The Canterbury Tales

Introduction to The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is known as the foundational English literary book of tales written in verse style by Geoffrey Chaucer. The author is famous as one of the pioneers of English poetry. The book was likely published around 1387 to 1400 when Chaucer joined the royal court. The stories, in verses, though some are in prose, present the social norms, characters, situations, and religious devotion of the pilgrims presented in them. The stories became so much popular and are considered classics across the globe.

Summary of The Canterbury Tales

The book opens with The General Prologue and introduces a gathering of all the characters at the Tabard Inn tavern in London, ready to on the pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas in the town of Canterbury. The prologue shows a total of 77 persons, including some from the religious order, such as the Friar and the Monk, and social order, such as the Squire and the Knight, with some examples from the lower order. Harry Bailey, the host, throws the suggestion for each guest to narrate a story to pass the time during the long journey. The first tale is told by a knight known as The Knight’s Tale, which is about Theseus, the duke of Athens, who imprisons two Theban knights for violating a local norm.

Arcite, one of them, is freed, but then he returns to win the freedom of Palamon. He seeks refuge from Emelye, the sister of Theseus, with whom both have fallen in love earlier. She also is the reason for their banishment from the land. Meanwhile, Palamon escapes with their help and faces arrest. Theseus, then, forces them into dual for Emelye, in which Arcite wins but dies in the accident, while Emelye marries Palamon.

The second tale by Miller comprises the story of a poor student, Nicholas, who seduces his landlord’s wife, Alisoun, and terrifies him with an impending flood. A young priest is also in love with the same lady and asks her for a kiss, at which Nicholas plays a trick by thrusting out his bottom. Enraged, the young clerk brands his buttock with a hot poker when he does the same second time. Meanwhile, the landlord falls in frustration after he thinks that the flood has arrived and fractures his arm.

The third tale of Reeve contradicts Miller’s story of the stupid carpenter, considering it a criticism of him. He narrates the story of the dishonest miller, saying the miller robs the students by untying their horses, after which they run after them to catch them. Meanwhile, he steals their belongings. When they return, it is night. So, they are forced to stay with the miller, after which one of them seduces his daughter, and the other seduces his wife. When both husband and wife start a brawl in confusion, the students take their goods and run away. Later, the Cook also takes part in it and starts narrating the story of Perkyn Reveler but leaves it unfinished when a lawyer takes the stage.

When the lawyer or the Man of Law takes the stage, he apologizes and starts the story of the Muslim Sultan of Syria, his romance with the Roman girl, Custance, and her escape in the midst of the conflict between Islam and Christianity. Next, the Wife of Bath stands up to narrate her story after quoting from the Bible and stating her submissiveness to the five husbands she has married from time to time. She also berates the Friar for the interruption, after which the Host intervenes and asks her to narrate her tale about the knight of King Arthur, his rape, atonement, and winning of a beautiful as well as faithful wife, after which the Friar starts his tale.

The Friar narrates the story of a lecherous summoner who has his own spying network when working with an archdeacon. Once he calls a yeoman but confronts the devil in disguise, after which the devil drags him to hell, following which the summoner also retaliates with his own tale about a friar after clarification that there is no difference between the two. He states that when an angel was going to hell, he had around 20,000 friars with him. Following this, a little incident happens between a friar and Thomas, after which the friar complains to the squire.

This incident follows the Clerk’s tale, who narrates a beautiful tale of a farmer and his wife in which the farmer tests his wife and promises to live with her forever in case she passes the test. When the Merchant’s turn comes, he starts narrating the story about the evils of marriage, saying that a knight, January, marries May, who cheats on him, at which the Host prays that God must save them from such wives. Then the Squire starts his tale about love, narrating the story of King Cambyuskan that he leaves unfinished, whereas the Franklin starts his tale through a ballad in which he narrates the love story of Dorigen and Arveragus.

The physician also intervenes with his tale and starts narrating the story of Virginia, a tempting woman, who beheads herself at her father’s appeal instead of being handed over to Claudius. The Pardoner, waiting for his story, steps in after him and starts his story about morality. He tells about three young men looking for death. When they reach an old man, he directs them to a tree where they find gold bushels and kill each other for having all of them. The story creates bad blood between the Host and the Pardoner, but the Knight steps in to resolve the brawl, asking the Shipman to narrate his tale to reconcile them and resolve the situation.

