‘Theme’ is a central idea present in a literary piece. It serves as an essential ingredient that makes a story appealing and persuasive. Themes in The Canterbury Tales, a superb work of Geoffrey Chaucer is diverse and unique. Not only they deal with the dilemma of class and deception, but also show immoral and corrupt standards of the church in early 14th century. Some of the major themes in The Canterbury Tales have been discussed below.
Themes in The Canterbury Tales
Social satire is the major theme of The Canterbury Tales. The medieval society was set on three foundations: the nobility, the church, and the peasantry. Chaucer’s satire targets all segments of the medieval social issues, human immorality, and depraved heart. For example, he exposes each social layers of his pilgrims and beautifully illustrates how they fail to fulfill their actual duties. He further shows the theme of social satire in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale that satirizes courtly love and sets aside standard of dignity. The Wife of Bath’s Tale mocks the religious logic as the wife interprets The Bible verses in her own way to support her argument.
Courtly Love and Sexual Desire
Courtly love in the medieval setup is something noble and spiritual that does not mean to be achieved physically. The Knight’s Tale, in the general prologue, is an obvious example of courtly love where two knights fight for the hand of a fair lady. The intensity of love makes them forget oaths and duties toward the state. Furthermore, the insightful description of the squire, a young knight, possesses all the ornaments of courtly love. He sings, writes, plays flutes, maintains his physical appearance, and burns with a passion that keeps him awake. Apart from courtly love and sexual desire, lust also plays a major role in The Canterbury Tales. For examples, The Miler’s Tale is based on sexual desire and The Wife of Bath’s Tale represents the lust and sexual desire of the lady. Therefore, courtly love and sexual desire are common features of medieval society discussed by Chaucer.
Corruption in Church
The idea of corruption also upholds thematic significance in The Canterbury Tales, because most of the characters associated with the church are not religious, pious or dutiful as they must be. The Pardoner’s Tale is the best example of corruption. He is a medieval preacher assigned with the duty to collect money for holy purposes. He performs this duty and walks in the town with holy relics, preaches about the dangers of greed and raises money. However, the collection is not for a religious purpose; instead, he fills his own pocket. While narrating the tale, he does not seem to have any regret and displays pride for his actions.
Competition is another major theme in The Canterbury Tales. It is explicitly stated in tales as well as present among the pilgrims. The Knight’s Tale is set on the theme of competition where two prisoners fall in love with the same girl. Both are at good terms, but the lady becomes the bone of contention and makes them opponent of each other. The desire of love makes them bloodthirsty. At last, one is killed, and the other wins the hand of that lady. Out of these tales, the pilgrims also set the competition of storytelling. They seem to be impatient as well, as Miller jumps in to tell his tale after the Knight without waiting for his turn. Everyone tries to tell the best story continuing the competition, even though most of the stories are the versions of the stories already told.
The thematic significance of Christianity can be marked by the fact that the tales take place in a religious setting where everyone is going on a religious pilgrimage. Most of the notable figures of the church; the Monk, the Nun, the Parson, and the Friar are detailed in the general prologue, representing distinct areas of the church of that time. Some of them are true worshipers of Christ, while the others are corrupt. Therefore, Chaucer has artistically painted the picture of the custodians of the church having spoiled the true spirit of Christianity.
Class or status is another notable theme in The Canterbury Tales. This theme is explored through the comparison of the people who belong to a better class with those who attempt to appear as an upper class. Chaucer has presented two diverse characters, the Prioress and the Parson in the prologue. It is through these characters; he foreshadows the importance of status in medieval society. The Prioress, a nun by profession, is seen as an up-to-date woman, concerned with her manner and behavior. In contrast, the Parson, a clergyman, acts and behaves keeping in mind his class and duties. Despite knowing her duties, the Nun tries to look wealthy, whereas the Parson is not obsessed to maintain his class. This class and class consciousness run deep into the tales told by different characters.
Lies and Deception
Lies and deception are also one of the major themes in the prologue as well as individual tales. Most characters lie about their social status to maintain their respect. For instance, the Merchant appears to be a wealthy man at first, but as the tale progresses, he reveals that he is in debt. The Pardoner deceives people by selling fake relics, and the Miller also deceives others by selling his flour again and again. It happens that when people try to maintain their false standards, they often carefully plan before lying and cheating.
Justice and Judgement
The thematic value of justice and judgment can be seen in the tales that demand answers. For instance, The Knight’s Tale asks who was a better knight, Arcite or Palamon? The Franklin’s Tale also poses a question to the audience to consider each of the characters and decides who is the most generous. Therefore, judgment plays an active role in most of the tales.
Rivalry also holds a thematic value in The Canterbury Tales. There are rivals in story-telling, who insult each other. Palamon and Arcite in The Knight’s Tale forget their brotherhood and become rivals to marry Emelye. There are also rivals in trickery who smartly play tricks on others. Some members of the pilgrim group are also rivaling like the Miller and the Reeve. Their rivalry causes tension in the group. Chaucer presents how competition can quickly turn a friend into an enemy.
The theme of a company in the general prologue is not only evident but also very strong. Pilgrims are going to visit the relics of Thomas Becket in the company of each other. Most of the pilgrims are guildsmen, members of a specific trade. Many of them belong to the church, but they also represent a group. Although they belong to different standards and classes, they stay in a group, sharing the same purpose.