The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories framed as a tale-telling contest. The contest was developed to pass the time while a group of pilgrims travel to Canterbury. The pilgrimage is meant to be a spiritual movement from life to death, from sin to salvation (Fisher p. 1). By having a competition, the contest becomes realistic, in which the characters can enact true actions and responses to each other's tales. The conversation between the pilgrims represents human life in the Middle Ages, as well as the literary techniques of poetry. Since the tales are spoken by different characters, Chaucer shows readers a range of different verse forms, tones, and themes. The uniqueness of the tales is that Chaucer represents social-political, gender, and marriage issues in Medieval times. The downfall of the work is that it does not represent unity, because it is incomplete. Each tale is its own story, with morals and ethics to be evaluated. However, all the tales, as a collective whole, should suggest an overall meaning in The Canterbury Tales. Since there are many storytellers with unfinished tales, it would be impossible to evaluate the winner of the tale-telling contest. There was to be two tales told by each pilgrim on their journey to Canterbury, and on their return home journey two more tales to be told per pilgrim.
The General Prolouge establishes the basic plot of The Canterbury Tales; it introduces the pilgrim-tellers, the Host who conducts the contest, and the narrator who recounts the journey. The setting is Springtime, which focuses on renewal, or cleansing/rejuvenation. Chaucer’s portrays each individual pilgrim as having good and bad qualities. These sketches allow readers to view the historical context as it contributes to our understanding of book history. Readers will have an understanding on the issues for men and women in history, during Middle Ages.
Not New in Chaucer's Time
- Religious Themes
- Frame of a fictional pilgrimage. William Langland's Piers the Plowman is similar in that it uses the idea of religious pilgrimage to tell a story.
- Literary Contest
Walter Ong has observed, the opening pages of The Canterbury Tales...to create a frame and cast the reader in a role, which he cannot avoid no matter what he thinks of pilgrimages and civil wars (Finkelstein, pg. 21). Although Canterbury Tales shares common themes with other literary writers of the period, he was able to make his work unique by writing about everyday life. Chaucer's New Ideas in the Middle Ages
- Focusing on daily life
- Characters representing different occupations
- Characters representing different social ranks
Each tale is an independent poem, such as
"The Knights Tale"
"The Nuns Tale"
"The Wife of Bath's Tale"