and swindles all his customers. The miller's wife was raised in nunnery, and stinks with pride at her expensive upbringing. They have a fat, pug-nosed twenty-year-old daughter and a six-month-old infant. The miller intends to marry the daughter into a family of worthy ancestry.
Fat, pug-nosed Symkyn’s resemblance to the portrait of the Miller in the General Prologue is––although the Reeve does not point it out––most likely not accidental at all, considering that the Reeve is directly and angrily responding to the Miller’s Tale.
One day, the manciple of a school in Cambridge, who regularly grinds Symkyn’s grain, gets sick. Symkyn takes this opportunity to steal all kinds of corn and wheat: where he had once stolen “but curteisly”, he now is a “theef outrageously.”
Angry at the Miller’s depiction of the carpenter as a rich, old, foolish cuckold, the Reeve paints the Miller as a conniving, outrageous thief.
Two young scholars, John and Aleyn, who come from a town in northern England, get permission from the headmaster to try and stop Symkyn from stealing more grain. The scholars ask the miller to explain every step of the grain-grinding process. The wily miller realizes that they’re policing his activities, and he unties their horse and looses it into a field of wild mares. When the clerks realize that their horse is missing, they spend all day chasing it in the field to get it back, which gives Symkyn plenty of time to steal flour from them.
The Reeve’s Tale is one of the first examples of English writing to use dialect as a way of creating characters. John and Aleyn use vocabulary and speech patterns that mark them as being from Northern England. The horse who goes crazy in the field of wild mares is a symbol for all of the rampant sexual play that will happen later in the Tale.
Since they have spent the whole day trying to catch their horse, Aleyn and John pay Symkyn to lodge for the night at his house. Everyone goes to his or her respective beds in the same room. The miller, who is drunk, and the miller's wife go to bed with the infant’s cradle at their feet. The miller’s daughter, Aleyn, and John also go to bed.
The Miller thinks that he has tricked Aleyn and John and now is getting them to pay for their lodging. But, in fact, the Reeve puts everyone in the same room to ensure that sexual mishaps can occur. Though everyone starts out in their respective places, readers familiar with the genre of a raunchy fabliau know what is to come.
To take revenge against Symkyn, Aleyn decides to have sex with the miller’s daughter. John, not to be outdone, takes the cradle and puts it at the foot of his own bed. The miller’s wife wakes up to urinate, and when she comes back, she climbs into the bed with the cradle at the foot of it. Of course, this is John’s bed, and John and the miller’s wife have sex.
Chaucer did not invent the plot device of switching the infant’s cradle to fool the wife into getting into the wrong bed: the cradle-swap is a trick seen in many similar raunchy fables.
Early in the morning, Aleyn creeps out of the miller’s daughter’s bed, but first the miller’s daughter tells him about half a bushel of meal that she has helped to steal from her father for the clerks to have. Aleyn then gets into how own bed, or thinks he does—he, too, is tricked by the cradle and ends up getting in bed with Symkyn instead of John.
Not only do the scholars trick the miller by sleeping with his wife and daughter, the miller’s own daughter conspires against him by stealing his grain. The miller only learns about his cuckolding not by figuring it out himself, but because the scholars accidentally trick each other.
Thinking he is talking to John, Aleyn brags that he has slept with the miller’s daughter. However, he is actually talking to Symkyn himself. The miller, outraged, punches Aleyn in the nose. As the men fight, the miller tumbles onto the bed that his wife and John are in.
All the sexual shuffling escalates into a dramatic fight, where everyone is punching everyone else. This is the opposite of the well-orchestrated duel in the Knight’s Tale.
The miller's wife wakes up and tries to help her husband by hitting the clerks with a staff, but she mistakes Symkyn’s bald head with their white caps and end up hitting her husband by accident. Aleyn and John beat up Symkyn, grab the grain that the miller’s daughter had told them about, and make their escape.
The sexy comedy turns somewhat brutal at the end, when all the characters start bludgeoning each other. It has gone from finding laughs in sex to a darker humor that finds laughs in violence.
Thus, says the Reeve, the proud miller is bested: Aleyn and John have slept with the miller's wife and with his daughter and have swindled the swindler, and the Reeve has gotten his revenge against the Miller.
Like the Miller’s Tale, the Reeve’s Tale ends without a moral. It is for enjoyment and revenge—the Reeve’s revenge against the Miller.