How are elements of the frame story of the General Prologue related to the plot of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In the introduction to The Modern Library publication of The Canterbury Tales, it is written,

The Franklin's Tale offers cognate evidence of how the author of The Canterbury Tales manages to invoke familiar and resonant models in the process of creating something new and memorable for its uniqueness.

This observation is definitive of the relationship of the General Prologue to the individual tales. In the Prologue, Chaucer introduces the pilgrims, who are essentially stock characters. There is, for instance, the Miller, the Clerk, the Merchant, the Knight--all character-types in conventional scenes. And yet, this stereotypical background somehow leads to Chaucer's inimitable art of both caricature and satire; with Chaucer's talent, the characters prove that they are not really one-dimensional. For instance, the grouping of the characters proves later to be not just type-arrangement as the characters such as the Summoner and Pardoner may be lovers, and the Miller and Reeve, who are obviously antagonists.

From this Prologue also emerges Chaucer's establishment of the three Estates of the medieval age:

  1. the Church, represented by the Friar, the Monk, the Prioress, the Nun's Priest, and the second Nun
  2. the Nobility, represented by Sir Thopas, the Knight
  3. the middle class and peasantry, represented by the Miller, the Wife of Bath, the Franklin, the Clerk, and others.

It is with these estates that Chaucer cleverly satirizes their abuses, and in his satire,too, he develops the characters in their tales, and the reader discovers that the Prologue is, indeed, a frame; for, the characters are more multi-faceted than indicated in the frame story, although such possessions as the Prioress's golden brooch with its crowned A, and the Monk’s gold pin that fastens his hood under his chin also suggest that the clergy do not obey some of their vows. 

Chaucer's Prologue lays the blueprint for his tales in which the characters interact and from whence the satire and delightful and sometimes dark, but at other times edifying narratives emerge.

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