Starting his tale with the monk’s degenerate nature, the Shipman tells his sexual advances toward the wife of a merchant, who realizes her mistake and asks her husband to forgive the debt. When the Prioress hears this tale, she starts her own story of the issue between a Jew who kills a devout Christian boy but then starts singing the song of Gracious Mother the boy was singing earlier when he got killed.

Following this, the Host asks Chaucer to narrate some tale at which he starts the story of Sir Thopas and his bawdy exploits. However, the Host gets irked and stops him, after which he starts the story of Melibee whose wife forgives all the attackers. When Chaucer finishes it, the Monk starts stories of Sampson, Hercules, Pedro, and Lucifer to come to a common point of the tragic fall, which the Nun comes forward and starts her tale of a rooster and a fox, followed by another Nun who narrates her story about Saint Cecilia after which the Yeoman starts making claims about the exploits he has performed with the help of Canon, who is with him.

When he finishes, the Manciple takes the stage and narrates his tale after lashing out at the cook for missing his turn to narrate the story. Then he narrates the story of a white crow and asks the Host to invite the Parson for his tale, who delivers a lecture on the deadly sins, after which Chaucer takes the stage to seek apology from readers in case the book proves lacking in anything.

Major Themes in The Canterbury Tales

  1. Social Satire: The Canterbury Tales is a satire on the existing society of that time. The author describes the three pillars, the church, the nobility, as well as the peasantry, and their corruption and degrading morality. Chaucer includes all the characters of the society, such as the knight, the squire, the Wife of Bath, the Nun, the Friar, the Cook, etc. Then he proves that highly any character is upright and pious as they are supposed to be. He shows that most of them are quite allergic to their actual duties and poke their noses quite often into the fields irrelevant to their calling. This satire on society is apparent in the Nun’s tales of the rooster and the fox, while the Wife of Bath shows a different side of the social structure when she argues her own case contradictory to the prevalent religious logic. In fact, the very thematic strand of the satire starts with the Host himself, and it continues with the religious characters, such as the hypocrisy of the Friar, and then with the Miller as well as the greedy Pardoner.
  2. Courtly Love and Lasciviousness: The Canterbury Tales shows the theme of love and lasciviousness through the tales of the Knight, the Miller, and the Wife of Bath, who narrate their tales about both of these points. The Knight’s Tale shows this love for the fair lady that leads to a duel in which they forget their personal duties, while the Squire is busy writing poetry and ballads in the praise of his fair lady. The same goes for the Wife of Bath, who is busy with carnal advances, while Miller demonstrates this sensual desire present in different individuals.
  3. Religious Corruption: Although it is mild and somewhat latent in ironic remarks of different characters, Chaucer lets his character engage in religious criticism. This happens through different characters who show it through their corrupt practices, such as the greed of Pardoner and the lasciviousness of the Friar, who is a hypocrite to the core. Similarly, the tale of the Pardoner also demonstrates the corruption prevalent among different religious characters, who are hoarding and extracting money rather than performing their duties.
  4. Competition: The competition between different persons, individuals, and professionals is an apparent theme when explored in the tale of the Knight. The Knight demonstrates this competition going on between both groups; the elder as well as the young. The first group involves two Knights who go for a duel to win a lady, while the Squire is busy writing in the praise of his fair lady. The other competition in The Canterbury Tales is between the storytellers who are jockeying to lead the others and jostling to take their turns first. For example, the Miller is too eager to speak, while the Nun also takes the lead.
  5. Christianity: The Canterbury Tales show the significance of Christianity from the very title that the pilgrims are on their way to Canterbury and that they are telling stories to pass their time. Therefore, the Host calls the Christian figures, while Chaucer also relates to some Christian teachings and issues. The Christian figures included in the tales are the Nun, the Parson, the Friar, and the Monk. However, it is not necessary that their tales represent their duties or professions. They merely narrate tales to show that they, too, are taking part in the drive to pass the time during their travel to Canterbury.
  6. Class: The theme of class in The Canterbury Tales is apparent through different characters selected from different walks of life to narrate a story during the journey. For example, where Chaucer presents the characters from the Church, such as the Nun or the Friar. He has also mentioned professionals such as the Miller and the Merchant, the Peasant, the Knight, and so on. In fact, these characters have presented their respective classes as well as the prominent features of the class, whether the class is good or bad.
  7. Deception: The theme of deception is significant as several characters highlight this trait through their behavior as well as their tales. The Merchant appears wealthy, but his story shows that he is in debt. He is also involved in deception, stealing, and selling flour back to his customers. The greed of the Pardoner also forces him to extract money from the people, while the Wife of Bath also shows the same character by marrying different persons by deception.
  8. Justice and Judgement: The Canterbury Tales shows that justice and judgment are two different things. While justice means to give a person his due share, judgment means to decide about a person from his appearances. The Knight’s Tale shows an entirely different character of the Knight as judged by his appearance, although justice has been shown through a duel. The same goes with the Merchant, whose tale forces the audience to judge the marriage of January from their perspective.
  9. Rivalry: The significance of the theme of rivalry in The Canterbury Tales is seen in the characters going on the journey as well as in the characters presented in the story. For example, the duel between the knights in The Knight’s Tale is also a rivalry, though it is not very much obvious.
  10. Storytelling: The significance of storytelling lies in that every character, whether he is religious, professional, or a common individual, has to narrate a story during the journey.

