What is the purpose of the prologue to The Canterbury Tales?

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The purpose of the prologue is to give readers a general overview of the characters that are present, why they are present there, and what they will be doing. The narrator begins by telling us how it is the season in which people are getting ready to make a pilgrimage to Canterbury. He happens to be at a tavern where there are many other pilgrims going to his same destination. We get narration that describes the appearance and behavior of those pilgrims as well as the Host. The Host admits that the group present seems to be quite a happy group, so he proposes a story telling competition that will happen on the way to Canterbury and on the way back. The pilgrims agree to this, go to bed, and the story telling begins the next day. Essentially, the prologue gives readers a plausible scenario in which all of these people would be in a location together and telling stories to each other.

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The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales acts as an explanation and an introduction to the Tales, and it allows Geoffrey Chaucer to arrange and establish the hierarchy of the pilgrims.

Chaucer uses the Prologue also to include what is called "estate satire." This is a satire of the abuses that occur within the three traditional estates, especially the clergy. One member of the Church that Chaucer ridicules is the Friar, the "finest beggar of his house." He begs from the wealthiest people in his town and makes a good sum of money; however, instead of giving the money to the poor or to the Church, the friar keeps it for himself. Chaucer remarks satirically, "This was surely a shining pearl/Of a friar!" (214-215).

In addition to satirizing the vanity and greed of the clergy, Chaucer includes the intellectuals and the middle class as well as parodying himself with a pilgrim named "Geffrey," who is a weak storyteller. Thus, he establishes a playful tone as well as a social one as the pilgrims agree to share tales on the long pilgrimage.

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