The Canterbury Tales Analysis

The Poem (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

One April, a group of pilgrims gathers at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, near London, to embark on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. After dinner, Harry Bailly, the host, proposes a storytelling competition on the journey. The host will judge, and the winner will receive a dinner at the Tabard Inn. The following morning, as the pilgrims depart, they draw lots to begin. The Knight draws the shortest lot and tells his tale.

In “The Knight’s Tale,” Duke Theseus returns to Athens victorious over the Amazons with their queen, Hippolyta, as his wife and with her sister Emily. They encounter women mourning because the Theban king, Creon, refuses burial for their husbands, who were killed besieging Thebes. Duke Theseus then conquers Thebes. He captures two knights, Palamon and Arcite, and imprisons them.

One May morning, both Palamon and Arcite fall in love with Emily when they see her walking in the garden. Duke Perotheus, a friend of Duke Theseus, negotiates Arcite’s release on the condition that he never return to Athens. Arcite longs for Emily, however, so he disguises himself as a squire, calls himself Philostratus, and serves at the court of Duke Theseus. Meanwhile, Palamon escapes by sedating his jailer.

By chance, Palamon and Arcite meet in the woods outside Athens. Duke Theseus finds them as they battle over Emily. He decrees that Palamon and Arcite should return in a year to wage a tournament for Emily. Palamon and Arcite gather with their knights at the new stadium built by Duke Theseus. Palamon is defeated, but Arcite is mortally injured while riding in victory around the stadium. After mourning Arcite, Duke Theseus arrange for the marriage of Palamon and Emily.

After commending the Knight’s story, Harry Bailly asks the Monk to continue, but Robin, the drunken Miller, insists on telling his bawdy tale next. In “The Miller’s Tale,” John, an older carpenter who is married to Alison, a pretty young woman, is afraid of her attractiveness to other men. Nicholas, a student who boards in their house, proposes a tryst with Alison. Absalom, a parish clerk, also tries to court her. Nicholas contrives a plan to deceive the carpenter. He convinces the carpenter of an impending flood and instructs John to provide tubs and provisions for them. At night, when they retire to their tubs in the attic to await the deluge, the carpenter falls asleep and Nicholas steals away with Alison to her bedroom.

Meanwhile, Absalom woos Alison outside her room. In the darkness, he asks for a kiss. She sticks her backside out the window. He kisses her backside. Realizing that he has been duped, Absalom obtains a red-hot iron. Absalom returns and asks for another kiss. Nicholas, amazed at Absalom’s foolishness and wishing to participate in the jest, sticks his backside out the window while Alison says it is she, and Absalom brands Nicholas with the iron. Nicholas’s screams of pain awaken the carpenter, who falls to the ground and breaks his arm. Nicholas and Alison convince the neighbors that the carpenter is delusional about the flood.

Next, the Reeve, the Cook, and the Man of Law tell their stories. In “The Reeve’s Tale,” a reaction to “The Miller’s Tale,” Oswald the Reeve tells about a dishonest miller who robs two clerks. They retaliate against him by getting him drunk and taking advantage of his wife and daughter. “The Cook’s Tale,” a fragment of about fifty lines, tells of a young man done out of his inheritance by a wicked older brother. In “The Man of Law’s Tale,” Constance, daughter of a Roman emperor, marries first a sultan of Syria who is killed and then a king. Both mothers-in-law cause her to be accused of treachery, but ultimately she is reunited with her second husband.

The wife of Bath next offers her tale. She prefaces the story with a discourse on marriage, based on her experiences with five husbands. In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” a knight in King Arthur’s court rapes a young woman. When he is sentenced to death, the queen intercedes and agrees to save the knight’s life if he searches for a year to ascertain what women most desire. As he is about to return after an unsuccessful search, he encounters an ugly old woman. She agrees to tell him the answer if he will grant her next request. The knight agrees, is told what women want, and returns to court. When the knight reveals to the queen that women desire power, his answer is accepted. The old woman appears and demands that the knight marry her. The knight is reluctant but changes his mind after the old woman lectures him on the true character of nobility. After the marriage, the old woman is transformed, becoming young and beautiful.

The Friar, the Summoner, the Clerk, the Merchant, the Squire, the Franklin, the Physician, the Pardoner, the Shipman, the Prioress, the Monk, and even the narrator himself all tell their tales as the pilgrims continue toward Canterbury. “The Friar’s Tale,” directed by the Friar at the Summoner, paints a humiliating picture of a wicked summoner in cahoots with the devil whose scheme against a widow backfires, landing him in hell. The Summoner retaliates by telling “The Summoner’s Tale,” in which a greedy, hypocritical friar visits the home of Thomas, a villager. In “The Clerk’s Tale,” patient Griselda, the daughter of the poorest man in a poor village, is married to a marquis who tests the limits of her patience by subjecting her to endless indignities. In “The Merchant’s Tale,” a young woman, married to an old man who goes blind, carries on an affair practically under his nose until the god Pluto restores the old man’s sight. Proserpine in turn gives the wife a good excuse for what the old man “sees” as his wife’s infidelity.

