What are Chaucer's purpose and objectives in "The Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales?
The purpose of the "The General Prologue" is to introduce the characters and show the variety of people, trades, and social classes of this time period. There are pilgrims from the noble class (Knight and Squire), some from the middle class (Merchant, Wife of Bath, Shipman), and some from the clergy. Chaucer shows the complexity of real people/characters. For example, the narrator/poet describes the Summoner and Pardoner, supposed religious people, and notes their corrupt practices. He presents these characters, not as stereotypes but, as realistic and complex people. Chaucer, as narrator, describes each character objectively. His descriptions set the stage for the tales that will follow. Each character's tale supplements and illustrates Chaucer's initial character description and development in the "The General Prologue." For example, the Miller (Millere) is described as a muscular man who is a Goliardais (teller of crude or graphic stories and jokes):
He was a janglere and a Goliardais,
And that was most of sinne and harlotries. (562-63)
In "The Miller's Tale," the Miller tells a story about lust, adultery, and violence. In this case, his choice of a tale exemplifies his characteristics as they were described in "The General Prologue."
The narrator introduces each character in the prologue. Then, the character becomes another narrator in telling his/her tale. In this sense, the narrator (Chaucer) is introducing a variety of characters who will each take their turn as narrator.
Geoffrey Chaucer writes a Prologue in order to frame his pilgrimage and introduce the three main segments of medieval society: the church, the court, and the common people. In addition, Chaucer uses the Prologue to arrange his "estate satire," a satire of the abuses that occur within each of the traditional estates, especially in the clergy.
The pilgrims are all drawn from the feudal class structure of fourteenth century England. Certainly, Chaucer satirizes the greed and vanity of the clergy with his own inimitable caricatures. For instance, the Prioress, who is a high-ranking nun, just below the abbess, has no real religious vocation, yet she is among the hierarchy. She is very affected with her intoning "through her nose, as was most seemly," and she speaks French and affects her manners. Although a nun who has taken a vow of poverty, the prioress wears "a coral trinket on her arm," and a "golden brooch," engraved with the words, [Love conquers all]. (ll.127-166)
Besides making the clergy the targets of his satire, Chaucer also includes the middle class and the intellectuals, as well as himself, whom he calls "Geffrey," a character whom he parodies as a weak storyteller. In this manner, Chaucer establishes a light, playful tone along with the social satire as the pilgrims agree to share their various tales on the pilgrimage.