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The dominant number of religious characters with a total of 9 religious characters being mentioned in the tale shows the significance of this will be the importance of religion and perhaps religion being the main message and themes that will inter-linked the various tales and for it to be constantly scrutinized in order for Chaucer to send out a message about Religion and Churches in the medieval Times. Through his General Prologue, Chaucer clearly condemns the corruption within Churches and Religious circles (Welford); this is evident from the exclusion of irony and sarcasms in the Parson's Prologue. The Parson also known as Lollard is an activist of the Lollardy, which is a political and religious movement, pushing mainly for the reforms of Western Christianity. It is believed that Chaucer himself is linked or participates in this reform as he, by marriage is related to the protector, John Gaunt, of John Wycliffe the leader for this movement. The other characters representing the theme of religion, Monk, Friar and Summoner were left to decry themselves with their tales and actions, thus giving juxtaposition and sending a message that a reform is sorely needed. Chaucer provide with the reader a grim, disorganized Christian society, all so aptly in times of a Christian society in a state of decay filled with corruptions.
The Prioress is being portrayed as a worldly woman, who ironically is put in charge of a convent. Even ironical will be Chaucer's praise, it only serves to highlight her inappropriateness as the head of a religious convent. Even inappropriate will be her seemingly fashions sensitivity, concerned in putting a social front, her jewelry and the inscription on her brooch, "love conquers all". Chaucer obvious intention in his depiction is to portray her as unworldly, shallow and un-Christian. Most significant use of irony is her name, "[S]he was cleped Madame Eglentyne," where eglantine, a flower is actually symbolic of the Virgin Mary! The embodiment of love and mercy which clearly is lacking in the Prioress.
Using the almost the same satire and irony, the monk defies all expectations of what a monk should be. This non-conformist character serves as a tools for Chaucer to show the increasing number of non-conformists and individual that does not live up to the expectations of the society. A shift from being conservative to modern is happening with the monk hunting for animal, which most monks do not. This also shows the breakaway of the Churches and the People in the medieval age. This might be the reason for the reformative move started by John Wycliff. Chaucer cleverly evokes the disapproval and incites controversy with his affirmation of the Monk's obsession with finer things in life and hunting. The themes within The Monk's tale are more significant in helping Chaucer sending out the message of the importance of religion and God. It serves to highlight the fragility of success and greatness and how useless it will become due to Man's weakness and over-indulgence in ungodliness. Telling the stories of Balthasar, Alexander the Great, Nebuchadnezzar and Antiochus Epiphanies, the monk seems to be obsessed in the tragedies of these "Great Men", he seems to take pleasure in telling these tragedies. Inferring from this, he could be gloating over the failures as he, himself has a notion that he is meant for greatness but stuck in the world of religion, his ambition is frustrated and will never have the chance to reach great heights. His failings, works towards Chaucer's favor as he seeks to expose the corruptness of the religious sector in his times.
Described by Chaucer as "wanton one and merry", the Friar once again, falls into the ungodly and unconventional representatives of the corrupted religious sector (Schoeck). The astonishing fact that the Friar, who suppose to preach in a godly manner, indulge in "merriment" and "pretty wives" dressed "like a master or pope he wore a double-worsted semi cope" Once again, Chaucer introduce a "religious" character indulging in greed and money, deeply in the course of decaying of the Church. Once again, using the main tool in irony, Chaucer agrees with the Friar's dealings with arrangement of the marriage of young women, with the main motive are disgustingly lust and Chaucer's approval and agreement acts as a mockery to once again, a character of decomposed values. Making use of the Friar, Chaucer very vividly brings out the corruptions and ironically reduces these clergymen to nothing but a joke to the society, one that seriously need a reform. One interesting pattern can be seen from the arrangement as it seems to be sort of a There is a sort of regression in the indication of corruptions and moral degradation from the inappropriate Prioress to the despicable Friar.
The Parson stands out within the whole Canterbury tales like how a chicken in a cluster of ducks will. It is not really a tale but instead acts as a juxtapose for the sins and immoralities shown in all the tales that were told. The epitome of what Chaucer thinks SHOULD be the "model Christian" (Roy Liuzza) his tale can almost be told off as a sermon as it breaches the topic of the seven deadly sins "Pride, Ire, Envye, Accidie or Slewthe, Avarice or Coveitise, Glotonye, and Lecherye" where coincidentally, these sins are well illustrated in the tales told by the pilgrims, more glaring is the fact that these religious figures are guilty with at least one of the sin. The redemption for each and every sin namely, "humility, contentment, patience, fortitude, mercy, moderation, and chastity." The redemptions perhaps are the main aim of the reformative movement of the Lollardy, thus explaining Chaucer's emphasis of it. The Parson's tale might be the main piece of work that Chaucer wants all tales to complement it, with it being the main fulcrum or crux as it significantly is the last tale being told and told in a way so different from other tales. Forgiveness or repentance is also another significant theme, with a religious undertone, seemingly asking those not in line with Christianity to "come back to God" Like what Siegfried Wenzel said, it is "a moral tale in prose" (Wenzel). The major theme in The Parson's tale would be penitence, divided into 3 parts, "contrition of the heart", "confession with the mouth" and "satisfaction". Chaucer purpose with placing The Parson's tale at the very end is to put a serious tone to his work, a grim and solemn message is to be sent out. The tales by the pilgrims is sort of a "confession with the mouth", thus in tune with The Parson saying that "repentance for one sin can be made by voluntary confession". Very interestingly, the pilgrims set out on a physical pilgrimage did not least expect that, this redeeming journey for divine forgiveness is actually happening within the journey itself! Rightly so, Chaucer end his work with a retraction,
"And so I meekly beseech you, for God's mercy, that you pray for me, that Christ may have mercy upon me and forgive me my trespasses, in particular any translations and my authorship of works of worldly vanity, the which I revoke in this Retraction." (Chaucer)
The decadence, degradation and the losing influence is one of the main theme and message that Chaucer wants to bring across with The Canterbury Tales and thus, the need for an overhaul and reform. Using irony and satire, Chaucer cleverly seem to "agree" and even "praise" some of the actions and behavior of the characters bring into the reader a sense of mockery and disapproval that will definitely be in favor of a reform. Rightfully so, the characters with the lowest moral are associated with the Church, it proves to show that the Catholic Church, being the most powerful and influential institution in the society then, corrupts the people within the organization as power truly corrupts. The monk, friar, pardoner, summoner and a prioress shows how unbecoming the Churches have degraded into. This simply sums up the feeling and general consensus felt by Chaucer and the masses about the Catholic Church. The use of the Parson, is most significant and obvious, he will be the model example that Chaucer present that people from religious institute should behave (Roy Liuzza). In other words, he instills disgust and hatred by the sinners and inspiration by the parson. Another interesting point is the degradation of the characters which may be purposefully arranged by Chaucer. Trying to weigh and gauge the level of atrocity by the characters, it forms a downward descendent, somewhat spiraling downwards explaining the descending of morality and losing of the Christian faith. Last but not least, the arrangement of the Parson at the end seems to simulate the pilgrimage journey, where people are seen to journey from the worldly city to the city of God, which is represented by the Parson's sermon.