The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story
Many of the pilgrims in the General Prologue are trying to appear to be something they're not. The Prioress wants to appear to be a courtly dilettante. The Merchant would like people to think he's financially solvent. The narrator helps us see through these deceptions, and they become part of what makes The Canterbury Tales funny. Other pilgrims make their living through deception; like the Pardoner, who makes a pretty penny on fake relics, or the Friar, who convinces people he's poor enough to deserve charity. Still other characters portray powerless social groups, like women and the elderly, as particularly likely to engage in deception. This accusation reveals the way people in power can keep that power by calling into question the very words the powerless speak. But perhaps the most important way in which lies and deceit make their appearance in The Canterbury Tales is in their association with tale-telling. This raises the question of what makes a story true, and of how the categories of truth and falsehood apply to literature, if at all.
Questions About Lies and Deceit
- What connection does Chaucer (the character) see between lies and tale-telling? What criteria does a story have to meet in order for it to be true? How do these criteria change in the course of the Tales, or do they?
- Several times in the frame story of The Canterbury Tales, characters refer to women as particularly likely to engage in deception. Which characters are these, and what kind of evidence do they use to support their statements? How strong do you think this evidence is, and why?
- What methods do the pilgrims' portraits use to clue us in to the fact that people are pretending to be something they're not? In which portraits are these methods most pronounced, and why?
- Are there any characters in The Canterbury Tales who do not, at some point or another, engage in deception? If so, what else distinguishes these characters and their portraits from those of the other pilgrims?
Chew on This
In the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, it's impossible to separate appearances from reality.
Although The Canterbury Tales portray deception as a vice that irreparably hurts oneself and others, they also make the point that almost everyone engages in it every day.