General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer
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Provide commentary for the following passages from the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales: pages 64–78 from the description of the Knight; pages 545–66 from "The Miller's Tale"; pages 459–76 from "The Wife of Bath's Tale"; pages 151–62 from the description of the Prioress; pages 189–207 from the description of the Monk; pages 257–69 from the description of the Friar; and pages 672–91 from the description of the Pardoner. Provide an identification, comment on the thematic engagements of the passage and the language used to pursue them, and comment on the relationship between the passage and other moments in the extracted text.

In the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer introduces several major themes through the descriptions of his character. Some of these are appearance versus reality, corruption, impure and improper motives, and the practice of merely going through the motions of religion.

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This is a large, complex question, so let's focus in on the thematic elements of each of these passages from the General Prologue of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The narrator describes the Knight as “worthy” (64) and courageous with a “sovereyn prys,” or outstanding reputation (66). Yet he is also...

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This is a large, complex question, so let's focus in on the thematic elements of each of these passages from the General Prologue of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The narrator describes the Knight as “worthy” (64) and courageous with a “sovereyn prys,” or outstanding reputation (66). Yet he is also “wys,” wise, (67) and meek in his comportment. He never speaks a word of “vileynye,” rudeness, to anyone (70). His physical appearance, however, does not seem to match his character, for, having come from a journey, he is dressed in rusty armor and a tunic of coarse cloth. Chaucer hints thereby that we cannot always tell a person's character from his appearance. What seems to be isn't always what actually is. This is a very important theme in the Tales.

The Miller, on the other hand, seems to have a character to fit his appearance. He is an ugly fellow, large and brawny with red hair and a wart on his nose. He has no trouble taking down doors with a running start. The Miller also has a “greet forneys,” a large cauldron (559), for a mouth, and out of it comes nasty tales and dirty jokes. He is decidedly not an honest man, for he is known to steal corn and triple charge his customers. We already wonder why the Miller is going on a religious pilgrimage. Is he serious about his faith or just looking for a fun trip? Therein lies another theme of the Tales.

The Wife of Bath is quite a character indeed. She is an expert at making pilgrimages and has even been to Jerusalem. It seems as though she would be a devout, quiet, unassuming woman because of those religious experiences, but she is nothing of the sort. We are told that she has had five husbands (not counting some other “company” of her youth), that she dresses rather outlandishly in her broad hat, that she could “laughe and carpe,” laugh and chatter (474), and dance well, and that she has all kinds of remedies for love. Is this woman really religious? That is quite unlikely, yet here she is on yet another pilgrimage. Sometimes perhaps going through the motions of religion fails to change a person if that person doesn't care to change. This is yet another theme.

The Prioress, we would expect, would be much more devout than the Wife of Bath, much more humble, and less focused on the things of this world. Yet her description tells us otherwise. She may be dressed in the habit of a nun, but her cloak is “ful fetys,” elegant and well made (157) and clearly expensive. She carries a coral rosary, also clearly expensive, and wears a gold brooch. Why does a nun have such fancy things? Hasn't she taken a vow of poverty? Here we have another theme of the Tales: the corruption of religious orders in Chaucer's day.

The Monk's description also reveals the corruption of some who have taken religious vows, for he concerns himself mostly with hunting and with looking the part of a great hunter. He wears expensive clothing, a gold pin, and fancy boots. He rides a “hors in great estaat,” a horse in excellent condition (203), and he is a fat, merry sort of person who enjoys a good meal, like nice “fat swan” (206). Are we sure this man is a monk? If we hadn't been told, we might not know. Some people apparently take religious vows without really meaning or wanting them (another theme).

The Friar is supposed to be a lymytour, a licensed beggar, but he certainly doesn't look like one! In fact, he is about as corrupt as a man can get. He is wanton (i.e., quite a bit too interested in women), dressed in fine clothing, and well known to tavern keepers everywhere. He also puts on a good show in his speech, lisping as though he were shy when he is really merely devious. Again, the Friar's appearance and behavior do not match his state in life (a theme that has already appeared several times).

The Pardoner is perhaps the most corrupt of the lot. He is supposed to be helping others become more devout, but he is a total fraud, for he carries around a set of false relics and charges money for people to see them. He plays the part of a dandy who is more concerned about his appearance than anything else, especially his blond curls that he refuses to cover with a hood, and to keep up that appearance, he needs money, which he obtains through his false relics and his preaching (which, considering his character, is probably just as false). He is a first-rate hypocrite and nicely illustrates the Tales's theme of corruption.

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