Social environment – Chaucer, a pilgrim on the way to Canterbury, makes the journey with 31 other pilgrims. The society is still very much feudal as shown by the way he describes his fellow pilgrims.
Atmosphere – As Chaucer describes his counterparts, the atmosphere in general seems lighthearted, even though he satires and in turn expresses disgust for many of the fellow pilgrims.
Significance – The setting provides a backdrop and plot to the story as the pilgrims make their way to Canterbury.
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of short stories, told from Chaucer’s point of view. He does not offer much of his insight and opinion, except for during the prologue, where he introduces and describes the characters. In each short story, a different pilgrim tells a tale.
In The Canterbury Tales, the story begins in “The Prologue”, in The Tabard Inn, where Chaucer meets some “nine and twenty” people who are preparing to go on a pilgrimage to Canterbury the next morning. He then proceeds to introduce and describe each of his fellow pilgrims in a sometimes praising, sometimes satirical manner. After this, the Host serves the pilgrims food, and suggests a way for them to pass time on their trip – to each tell a story on the way there and one on the way back. He tells them that he will decide the best one and that the winner receives a free dinner paid by the other pilgrims. After this, the next morning, the pilgrims depart for Canterbury.
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In “The Pardoner’s Tale”, the Pardoner tells a story of greed. Three drunk men blame Death for the death of their friend. As they find an old man who complains that Death will not take him, and he tells them that they can find Death behind an oak tree, the three stumble upon a pile of gold. They then draw straws and send one of the three to fetch food and wine. As the man leaves, the two remaining men plot to kill the third man and keep the money to themselves. The third, as he fetches food, plots to kill the other two with poison. As the third man comes back, the two men that stayed stab him and take the food he brought, but they unknowingly drink the poison that he brought. And so Death takes all three of the drunk men.
“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” tells a story of a knight under King Arthur who is sentenced to death for raping a maiden. However the queen intervenes and states that he will be reprieved if he comes back in one year and one day and tells her what the thing is that women want most. The knight leaves and spends his time roaming, asking women what they want most, but they all give varying answers. Dejected, the knight sadly prepares to return to court. In the woods, he suddenly sees a group of dancing women. As he approaches them, they all disappear, and an old woman remains. The woman says she will tell him what women want most in return for payment and the knight accepts. As the knight tells the queen that women want “sovereignty over her husband” and is released, the woman appears and says that she told the knight the answer and requests marriage. The knight unwillingly accepts. However he neglects her after they are married and this leads her to confront him. She asks him whether he would have an “old and ugly” but “loyal, true, and humble” wife, or to have an unfaithful, pretty wife. The knight leaves the decision to the old woman. Having won her sovereignty, she tells the knight to kiss him, and as he does, she turns into a beautiful young lady.
In “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”, a cock, named Chanticleer, has a dream about his death at the hands of a fox. He tells his favorite wife, the hen Pertelote, about this vision he has had, and his fear. She scolds him for being scared. Upon this he recounts examples of other dreams that have come true. However, after this he is comforted and time passes. Later, as he is walking with his wives, a fox takes advantage of Chanticleer’s ego and tells him to crow for him. As Chanticleer closes his eyes to crow, he is snatched up by the fox. However then the fox is outwitted by Chanticleer, as the cock persuades the fox to talk and taunt the pursuers. As the fox opens his mouth, Chanticleer escapes and flies into a tree, refusing to be tricked again.
Knight – a “distinguished” man who draws Chaucer’s praise. He has fought in many wars and represents truth, honor, courtesy, modesty and is wise.
Squire – the knights son. He is musically talented but sleeps very little as he spends much of his time trying to impress women.
Yeoman – tan with a head like a nut. He is also an excellent woodsman and archer who is very loyal.
Nun/Prioress – not really a nun, very concerned with appearance and love. Has a brooch that says “Amor Vincit Omnia” (Love Conquers All), as opposed to the religious devotion and chastity a nun should have. Madam Eglantyne.
Another Nun – with the Prioress.
Priest 1 – with the Prioress.
Priest 2 – with the Prioress.
Priest 3 – with the Prioress.
Monk – not really a monk. He is fat and bald but is very worldly and not very devoted to religion. Buys nice clothes and likes hunting.
Friar – corrupt, and very good at begging. Wanton, merry, knew all the taverns and inns. He draws Chaucer’s scorn.Name: Hubert.
Merchant – good at his job but is in debt and is good at hiding it. Has a forking beard.
Oxford Cleric – only likes learning, very skinny and obsessed, would rather spend money on books than other stuff.
Sergeant at the Law – seems to be good at his job. Chaucer doubts this. Sergeant has memorized a bunch of cases.
Franklin – has a white beard, but lives for pleasure. Parties, has lots of wine, food.
Guildsmen (Haberdasher, Carpenter, Dyer, Weaver, Carpetmaker) – look “trim and fresh”. Worked together to help each other out. Wives also pushed them.
