Canterbury Tales Study Guide

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Canterbury Tales By Geoffery Chaucer

The epic poem 'Canterbury Tales' is a narrative framework for the telling of a variety of short stories. The main characters, of which there are nearly two dozen, each become narrators in turn as they compete to tell the best story. The main characters are the Knight and the Squire, who represent the military; the Prioress, her Nun, and three Priests, the Monk, the Friar, and the Parson, who represent the pious clergy; the Summoner and the Pardoner, who represent the corrupt side of the Church; the Franklin represents landowners; the Clerk, the Man of the Law, the Guildsman, the Physician, and the Shipman represent the professional classes; the Cook and the Plowman represent laborers; and the Miller, the Manciple, and the Reeve represent the steward class. All are being lead on a pilgrimage, and have stopped at a tavern run by a man known only as the Host, who puts on the storytelling contest, the prize being dinner.

The struggles between characters, which shows in the links between tales, primarily involve clashes between classes, differing tastes, and competing professions. There are also disputes between the sexes, and there is some objection to the Host’s somewhat tyrannical leadership. Twenty-three tales later, the Host cannot pick a winner, the Parson delivers a long sermon, and in the end, Chaucer begs for forgiveness of his own sins, including the writing of 'Canterbury Tales', hoping to avoid offending anyone's sensibilities too deeply.

A few examples of the way in which the tales interact: The Knight's Tale is about two knights battling for the love of a member of the royal family. The Miller's Tale is about three men all in love with the same woman, mocking the Knight's story, and includes a bit about shoddy carpentry. The Reeve (a kind of carpenter) responds with a tale about a dishonest Miller. A few stories later, the Friar then tells a tale of a corrupt Summoner who meets the Devil and trades secrets with him, and is then cast into hell for his sins. The Summoner, enraged, tells a story of a Friar who annoys an innkeeper by constantly pestering him about donations and church attendance, who receives a 'donation' of a loud fart from the innkeeper.

In this way, the tales speak indirectly about the conflicts between race, social class, profession, religion, politics, and other more subtle divisions present in England in Chaucer's time.

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