General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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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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What is the theme and purpose of General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer?

Without the "General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales," none of the other stories which comprise Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales would make as much sense or, frankly, have as much purpose. The "Prologue" provides the context for understanding the Tales

The purpose of the Prologue is twofold: to introduce the characters who are making this pilgrimage and to set the framework for the stories to follow.  

When April with his showers sweet with fruitThe drought of March has pierced unto the rootAnd bathed each vein with liquor that has power...Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage....

We learn that these characters are all making a holy pilgrimage to the church at Canterbury, a popular religious destination after Thomas Beckett, a priest, was murdered and proclaimed a saint. After we meet them all, we are privy to a proposition made to the pilgrims by the innkeeper at the inn where they...

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are staying for the night. Each of them will tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two stories on the way back; whoever tells the

[t]ales of best sense, in most amusing mode,

will receive a free meal at the end of the journey, paid for by the rest of the travelers. This is the reason for the tales they all tell, The Canterbury Tales. Each of them is competing to tell the best tale (defined, of course, by their own standards) in order to win the prize. That is the premise behind all the storytelling.

Chaucer introduces us to the pilgrims, and they are indeed an interesting lot. They range from the noble and humble knight to the despicable Pardoner who dupes poor, godly parsons into buying bones which he falsely claims are holy relics. Many of the worst moral offenders are the clerics and nuns, concerned more about their own pleasures than about either God or His people. The Friar is one of those:

In towns he knew the taverns, every one,And every good host and each barmaid too-Better than begging lepers, these he knew.For unto no such solid man as heAccorded it, as far as he could see,To have sick lepers for acquaintances.There is no honest advantageousnessIn dealing with such poverty-stricken curs;It's with the rich and with big victuallers. 

Despite their flaws, Chaucer introduces them to us more as sinful scoundrels than as people to be despised. As we meet them, we are appalled at their outrageousness but not overly incensed by their excessive displays of humanity.

Unlike the famous tales that follow it, the "Prologue" does not attempt to deliver a particular moral message or statement. Instead, the colorful list of characters reminds of us of the propensity of men (and women) to sin--and enjoy it. He does show us virtuous characters, perhaps as a foil to the more sinful ones. For example, in contrast to the Prioress, who tries to emulate the manners of the worldly women at court, is the Parson, a humble man who will even pay his parishioners' tithes out of his own pocket if they are unable to do so.

A country parson, poor, I warrant you;But rich he was in holy thought and work.He was a learned man also, a clerk,Who Christ's own gospel truly sought to preach;Devoutly his parishioners would he teach.  

This cast of characters is representative of English society in the fourteenth century, both in its profound goodness and its extreme self-centeredness. 

If we think of "theme" as being a kind of moral, we have to read The Canterbury Tales to get that; in the "Prologue" we get another kind of theme: the subject matter of things to come.

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What are Chaucer's purpose and objectives in "The Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales? 

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.

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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. 

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