Cook – good at cooking but has bad hygiene. Has an ulcer on his knee and can distinguish ale by flavor.
Skipper – steals a lot, also navigates the sea, kind of a pirate. He is riding a stolen horse and has been through many naval challenges.
Doctor – knows much about medicine. He wears blood-red robes slashed with bluish-gray and is a miser. He loves money.
Wife of Bath – hard of hearing, dresses nicely, has had 5 husbands, traveled around the world and been to Jerusalem 3 times. She is a very good seamstress and friendly.
Parson – poor, but rich in thought. Also very reverent and religiously informed. Generous, charitable, virtuous, and hardworking.
Plowman – brother of the Parson, also hardworking, and honest, peaceful, and charitable. Very religious and poor, but still paid his tithes on time and in full.
Miller – strong and large, with a red beard, large nostrils, and a wart on his nose. He plays he bagpipes and is very strong, but dishonest.
Manciple – is illiterate and shrewd but can outdo others in many legal cases.
Reeve – skinny, old, and choleric. He has a bad temper and not many like him, so he rides in the back. He is a carpenter and watches and predicts crops carefully.
Summoner – corrupt, drunk, and lecherous. Pimply with narrow eyes and a thin beard. He gets bribed and blackmails to get what he wants.
Pardoner – possibly a homosexual partner of the Summoner, has long yellow greasy hair, bulging eyes. Is greedy and sells fake relics to “pardon” people.
Host – nice, overweight with bright eyes. Suggests good ideas and good at persuading others and getting others to do things.
Chaucer – the narrator of the story, going on a pilgrimage with the other characters.
The Bible – Chaucer alludes to the Bible in his description of the Plowman, referencing the “love thy neighbor as thyself” tenet in Christianity. This helps contrast with the non-religiousness of the supposedly “clergy” characters such as the Prioress and the Monk.
Epicurus – When describing the Franklin, Chaucer draws a comparison, calling the Franklin the “son of Epicurus”. This allusion to Greek society demonstrates the English knowledge of the other European cultures and the strong parallels that cultures drew back then, in society.
Aristotle – Chaucer makes an allusion to Aristotle when he describes the books the Oxford Cleric has. This shows us more about society back then and how philosophy was linked to studiousness and also again shows us the parallels between the ancient Greek culture and the English.
Devices of Satire
Litotes – Chaucer uses litotes, or the use of “affirmation through negation”, to emphasize certain aspects of people without being too direct or obvious. This usage is somewhat an understatement, making something seem less than it really is. An example of this is when he describes the Prioress as “by no means undergrown”, he is hinting at her curvy and well-developed body but at the same time making it seem less that it really is.
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Rhetorical Questions – Rhetorical questions are questions asked that, while not necessarily drawing an answer, make a point. Chaucer’s use of these can be seen when he is describing the Monk’s un-monk-ness. He asks “Was he to study till his head went round poring over books in cloisters? Must he toil as Austin bade and till the very soil? Was he to leave the world upon the shelf?” While in the way Chaucer asks these questions the answer to each would seem to be no, the answers should actually be yes, and these emphasize the point that, while the Monk should be doing these things, he isn’t, and therefore, he is not a monk-like monk.
Irony- the use of irony is prominent throughout The Canterbury Tales and helps draw the reader’s attention but emphasizing the oddness of the situation, Two great examples of this are of the Monk and Prioress, who both should be religiously devout and strict followers of rules, but aren’t. You can see as Chaucer even says “The Rule of good St. Benet or St. Maur as old and strict he tended to ignore,” about the Monk, this draws the reader’s attention because again, obviously, that is exactly the opposite of what a monk should do.
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of short stories buy Geoffrey Chaucer, also called an anthology. Throughout the prologue, Chaucer uses much satire through devices such as sarcasm or litotes to interest the audience and make his characters seem more interesting. In his short stories, however, each story seems to teach a lesson or have a moral, where “The Pardoner’s Tale” teaches us about the downfalls of greed, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” teaches us about respect to women, and “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” teaches us about keeping pride and ego down. His use of rhyming couplets make the story more interesting and easy to remember.
Chaucer, through humor and morals, uses The Canterbury Tales to effectively convey his view on certain aspects of Middle English society.
“First I beg of you, in courtesy,
Not to condemn me as unmannerly
If I speak plainly and with no concealings
And give account of all their words and dealings” (Chaucer 120).
This quote shows how Chaucer knowingly addresses his audience and acknowledges the potential impact he will have on them. By asking them not to condemn him if he speaks without concealings, he is announcing that he may say some controversial things, but this all ties into the morals and satire he uses to introduce his opinion on aspects of Middle English society.
Glencoe Literature: Texas Treasures: British Literature
The Nun’s Preist’s Tale, http://machias.edu/faculty/necastro/chaucer/translation/ct/21npt.html
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