Major Characters of The Canterbury Tales

  1. Chaucer: Chaucer is the author and also displays himself as one of the characters of The Canterbury Tales. He claims it so at different places when the narrators stop, and he talks to the Host. However, the readers must be cautious to accept him as Chaucer presents in the stories on account of his presentation of different characters closely with the claim that he is a gregarious and naïve fellow. Even the Host is fed up with his silence and calls him a sullen person. As he paints different pictures through his recollection of memories, it is up to him to paint somebody good or bad. Thus, it is Chaucerian prejudice or bias that his writing exudes.
  2. The Knight: The Knight is a significant character who appears to be ahead in the social hierarchy as well as in the storytelling, while the Host is also captivated by his manners and qualities. His ideals are the same as expected during the medieval time. He possesses chivalry, honor, freedom, and truth. His narrative is full of his military exploits, considered insignia of bravery and courage during those times. His battle exploits in the foreign lands win him trust, honor, and respect, while his personality exudes awe among the audience. His interaction with other characters also sheds some light on his general demeanor with others and his status among them.
  3. The Wife of Bath: She is the second significant character whom Chaucer gives some time to describe her character in detail. Her appearances show her lascivious nature, which is another evidence of her immorality. Her claim of having expertise in marriages, too, seems to go in the opposite direction to her current intention of wearing religious robes to accompany the religious pilgrims. It soon transpires that she has accompanied them only to satisfy her love for traveling.
  4. The Miller: The character of the Miller is significant in the course of the tales in that he represents a common greedy individual whose temperamental appetite is toward greediness. His broad chest and shoulders demonstrate his lusty nature, showing him indulging in dishonest practices comprising charging double and stealing from the grain given to him for grinding. His arrogance makes him stand up after the Knight to narrate his version of the story.
  5. The Parson: One of the respected characters in The Canterbury Tales, the Parson demonstrates patience and virtuosity. His few character traits are enough to show the life of priests during those times. Although he is quite low in the religious order, his knowledge and Christian devotion speak volumes about his ability to run a parish. His saintly nature also resembles the teachings of Jesus, while Chaucer points to his learning and teaching dedication.
  6. The Pardoner: A very lowly figure in the Christian religious hierarchy, the Pardoner represents marginality, showing dubiousness of his character in extending pardons to different sinners after their confessions. In a way, it shows his doubt in deceiving the parishioners into giving donations that he obviously keeps a portion to himself. His skills of conning even extend to counterfeiting the signature of the higher authorities, showing predatory nature.
  7. The Host: The Host lies is kind of a central character among the pilgrims. As once one of the narrators ends his tales, they turn to him to point out the turn of the next narrator. He also interrupts when the storytellers involve in arguments or brawls and interacts with the other pilgrims about their social roles when going through this journey.
  8. The Merchant: The merchant represents the trading class involved in financial manipulation through lending and borrowing. The tricky nature of such classes lies in the never-to-face loss methods, as the Merchant shows through his appearance, outfits, and story.
  9. The Clerk: A good character, the Clerk falls very low in the hierarchy of the Christian order, showing the sincerity and pious nature of his class. His story also shows the same devotion to true Christianity and his duties.
  10. The Sergeant of Law: A professional lawyer and highly social person, the Sergeant of Law show his significance through his clients who come to consult him regarding their legal issues. Chaucer offers him as an impeccable legal professional with high regard for his profession

Writing Style of The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is written in the heroic couplet. It shows not only the poetic skills of Chaucer but also his descriptive and narrative skills respectively through character descriptions and narrations of each character. Chaucer’s use of diction corresponds with his satire and irony, while for figurative devices, he turns to personifications and similes.

