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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Student Question

In The Canterbury Tales, which pilgrims are traveling for the experience rather than the destination?

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There is a famous saying that states "Happiness isn't about the end destination; it's about a way of travelling." If this is the case, then a number of characters on the pilgrimage in this classic text would be very happy indeed, as arguably the majority of them are on the pilgrimage for the excitement of the journey and their own motives rather than the pious motive of reaching the pilgrimage site and giving thanks. There are of course characters such as the Knight who is very piously going to Canterbury to give thanks for success in battle, but a number of the figures that Chaucher introduces the reader to are clearly going to Canterbury with, at best, mixed motives. Figures such as the Merchant, the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner and the Summoner all hope to profit themselves from the journey they are making, in different ways. Whilst unscrupulous individuals like the Pardoner clearly hope to profit from the ignorance of others through deception and trickery, characters like the Wife of Bath have other agendas, and the narrator infers this in the General Prologue when he introduces her:

She knew all about wandering--and straying:

For she was gap-toothed, if you take my meaning.

In those days, it was believed that having a space between one's front teeth was a sign of a lascivious nature and that one would travel. The Wife of Bath, as she herself declares, is on this pilgrimage in the hope of meeting another husband. For many characters, the pilgrimage was not about personal devotion to God and piety, but it was an opportunity to meet a large number of different people, which was viewed as a chance to profit in different ways. Part of the beauty of these tales is that Chaucer presents the readers with a variety of characters whose motivations for travelling to Canterbury are mixed and varied.

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