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.