Analysis of the Literary Devices in The Canterbury Tales

  1. Action: The main action The Canterbury Tales comprises a journey of several pilgrims to Canterbury with different experiences.
  2. Alliteration: The Canterbury Tales shows the use of alliteration in the following examples,
    i. And the small fowl are making melody
    That sleep away the night with open eye. (The Prologue)
    ii. He’d seen some service with the cavalry
    In Flanders and Artois and Picardy. (The Prologue)
    iii. Now old King Creon – O alas, alas! –
    The Lord of Thebes, grown cruel in his age. (The Knight’s Tale)
    iv. May the Lord send me misery and care
    If ever, since they called me Hodge of Ware. (The Cook’s Tale)
    v. Says Solomon in Ecclesiasticus,
    For guests who stay the night are dangerous. (The Cook’s Tale)
    These examples show the use of consonant sounds such as the sound of /m/, /m/, /k/, /m/ and then /s/ occurring after an interval, creating melody and rhythm in poetry.
  3. Allusion: The below sentences are good examples of allusions,
    i. For he was Epicurus’ very son,
    In whose opinion sensual delight
    Was the one true felicity in sight.
    As noted as St Julian was for bounty
    He made his household free to all the County. (The Prologue)
    ii. That there was once a Duke called Theseus,
    Ruler of Athens, Lord and Governor,
    And in his time so great a conqueror
    There was none mightier beneath the sun.
    And many a rich country he had won. (The Knight’s Tale)
    iii. When all had laughed at the preposterous lark
    Of Absalon and Nicholas the Spark,
    Various folk made various comment after;
    But the majority dissolved in laughter. (The Reeve’s Tale)
    iv. Says Solomon in Ecclesiasticus,
    For guests who stay the night are dangerous. (The Cook’s Tale)
    These examples show the use of different historical and religious allusion such as the allusions of St. Julian, Theseus, Athens, Abaslon, Nicholas and Solomon show.
  4. Characters: The novel, The Canterbury Tales, shows diverse characters from antiquity. These characters include the Host, the Knight, The Miller, the Wife of Bath, the Squire, The Friar, and the Nun.
  5. Heroic Couplet: The following sentences are few examples of heroic couplets in the book,
    i. When in April the sweet showers fall
    And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
    The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
    As brings about the engendering of the flower. (The Prologue)
    ii. And on the very outskirts of the town
    In all felicity and height of pride
    Became aware, casting an eye aside,
    That kneeling on the highway, two by two. (The Knight’s Tale)
    iii. When all had laughed at the preposterous lark
    Of Absalon and Nicholas the Spark,
    Various folk made various comment after;
    But the majority dissolved in laughter. (The Reeve’s Tale)
    These examples show the use of heroic couplets as the two verses rhyme with each other with rhyming words such as fall and all, power and flower, pride and aside, lark and spark, and then after and laughter.
  6. Imagery: The following sentences are examples of imagery,
    i. When in April the sweet showers fall
    And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
    The veins are bathed in liquor of such power
    As brings about the engendering of the flower,
    When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
    Exhales an air in every grove and heath
    Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
    His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
    And the small fowl are making melody
    That sleep away the night with open ey. (The Prologue)
    ii. Once, long ago, there dwelt a poor old widow
    In a small cottage, by a little meadow
    Beside a grove and standing in a dale.
    This widow-woman of whom I tell my tale
    Since the sad day when last she was a wife
    Had led a very patient, simple life.
    Little she had in capital or rent,
    But still, by making do with what God sent,
    She kept herself and her two daughters going. (The Nun Priest’s Tale)
    These two examples show images of seasons, feelings, sight, color and emotions.
  7. Irony: The Canterbury Tales shows examples of irony in the following sentences,
    i. There also was a Nun, a Prioress,
    Her way of smiling very simple and coy.
    Her greatest oath was only ‘By St Loy!’
    And she was known as Madam Eglantyne. (The Prologue)
    ii. He sees the mote in my eye, if there is un,
    But cannot see the beam there is in his’n. (The Reeve’s Tale)
    iii. And there she ate full many a slender meal;
    There was no sauce piquante to spice her veal,
    No dainty morsel ever passed her throat,
    According to her cloth she cut her coat. (The Nun’s Priest’s Tale)
    These examples show the use of irony such as the first one shows the Nun swearing but not actually, the second shows how the Reeve sees a mote and the third shows presence of every sauce but not dainty morsel.
