Comment on the plot and narrative techniques of The Canterbury Tales.

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The overall plot of The Canterbury Tales revolves around a religious pilgrimage. The featured characters, referred to as pilgrims, accompany one another from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The pilgrimage is embarked on by worshipers of the Church of England in...

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The overall plot of The Canterbury Tales revolves around a religious pilgrimage. The featured characters, referred to as pilgrims, accompany one another from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The pilgrimage is embarked on by worshipers of the Church of England in the late fourteenth century.

Geoffrey Chaucer's work is a collection of twenty-four stories, representing thirty-one pilgrims. An important narrative technique that sets the stage for the tale is the framing story that makes up the prologue. In this section, the pilgrims gather at the Tabard Inn before embarking on their journey.

An interesting element of the overall story lies in Chaucer's identification as both the narrator and a pilgrim. He employs a satirical narrative voice, using humor to voice the flaws of individual characters. Each pilgrim represents a stock character, or stereotype, used to criticize different figures in society.

Chaucer is especially critical of the church. For instance, the Pardoner portrayed is hypocritical. He roams England as a traveling preacher, delivering sermons on greed as a societal vice, after which he asks for donations. Similarly, the Monk is the exact opposite of what one would generally expect for his role. For instance, according to the rules of the church, monks should not hunt or leave the monastery; instead, they should spend their time praying, doing manual labor, and studying religious texts. The Monk in Chaucer's story loves to hunt mares and ride horses, illustrating a similar hypocrisy.

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The plot of The Canterbury Tales is as follows: Chaucer, the narrator of the story, comes across a group of pilgrims who have gathered in an inn because they are going to take a pilgrimage together to the shrine at Canterbury. As you might expect from people going on a pilgrimage, many of them belong to the clergy. Chaucer himself, though a layman (the group is a mix of lay people and clerics), also joins the pilgrimage.

The host decides that in order to keep from getting bored as they walk, everyone should tell a story. To make sure the stories themselves aren't boring or half-hearted, he offers a prize for the best story: he will buy a dinner for the winner.

As with any tour today or 700 years ago, anytime you get a group of people together who don't know each other, there is going to be tension. This trip is no exception. For example, the Miller gets drunk, and he and the Reeve argue. The Summoner and the Friar hate each other. The Miller proves to be one of those difficult people who cause trouble if they don't get their way.

The tales are structured around the frame of the pilgrimage. We are first introduced to and told about each of the characters in the Prologue. We find that their stories tend to reflect their characters. The Wife of Bath is perhaps the most famous example, as this feisty, five-times married woman who likes to be in charge tells a story that argues that what wives most want is sovereignty over their husbands.

The host provides commentary, as well as some analysis of the tales told, and he tries to keep people from fighting.

We never learn who won the contest, as Chaucer breaks off and tells the readers he wrote the book for their spiritual instruction. He asks to be forgiven for anything too worldly that broke through. We have to imagine Chaucer writing this ending at least with half a wink at the reader: he does want us to value decency, but it's hard to imagine that the bawdy tales entered the narrative by mistake.

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The structure of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is key to understanding the text. The long poetic story is told as a frame narrative, also referred to as a story within a story. Whenever I teach The Canterbury Tales to my students, I always draw a larger frame on the board and then several smaller ones inside to give students the visual of each story inside of the next.

The story begins in an inn when the Host meets several pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. He begins talking, eating, and drinking with them and decides to join their group on the trip. To make the trip more interesting, he proposes that each pilgrim will tell four stories: two on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. The best story, judged by him to be the best and have the best morals, will win the storyteller a great dinner when they return to the inn. He concludes the Prologue by introducing every pilgrim, their social class, what they look like, and any relevant information he thinks the reader will need. The story progresses as each pilgrim offers their story to the group. Each story is another frame within the larger story making up The Canterbury Tales.

A poem, The Canterbury Tales is written in iambic pentameter. This structured poetic verse, also used by William Shakespeare, gives each line of the text 10 beats, or five measures of rhythm. It’s been said that iambic pentameter mimics the natural speech of English allowing the reader to follow the natural rise and fall of the language. As you read a few lines of the poem, you’ll find yourself falling into the rhythm as you read. Chaucer also utilized couplets—every two lines of his work rhyme. We can see the rhyme and structure in the opening lines.

Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote

The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour,

Of which vertu engendred is the flour.

Translators work to keep true to Chaucer’s writing while making the text a little easier for modern readers.

When in April the sweet showers fall,

And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all

The veins are bathed in sweet liquor of such power

As brings about the engendering of the flower

Chaucer also uses satire throughout The Canterbury Tales. As he describes the pilgrims, and through the stories they elect to tell, the reader gets a view of Middle Ages society and many of the issues Chaucer may have had with it. Satire is a humorous comment on society, and so Chaucer often uses hyperbole and humor to describe his characters or their actions. Most notably, when he describes members of the church he is critical of their wealth and reactions to their congregations. As he describes the Pardoner, he pays attention to describing his waxy yellow hair, "bulging eye-balls," "chin no beard had harbored," and goat-like voice as he tries to sell his fake relics to the pilgrims. Like many of the religious pilgrims, the Pardoner's talents seem to surround his ability to get money from poor people.

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