The Canterbury Tales Themes
The main themes in The Canterbury Tales are the trials and tribulations of marriage; religion, true and false; and fate versus free will.
- The trials and tribulations of marriage: Chaucer depicts the many different problems that can plague a marriage, from infidelity to interference from family.
- Religion, true and false: The tales include examples of sincerely devout characters as well as those who purport to be religious but behave hypocritically.
- Fate versus free will: Chaucer explores the question of how much of life is the result of fate or providence and how much is the result of individuals’ choices.
Last Updated November 10, 2022.
The Trials and Tribulations of Marriage
Many of the Canterbury pilgrims and many of the characters in their tales are married, but most of them are not happily married. In fact, Chaucer often presents marriage as a state of life that leads to great trials and tribulations. The most prominent of these is infidelity. Many stories in the collection focus on the unfaithfulness of a spouse, most often the wife. Women, of course, have little choice when it comes to their spouses, and some of them, like May in “The Merchant's Tale” and Alison in “The Miller’s Tale,” prefer younger men, to their husbands’ embarrassment. The wife in “The Shipman’s Tale” is tired of her miserly husband, but the wife in “The Manciple’s Tale” provides no reason for her betrayal of the accomplished Phoebus. Wives are not the only unfaithful spouses, however. The Wife of Bath complains that her fourth husband had a mistress, and the falcon’s mate in “The Squire’s Tale” has run off with an attractive kite.
Another trial of marriage presented in the tales is the interference of a third party in a couple’s relationship. This, too, can cause great suffering for both spouses. The Man of Law presents the tribulations of Lady Custance, who endures two vicious mothers-in-law. Both women believe that Custance is not a proper wife for their sons because of her Christian faith, and they act on their prejudices with tragic results. In “The Franklin’s Tale,” Aurelius tries to push his way into a happy marriage because of his love of Dorigen. He recognizes his own selfishness in time to prevent tragedy, however, and the marriage is saved.
Marriage can also suffer when one of the spouses shows disrespect to the other even while remaining technically loyal. The prime example here is Walter in “The Clerk’s Tale.” He cannot resist testing his faithful, loving wife, Griselda, over and over to the point of cruelty. She forgives him and remains an obedient wife every time, yet she suffers greatly. In the end, she forgives the greatest insult and rejoices in her reunited family, ever the model of a heroically patient wife.
Of course not every marriage is unhappy or unfaithful. Some couples in the tales are deliriously happy with each other. The knight and his lady in the Wife of Bath’s contribution find true love in the end when the knight gives his wife the power to choose her own destiny, and she chooses both beauty and fidelity. Saint Cecilie and her husband, Valerian, have a relationship of mutual chastity, love, and faith to the point of martyrdom. Happiness in marriage, it seems, requires respect between the spouses that can lead to true love.
Religion, True and False
Religion often comes off poorly in The Canterbury Tales, but it is important to distinguish between true religion and false religion because Chaucer treats them quite differently. True religion, in the context of The Canterbury Tales , is about worshiping God and obeying his will with devotion, faith, and love. There are characters among the tale-tellers and in the tales who do exactly that. The Parson is a faithful leader and servant to his flock. He cares for his people with love, and while his sermon on penitence may be rather dull, it is spoken with a true intention to change the audience’s minds and hearts so that they can embrace the salvation God offers. The legend of Saint Cecilie, as told by the Second Nun, also reveals a true religious devotion. Cecilie, her husband, and her brother-in-law hold fast to their faith all the...
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way to martyrdom, and they strive to convert others along the way out of real love for the people around them, even those who persecute them.
The innocent eagerness of the little boy martyr in “The Prioress’s Tale” is another instance of true religion. The child longs to worship God by honoring the Virgin Mary, and he receives a miracle meant to strengthen the hearts of Christians. Lady Custance also holds fast to her faith even in the midst of great suffering in “The Man of Law’s Tale,” and she becomes an example of perseverance and trust in Christ. She, too, receives a miracle when her provisions last, and she finds safety and love in the end.
On the other hand, though, many supposedly religious people in The Canterbury Tales are anything but religious. The Pardoner is a prime example. His job is to save souls, but he admits openly that he cares nothing about souls. He cares about lining his own pockets by deceiving people into venerating his false relics. He is a conman who uses religion as his racket. Yet somewhat ironically, the sermons the Pardoner preaches about greed contain important truths. Chaucer seems to be saying that even in the midst of corruption, true religion can shine through, but one must be able to discern, something that the Pardoner’s listeners usually fail to do.
Not all examples of false religion are so exaggerated as that of the Pardoner, yet there are plenty of instances when people put on a show of religious devotion but act the opposite. The miller and his family in “The Reeve’s Tale” spend plenty of time in church, but the miller cheats his customers, and his wife is haughty and proud. Many of the people traveling as pilgrims are also not quite what they seem. They are, after all, on pilgrimage. One would think they would spend their time praying and thinking of holy things. Yet here they are telling stories—sometimes quite bawdy stories—getting drunk, and enjoying the pleasures of life. Religion takes second place.
Fate versus Free Will
In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer explores the common medieval theme of fate versus free will. This revolves around the question of how much of human life is dictated by providence (of God or fortune) and how much is the responsibility of human beings who make free choices. The balance can be difficult to find.
“The Monk’s Tale,” for instance, offers a selection of examples of great men and women who have fallen low by a turn of Fortune. Some of them, it seems, have little choice in the matter. They are innocent victims, perhaps, who simply have to accept what they are given. Queen Zenobia lives a primarily virtuous life yet is captured by the Romans. Ugolino of Pisa starves to death with his innocent children. Yet most of the examples in the tale are actually experiencing the consequences of their choices and actions when they fall from favor. Lucifer and Adam both choose sin over obedience. Sampson makes the wrong decision to confide his secret. Men like Holofernes and Antiochus carry out unspeakable evils. Arguably, they deserve what they receive.
Other tales also explore the delicate balance between fate and free will. For instance, Lady Custance in “The Man of Law’s Tale” has no choice when she goes to marry the Sultan or is set to sea twice, but she can choose how she will respond to these events, and she chooses faith, hope, and love even in the face of the worst suffering. Custance cannot escape her fate, but she can and does respond to it in such a way as, perhaps, to change it for good in the end. The balance is delicate indeed as well as mysterious.