The Canterbury Tales: A Critical Analysis

Comprised of two dozen stories along with various prologues and epilogues, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales displays extraordinary diversity in genre, source materials, and themes. Although some critics have argued that the resultant text should be approached as a collection of distinct pieces, most would agree that there are unifying components and that these include certain thematic strands. At the very least, the specific tales told by the pilgrims as they wend their way to Canterbury generally reflect their respective positions within medieval society as well as their personal characteristics. The Knight's Tale, for example, is a high-toned chivalric romance appropriate to his station as a member of the nobility and to his character as a man of "troth and honor, freedom and courtesy" (I, A, l.46). As or more important, Chaucer employs the device of a narrative framework, the story of twenty-nine individuals committed to both a religious pilgrimage and to participation in a story-telling contest. Reinforced by exchanges between the contestants, shared motifs appear in their respective narrations. Of these running themes, relations between men and women (and, more specifically, the topic of marriage) is the most prominent topic, but additional motifs, such as financial duplicity, unite groups of characters and run through several of their tales.

In the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, the poet establishes a shared motivation for the pilgrims as a natural urge for spiritual renewal. He remarks that in England (as in all of European Christendom), when the "sweet showers of April fall . . . people long to go on pilgrimmages" (I, A, ll.1,12). Ostensibly, Chaucer's pilgrims are united by a religious objective, to visit and worship at the shrine of the saint Thomas Beckett in Canterbury. Yet at the same time, the interaction among the pilgrims is animated by the far less serious impulse of playful social intercourse. At the suggestion of the innkeeper Harry Bailey, a story-telling contest is organized among the convivial assembly of wayfarers who stop at his tavern. The essential spirit behind The Canterbury Tales is social and playful. The pilgrims generally interact with each other in a light-hearted way as befits a group of people on a holiday or vacation excursion. Drawn from diverse vocations, each pilgrim has the opportunity to rub shoulders with those who are normally outside their particular sphere and rank. Under these circumstances, they are encouraged to talk freely about their own experiences and they assume considerable license in their choice of stories and the manner in which they are told. Parody flourishes, and Chaucer even introduces an element of self-parody by including a character named "Geffrey" ("Geoffrey the Pilgrim"). He turns out to be both a weak storyteller and an extremely poor judge of character, referring to the Shipman (who is basically a pirate) as "a good fellow" (I, A, l.395).

By contemporaneous standards, the group that gathers at Tabbard's Inn is a motley crew, a full cross-section of the fourteenth-century English middle-class, ranging in rank from the Knight to the Plowman while excluding members of the higher nobility and the lower rungs of the peasantry. People in Chaucer's England were keenly aware of vocation and rank, and viewed them as necessary to social order. They divided their fellows into three broad groups—those who fight, those who pray and those who labor—each of which is represented in Chaucer's cast. Among and within each group, moreover, vertical hierarchies discriminated between those of high and low estate. Individuals were expected to adhere to established roles and standards as expressed in both external behavior and their attitudes and values.

It is in this context that the outward attire of the characters as depicted in the General Prologue takes on significance as an emblematic theme. The clothes that each character wears are indicative of his conformity (or non-conformity) to the late medieval code that each person should dress according to his or her particular station in life. The Knight in his well-worn male, the Clerk of Oxford in his threadbare scholars robes, and the Parson in his simple vestments all display an adherence to regnant social mores. On the other hand, the Prioress and the Monk, who would be expected to wear the plain, conservative garb of their clerical professions adorn themselves with attractive cloaks and fur-trimmed robes, suggesting a certain non-conformity to official standards. Moreover,...

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Comedic Inventiveness in The Canterbury Tales

(Poetry for Students)

One of the first things that students learn when they begin to study The Canterbury Tales is that

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Madame Eglentyne, Geoffrey Chaucer, and the Problem of Medieval Anti-Semitism

(Poetry for Students)

The history of the criticism of Chaucer’s “Prioress’s Tale” affords proof, if proof be needed, that the attitudes and events of their...

(The entire section is 5052 words.)

Language Redeemed: “The Pardoner’s Tale”

(Poetry for Students)

There are several similarities between the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner, not the least of which is the intimate relation between the...

(The entire section is 5666 words.)

Language Redeemed: “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”

(Poetry for Students)

Whatever may be the interpretation she places on the “Miller’s Tale,” the Wife of Bath must have enjoyed it thoroughly. Her own...

(The entire section is 3279 words.)

Perception and Reality in the “Miller's Tale”

(Poetry for Students)

The “Miller’s Tale,” if not the fabliau as a genre, presents us with a pattern of mistakes in perception, a sharp, dramatic contrast...

(The entire section is 3819 words.)

Chaucerian Themes and Style in the “Franklin’s Tale”

(Poetry for Students)

The “Franklin’s Tale” is not only one of the most popular of Chaucer’s tales, it is also one whose emotional and moral concerns lie...

(The entire section is 7837 words.)

Sense and Sensibility in “The Prioress’s Tale”

(Poetry for Students)

Chaucer’s Prioress has been the subject of lively literary debate for the better part of the twentieth century. Not content to let her go,...

(The entire section is 4961 words.)

The Struggle between Noble Designs and Chaos: The Literary Tradition of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale

(Poetry for Students)

There is perhaps no better illustration of the processes of continuity and change in medieval literature than the relationship between...

(The entire section is 8209 words.)

The Wife of Bath and the Dream of Innocence

(Poetry for Students)

The sad note some hear in the voice of the Wife of Bath can be interpreted as “die letzte Süsse in den schweren Wein,” a hint of...

(The entire section is 5670 words.)

Chaucer’s General Prologue as History and Literature

(Poetry for Students)

The “General Prologue” is often called a picture of its age and, frequently in the next breath, a satire. In English Lit. this usually...

(The entire section is 4648 words.)

The Play of the “Miller's Tale”: A Game within a Game

(Poetry for Students)

The last line of the Miller’s “Prologue” has been variously interpreted as indicative of Chaucer’s aesthetic intentions both in the...

(The entire section is 1936 words.)

Criticism and the Old Man in Chaucer’s “Pardoner’s Tale”

(Poetry for Students)

Probably the main trend in contemporary Chaucer criticism is to look for a symbolic level of meaning in a poet whom most of us were taught to...

(The entire section is 3451 words.)

The Knight: The First Mover in Chaucer’s Human Comedy

(Poetry for Students)

In recent years there seems to have been general agreement that the “Knight’s Tale” is a “philosophical romance” which raises the...

(The entire section is 6159 words.)

Chaucer as Satirist in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

(Poetry for Students)

Many people nowadays acquire an early and excessive familiarity with the “General Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales, which later...

(The entire section is 3280 words.)

Commentary: The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

(Poetry for Students)

It is the nature of the beast fable, of which the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is an example, to make fun of human attitudes by assigning...

(The entire section is 1592 words.)

The Nun’s Priest in The Canterbury Tales

(Poetry for Students)

Among the best liked and most widely known sections of The Canterbury Tales is the Nun’s Priest’s story of the regal Chanticleer...

(The entire section is 3880 words.)