  8. Metaphor: The Canterbury Tales shows good use of metaphors in the following sentences,
    i. Young Emily, that fairer was of mien
    Than is the lily on its stalk of green,
    And fresher in her colouring that strove
    With early roses in a May-time grove. (The Knight’s Tale)
    ii. Rose and arrayed her beauty as was right,
    For May will have no sluggardry at night,
    Season that pricks in every gentle heart,
    Awaking it from sleep, and bids it start. (The Knight’s Tale)
    iii. Well is it said that neither love nor power
    Admit a rival, even for an hour. (The Knight’s Tale)
    iv. You fool! Your wits have gone beyond recall.’
    ‘Now listen,’ said the Miller, ‘one and all,
    To what I have to say. But first I’m bound
    To say I’m drunk, I know it by my sound. (The Miller’s Tale)
    v. For even now I have a coltish tooth,
    Many as be the years now dead and done
    Before my tap of life began to run.
    Certain, when I was born, so long ago,
    Death drew the tap of life and let it flow;
    And ever since the tap has done its task,
    And now there’s little but an empty cask.
    My stream of life’s but drops upon the rim.
    An old fool’s tongue will run away with him
    To chime and chatter of monkey-tricks that’s past;
    There’s nothing left but dotage at the last!’ (The Reeve’s Tlae)
    These examples show that several things have been compared directly in the novel such as the first shows Emily compared to a lily, the second shows seasons compared to moods, the third shows love and power having human traits, the fourth shows wits compared to some person, while the last one is an extended metaphor comparing life to different things.
  9. Mood: The book, The Canterbury Tales, shows a very pleasant mood in the beginning but turns out to be highly ironic and satiric at some points.
  10. Narrator: The book, The Canterbury Tales, is narrated by Chaucer himself, but he also presents characters narrating their tales in the first person narrative.
  11. Paradox: The following sentences are examples of paradox,
    i. My dear old brother Oswald, such is life.
    A man’s no cuckold if he has no wife.
    For all that, I’m not saying you are one;
    There’s many virtuous wives, all said and done. (The Miller’s Tale)
    ii. Their tales as told, for better or for worse,
    For else I should be false to what occurred.
    So if this tale had better not be heard,
    Just turn the page and choose another sort;
    You’ll find them here in plenty, long and short;” (The Miller’s Tale)
    These examples show that the writer has put paradoxical ideas or things together.
  12. Personification: The below sentences are examples of personifications,
    i. When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath
    Exhales an air in every grove and heath
    Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun
    His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run. (The Prologue)
    ii. They made us easy, all was of the best.
    And, briefly, when the sun had gone to rest. (The Prologue)
    iiii. But none the less, while I have time and space,
    Before my story takes a further pace. (The Prologue)
    iv. ‘Cousin, believe me, your opinion springs
    From ignorance and vain imaginings. (The Knight’s Tale)
    v. This lady as she roamed there to and fro,
    And, at the sight, her beauty hurt him so
    That if his cousin had felt the wound before,
    Arcite was hurt as much as he, or more. (The Knight’s Tale)
    These examples show as if Zephyrus, the sun, the story, opinions, and beauty have life and emotions of their own.
  13. Setting: The setting of the novel, The Canterbury Tales, is the way to Canterbury from London.
  14. Simile: The below sentences show good use of similes,
    i. Our Host, on hearing all this sermoning,
    Began to speak as lordly as a king,
    And said, ‘What does it come to, all this wit?
    What! Spend the morning talking Holy Writ? (The Reeve’s Tale)
    ii. There was a miller lived there many a day
    As proud as any peacock and as gay;
    He could play bag-pipes too, fish, mend his gear,
    And turn a lathe, and wrestle, and poach deer. (The Reeve’s Tale)
    iii. The Cook, in joy to hear the Miller pickled,
    Laughed like a man whose back is being tickled. (The Cook’s Tale)
    iv. (Fair Pertelote was next him on the perch),
    This Chanticleer began to groan and lurch
    Like someone sorely troubled by a dream,
    And Pertelote who heard him roar and scream. (The Nun’s Priest’s Tale)
    The first simile shows the comparison between the sound of the Host and that of the king, the second shows a comparison between the miller and a peacock, the third shows a comparison between the Miller and a tickled man, and the last one shows a comparison between the troubled man and the rooster. Note that almost all the similes use the word “like.”