The Canterbury Tales Additional Summary

Geoffrey Chaucer


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In the “General Prologue” of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer describes the assembling of a group of pilgrims at the Tabard Inn near London. They plan to journey to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, murdered by agents of King Henry II of England in 1170. A pilgrimage to this spot was one of the favorite religious exercises in medieval England, but Chaucer’s work does not deal with an actual pilgrimage. It would have been an impossible feat for about thirty people traveling on horseback to tell a series of tales, mostly in verse. In “The Knight’s Tale,” one character says:

This world nys but a a thurghfare ful of wo,And we been pilgrymes, passinge to and fro,Deeth is an ende of every worldly soore.

(This world is but a thoroughfare of woe/ And we be pilgrims passing to and fro/ Death is the end of every worldly sore.) This pilgrimage, then, is a symbol of the life of human beings.

Their host at the Tabard, Harry Bailey, proclaims that he will accompany the pilgrims and judge the effectiveness of the tales. The scope of the completed work, two tales by each pilgrim on the way out, two more on the way back, would have amounted to about 120 tales. Like Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596) and other grandiose literary schemes, the work falls far short of its goal. The pilgrims, in fact, do not reach Canterbury. Chaucer may have run out of time or energy—or he may never have intended to write so many tales. In the symbolic sense, Canterbury represents death, the end of the earthly journey. It is fitting that the pilgrims remain on their pilgrimage of life toward death.

Most of the pilgrims come alive in the descriptions in the “General Prologue.” Several colorful ones are in holy orders or are functionaries of the medieval church. These include priests (at least two, possibly four), two nuns, a monk, a friar, a pardoner who sells papal indulgences, and a summoner who issues summonses to an ecclesiastical court. The majority of these officials hardly live up to their vocational ideal. The Prioress is a rich, extravagant woman, the Friar gives very easy penances to confessors to encourage personal gifts, the Monk spends little time in his cloister, and the Pardoner and Summoner are scoundrels. The Parson, however, performs his duties admirably; he preaches well and, more important, obeys the rules himself. He is patient, diligent, generous, a true shepherd of souls.

Another group of pilgrims contributes tales on the subject of marriage. Of these, the most fascinating, though not the most exemplary, is that of the Wife of Bath. She has had five husbands and is now seeking a sixth. Her tale, designed to prove that wives should have sovereignty over their husbands, shocks several of the men and provokes several more marriage tales. The Clerk, a university student who will probably become a cleric, tells of a lord who subjects...

(The entire section is 1262 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s best-known and most important literary achievement, consists of twenty-four tales, some with prologues and epilogues, which range over a wide variety of styles, subjects, and genres. The work avoids becoming merely a loose collection of unrelated stories because of Chaucer’s ingenious development of the framing device of the pilgrimage and his ability to suit his diverse tales to the personalities of their tellers. Chaucer’s ideas about the book apparently evolved over a period of decades, with some tales (the Second Nun’s Tale, parts of the Monk’s Tale) possibly written as early as the 1370’s, and others (the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the Parson’s Tale) probably written in the later 1390’s, not long before his death. The imaginative breakthrough that made the work possible—his conceiving of the framing narrative that lends coherence to the stories—seems to have occurred some time in the 1380’s, when he must have written an early version of the General Prologue. The work is evidently unfinished, though the flexible nature of the framing device allows for considerable diversity of opinion as to Chaucer’s final plans for the poem’s overall structure.

The Canterbury Tales begins with the General Prologue, which opens with a lyrical evocation of springtime in England, the time for folk to go on pilgrimages to holy shrines to thank the saints for their good fortune of the past year. It then proceeds to a series of portraits of a particular group of pilgrims assembled at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, near London, where they are preparing to leave on their pilgrimage to Canterbury. The ostensibly random assemblage of pilgrims actually provides a fairly complete spectrum of the middle classes of fourteenth century England, omitting the higher nobility and the poorer peasants but representing a substantial number of the social gradations between the Knight and the Plowman. These characters are not merely representative abstractions, however, but are provided with vividly individual traits to the degree that they become distinct characters for the reader.

One of the most interesting of the characters is the unnamed first-person narrator, who meets the group at the inn on his way to Canterbury, decides to join their party, and describes them for the reader. Critics usually call the narrator “Chaucer the Pilgrim” to differentiate him from the author, whose point of view often seems to diverge considerably from that of his mouthpiece. While the naïve narrator approves of the worldly Prioress and Monk and is amused by the villainous Shipman, the reader is able to see beyond his uncritically approving point of view to their serious faults. The technique of the unreliable narrator leaves all direct storytelling and commentary to speakers whose point of view is suspect to various degrees and calls for the reader to infer the implicit truth from the information provided. If Chaucer did not originate this method of narration, he certainly developed it to a greater extent than any other writer before him. The device of the unreliable narrator has had an influence on later narrative writing, especially in the twentieth century, that would be difficult to overestimate, and much of this influence may be traced directly to Chaucer’s own refinement of the technique.

The proprietor of the Tabard Inn, Harry Bailly, is so struck by the conviviality of the group that he decides to join them on the condition that they agree to participate in a storytelling contest, with himself as leader and judge of the contest. Each pilgrim will tell four stories, two on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back, and the winner will get a free dinner at the inn at the other pilgrims’ expense. The travelers agree and draw lots for the telling of the first tale. The lot falls to the Knight, who begins the sequence of tales. No pilgrim actually tells more than one tale (with the exception of Chaucer the Pilgrim, discussed below), and at one time it was thought that Chaucer must have originally planned some 120 tales (four each for thirty pilgrims). More recently, critics have argued that the scheme for 120 tales is proposed by Harry Bailly, not Chaucer, and that The Canterbury Tales as a whole may be fairly close to its final form. While the work is clearly not finished in a strict traditional sense (the...

(The entire section is 1794 words.)


(Poetry for Students)

The Prologue
In the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales Geoffrey Chaucer introduces the speaker of the poem as a man...

(The entire section is 3462 words.)