illustration of a clergyman with Canterbury cathedral behind him

The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

Start Free Trial

What is the moral lesson of The Canterbury Tales?

Quick answer:

There is no single moral lesson suggested by The Canterbury Tales. Instead, Chaucer presents a frame tale in which several travelers make a pilgrimage to a sacred shrine and tell tales along the journey. The separate stories raise various moral concerns and offer various lessons, and the readers are left to consider the veracity of each moral lesson presented.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer contains several moral lessons. In Chaucer’s time, it was common for people to go on pilgrimages to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas à Becket in Canterbury for spiritual guidance. Becket was the Archbishop of Canterbury who ran afoul of King Henry II over religious matters and was ultimately killed for his beliefs. He was later canonized as a saint and was said to be capable of performing miracles. Since his relics were buried in Canterbury, the faithful journeyed to his shrine.

The Canterbury Tales is a frame tale written in Middle English and in verse. Chaucer develops the frame by presenting the spiritual journey, during which several pilgrims to Canterbury relate stories containing a diverse range of spiritual ideas and moral lessons. The pilgrimage is symbolic of the spiritual journey of human beings through life. By allowing the travelers who hail from all walks of life and non-noble social classes, Chaucer raises a myriad of moral questions through the individual stories told by the characters heading to the shrine, but he does not provide answers. Readers are left to ponder the moral issues raised in each story in hopes of leading them to their salvation.

The separate narratives related by the pilgrims are complete tales on various topics, and the setting of a journey serves to unify the work for the reader. In each narration, a different pilgrim raises issues of spiritual concern to the English public in the fourteenth century. For example, in the Miller’s tale, the narrator humorously describes sexuality both realistically and satirically. The Wife of Bath’s tale demonstrates the submissive status forced upon women of the era. The Pardoner’s tale serves as a moral lesson on greed.

Framed by the concept of a pilgrimage, the readers of The Canterbury Tales come away with moral ideas of their own after considering the perspectives of the travelers. For example, they may determine whether human beings actually possess the free will to make their individual choices in life or whether those choices are compelled by God or fate. They must decide for themselves if marriage should be based on the concepts of love and mutual respect. Travelers are free to opine as to any possible rewards for devotion to God, such as described in the Prioress’s tale. These are only a sample of the many moral lessons that might reasonably be gleaned from Chaucer’s classic.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the moral lesson in The Canterbury Tales?

There is no overall moral lesson for the tales. Each one has something different to say. That's what makes the Canterbury Tales so lasting. Each generation can find something in the characters and the tales they tell to fit the current situation.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the moral lesson in The Canterbury Tales?

I absolutely agree that each tale is different from the others and that lessons can be taken from each of them.  I don't believe that every tale had a moral, honestly.  Part of Chaucer's aim was to satirize the church, for example.  I think one thing the church's characters' tales reveal is that the church was not what it seemed at times.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the moral lesson in The Canterbury Tales?

Taken as a whole, I think the Tales reveal how very different people can be, even when they appear similar on the outside.  You certainly see examples of both moral and immoral individuals, and often the moral ones are not who you might expect.  The Pardoner should be focused on sin and saving souls, but he almost seems to encourage sin in order to raise more money.  The Parson, on the other hand, is very moral.  So, the job doesn't seem to determine the morality.

However, I agree with the others that each tale has its own moral and clumping them together is not the best way to study them. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the moral lesson in The Canterbury Tales?

The Canterbury Tales is not a single tale, but a collection of them and each has its own moral lesson. To answer your question in a truly helpful manner I would need to know which tale it is that you are referring to.

I would highly recommend looking at the various resources eNotes has on The Canterbury Tales. Specifically, the "Themes" page may be helpful to you as it addresses several reoccurring ideas and morals in the stories.

Also, if you want to let me know specifically what tale it is you are referring to I can be of more help.

Best of luck!

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What moral does The Canterbury Tales give to each of us?

However, the tales need to be considered within the context of who tells them and what relationship that pilgrim might have with others.  The Wife's tale, for example, that true gentility and beauty goes beyond class and age, suggest a wistfulness of the part of the wife, now getting older, becoming less beautiful after 5 different husbands.  Her tale, too, begins with a knight raping a young woman.  The clerk's tale about patient Griselda needs to be considered within the context of his annoyance with the Wife for what she said about clerks in her prologue and Chaucer's "Envoy" that follows it. Consider some of the bawdier tales--as far as morals goes, they are rather slight, perhaps teaching the opposite of what the tale suggests.  Behind all of these different stories Chaucer has a very humanist view of his characters, willing to smile at them even while he criticizes them, and perhaps that tolerance and appreciation of life are the greatest moral lessons that unite these disparate tales.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What moral does The Canterbury Tales give to each of us?

Chaucer's tales are chiefly (but loosely based) on biblical morality.  Characters are either punished or rewarded for their adherence to moral law.  The audience should take something away from the lessons learned by each character.  (Though it should definitely be pointed out that Chaucer has his gripes with clerical rule.)

Consider for example, the Physicians tale.  He concludes his story with the biblical maxim, "the wages of sin is death."  The Prioress, who considers cold-blooded murder, must die.  The Friar tales stories about people whose greed leads to their downfall.  For every moral sin, a punishment is doled out.  For example, while promiscuity itself is not often punished, the sinner is punished nonetheless in some other way.  For example, the Miller who attempts robbery is punished by having those he tried to steal from sleep with his wife.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on