What is the importance of the General Prologue in The Canterbury Tales?

The General Prologue establishes the frame narrative for The Canterbury Tales, provides a series of compelling vignettes of late medieval society, and gives the reader some context in which to read each tale by introducing the storytellers.

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The General Prologue is important for several reasons. First, it establishes the frame narrative of the pilgrimage, linking the diverse tales that are to follow with a similarly diverse group of storytellers from various professions and social classes. It also establishes Chaucer's cultural and religious attitudes, as well as his moral values, in the way he talks about pilgrimage and describes the characters.

The General Prologue is also important as a poem in its own right, and it is often studied on its own or alongside one or two of the tales in courses when there is not time to read the entire work. As a free-standing work, the General Prologue is a superb series of vignettes covering a wide cross-section of late mediaeval society, from a knight to a cook. The characters are to some extent types in an estates satire, regarded from the viewpoint of their social class and how well they perform their duties. However, several of them are also highly individual and memorable on a personal basis, as is, for instance, the Wife of Bath.

Thirdly, the vignette of each figure in the General Prologue provides the reader with some context to interpret that person's tale, as the reader compares what the character says in their tale with the initial impression created by that character in the General Prologue.

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