“The Squire’s Tale,” an incomplete tale, tells of a king’s daughter, Canacee, who is given a brass horse that can fly, a mirror with the power to foretell disaster, and a ring that enables its wearer to understand the language of birds. In “The Franklin’s Tale,” Dorigen, wed to Averagus, is loved by Aurelius, in whom she has no interest. She promises to be his lover if he can accomplish the near-impossible task of clearing away all the rocks on the seacoast. With a magician’s help, Aurelius completes the task, but when he realizes Dorigen does not really want him, he releases her from her promise. In “The Physician’s Tale,” the Roman knight Virginius has a beautiful daughter Virginia, who is lusted after by a wicked judge, Apius. Apius schemes to get her under his power, and, when his success seems inevitable, Virginia tells her father she would rather die than become Apius’s lover. When she swoons, her father cuts off her head.

In “The Pardoner’s Tale,” three blasphemous, lecherous revelers decide to seek out Death to destroy him. In their search, however, they find a cache of gold, which makes them turn on one another in their greed. They end up killing one another, thus meeting Death at last. In “The Shipman’s Tale,” a monk cuckolds a miserly merchant and then causes his wife to reveal her infidelity to her husband. In “The Prioress’s Tale,” a boy, delighted with the song “Alma Redemptoris,” sings it so much that a group of Jews become incensed enough to hire someone to kill him. The killer tosses the body into a pit to hide it, but, miraculously, the dead boy begins to sing, and those searching for him find his body and the killers, who are quickly put to death.

“The Monk’s Tale” actually combines several stories that tell of the fall from power or high station of Lucifer, Adam, Samson, Hercules, Nero, Julius Caesar, and several other men. Chaucer, the narrator, next begins “The Tale of Sir Thopas,” a kind of parodied romance, but he is interrupted by the Host, who claims the doggerel Chaucer uses is downright silly and lewd. Instead, Chaucer tells the story of Melibee/Meliboeus, in which Melibee debates with his wife the best way to deal with one’s enemies.

Because “The Monk’s Tale” was a tragedy that has saddened the company, Harry Bailly asks the Nun’s Priest to lighten their hearts with a merrier tale. In “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” Chauntecleer is a vain rooster. One night, as Chauntecleer sleeps beside his favorite hen, Pertelote, he dreams about a fox. Pertelote does not believe in dreams and chides him for cowardice. Although Chauntecleer thinks dreams have veracity, he flies down into the yard the next morning. Sir Russel, the fox, arrives and flatters Chauntecleer into singing. The fox seizes Chauntecleer and runs into the woods. Chauntecleer advises the fox to eat him immediately. When the fox opens his mouth to reply, Chauntecleer escapes.

“The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is followed by “The Second Nun’s Tale,” “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale,” “The Manciple’s Tale,” and finally “The Parson’s Tale,” a long prose tract. “The Second Nun’s Tale” recounts the life of the famous Roman martyr St. Cecilia. “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” is a story of a swindling alchemist that serves to denounce the trickery involved in alchemy. “The Manciple’s Tale,” a variation on the traditional telltale bird story, tells of the crow, who once was white. After he tells his owner, Phoebus Apollo, that Apollo’s wife has been unfaithful—and after Apollo slays her—the crow is turned black by the angry god. “The Parson’s Tale,” more a sermon than a story, is about penitence, various sins, and their remedies.

The Canterbury Tales Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Tabard Inn

Tabard Inn. English tavern that is the starting point of the poem’s pilgrimage, located in Southwark, a borough across the River Thames from and just south of London, at the beginning of the main road to Canterbury—the pilgrims’ destination. The owner of the inn, Harry Bailly, proposes and serves as judge for the storytelling contest that makes up The Canterbury Tales. The tavern location is an appropriate entryway into Chaucer’s world for a number of reasons. It is a place of hospitality and conviviality, in which men and women of a variety of social classes and backgrounds might realistically mingle informally and in temporary equality (as done on the pilgrimage itself). The historical Southwark was a neighborhood that was not entirely respectable, known for its brothels as well as its taverns, and many of the tales represent immoral characters and bawdy incidents. Indeed, in Chaucer’s time, many people viewed pilgrimages with some suspicion, as opportunities for rowdy vacations rather than as pious religious journeys. Finally, the first four tales have often been seen as unified by the theme of “herbergage,” of the use and misuse of dwelling-places and hospitality.

*Canterbury

*Canterbury. Destination of the pilgrims in England’s southeastern Kent region. The pilgrims undertake the journey to visit the shrine of St. Thomas, located in the Trinity Chapel in Canterbury’s great cathedral. The collection ends just before they arrive at Canterbury; its penultimate tale, of the Manciple, is delivered at “Bobbe-Up-and-Down” (usually identified as Harbledown, two miles from Canterbury). The prologue to the final tale, that of the Parson, makes explicit the allegorical significance of the location as the Parson undertakes to show the pilgrims that their physical journey from London to Canterbury is an emblem of their spiritual pilgrimage as Christians from this world to heaven.

*London

*London. England’s capital city. While the pilgrims themselves leave London immediately, the various prologues and tales mention some fifteen or twenty specific buildings, streets, and landmarks within the city and reinforce the contemporary and local atmosphere of a work whose tales themselves are often set in distant times and places. For example, the “Cook of London” sets his fragmentary tale among the working (and even unemployed) classes in “our city.” What exists of his tale suggests that it was to have been an exploration of the seamier side of the city in Chaucer’s day.

*Canterbury Way

*Canterbury Way. Route taken by the pilgrims along the course of the old Roman Watling-Street, roughly congruent with modern England’s A2 highway that connects London to Canterbury. The work mentions some ten towns or place-names along the way, which some scholars have seen as offering clues to the organization of the work as a whole, under the theory that Chaucer must have meant to present these places in the correct geographical order in which the pilgrims would have passed them. Other scholars caution that the fact that not one of the fifty-five relatively complete manuscripts of the Tales is organized so as to present these places in their proper sequence constitutes a warning not to press this point too literally.

*Athens

*Athens. One of the chief cities of ancient Greece and the scene of most of the Knight’s tale, the epic’s first and longest tale. The most important locations within the Greek city are the tower in which Palamon and Arcite are imprisoned and the adjacent garden in which Emelye takes her walks. The men’s rivalry for Emelye’s hand is finally resolved at the third important location, a circular stone stadium a mile in circumference built to contain a tournament at which they will fight for Emelye’s hand. At the main gates to this stadium are three shrines, to Venus, Mars, and Diana. All of these locations fulfill important thematic functions for the poem. The prison and garden are metaphors for life’s spiritual and psychological prisons and gardens, which are shown to be far more significant than physical ones. The stadium represents the efforts of the governor of Athens, Theseus, to impose order and structure upon the chaos of the (pagan) world, and each of the three temples is associated with, and revelatory of, one of the three members of the romantic triangle.

*Troy

*Troy. Ancient city in Asia Minor made famous in Homer’s Iliad (c. 800 b.c.e.). It is by far the most frequently used geographical name in Chaucer’s work, although the vast majority of those references occur in another work, his long historical romance Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1382), which is set in and around Troy at the close of the Trojan War.

The Canterbury Tales Historical Context

The Black Plague
During Chaucer’s lifetime, the Black Plague swept across Europe, causing hundreds of thousands of...

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The Canterbury Tales Literary Style

Heroic Couplets
The poetic meter, or rhythm, used throughout The Canterbury Tales is iambic pentameter. This...

(The entire section is 485 words.)

The Canterbury Tales Compare and Contrast

  • Fourteenth Century: The Bible is published in English for the first time in 1382 by John...

(The entire section is 286 words.)

The Canterbury Tales Topics for Further Study

  • Have your own storytelling contest. Make sure that each participant tells two stories, since Chaucer originally intended each traveler to...

(The entire section is 145 words.)

The Canterbury Tales Media Adaptations

  • The 2001 movie A Knight’s Tale, starring Heath Ledger and Mark Addy, is only loosely based on the Knight in The Canterbury...

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The Canterbury Tales What Do I Read Next?

  • One of the most famous writers living during Chaucer’s lifetime was Giovanni Boccaccio. Boccaccio’s most famous work,

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The Canterbury Tales Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Bloom Harold, ed. Geoffrey Chaucer, Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985....

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The Canterbury Tales Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Besserman, Laurence. Chaucer’s Biblical Poetics. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. Interprets the many instances of biblical diction, imagery, and themes in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Brown, Peter. Chaucer at Work: The Making of “The Canterbury Tales.” New York: Longman, 1994. Designed as an introduction to The Canterbury Tales, it includes questions for discussion to guide the reader about the workings of Chaucer’s literary method. A good place to start a study of The Canterbury Tales.

Brown, Peter. A Companion to Chaucer. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 2000. Designed to appeal to inexperienced Chaucerian students, this work contains a section on Christian idealogies.

Cooper, Helen. The Canterbury Tales. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1989. A complete reference for all basic points about the literary character of The Canterbury Tales.

Correale, Robert M., ed. Sources and Analogues of the Canterbury Tales. Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell & Brewer, 2003. Includes information on and selections from many Christian sources used by Chaucer.

Howard, Donald R. The Idea of the Canterbury Tales. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. Discusses the concept of The Canterbury Tales in terms of style and form as an unfinished but complete literary work.

Leyerle, John, and Anne Quick. Chaucer: A Bibliographical Introduction. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1986. A bibliographical guide to Chaucer’s work with sections on The Canterbury Tales, the facts of Chaucer’s life, and his rich literary sources.

Pearsall, Derek. The Canterbury Tales. Winchester, Mass.: Allen & Unwin, 1985. Approaches The Canterbury Tales by genre of stories. Includes helpful discussions of the surviving manuscripts and the reception of The Canterbury Tales from 1400 to modern times.

Robertson, D. W., Jr. A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962. A standard reference work on Chaucer’s acquaintance with, and employment of, early Christian theological works.