As a narrator, Chaucer shifts between appearing very naïve (i.e., inexperienced and way too ready to believe whatever anyone tells him) and approaching his subjects with heavy irony, or knowledge about the difference between the way the pilgrims want to appear and the way they actually are. We see this all-believing, or credulous, tone most often when Chaucer praises pilgrims. For example, in his portrait of the Monk, we learn that the Monk believes that he should let "old things" – like his vows of poverty and chastity – pass. Chaucer tells us, "I seyde his opinioun was good / What should he studie and make hymselven woode?" (General Prologue 183 – 184). Chaucer's easy acceptance of the Monk's excuses here make him appear a little naïve as a narrator, and as a character.
On the other hand, in the Prioress's portrait, Chaucer slyly exposes the difference between how the Prioress wants to appear (as a high-class lady) and what she actually is (a religious figure trying to appear to be a high-class lady). We should mention here that literary types don't always agree about when Chaucer's being credulous and when he's being ironic. Take that example of credulousness in the Monk's portrait. Well, some people think that there, Chaucer's repetition of the Monk's opinion actually makes it appear ridiculous. Yeah, the tone is pretty complicated. That's what makes it so interesting.
Although the genre of the individual tales varies, the goal of the frame story is pretty clearly to tickle our funny bones and satirize the quirks of various pilgrims, and social estates. So we get lots of humorous details, like that one about the wart on the Miller's nose, or that gross tidbit about the puss-oozing wound on the Cook's leg. As part of the satire, we get characteristics thought to be typical of particular occupations, but exaggerated hugely. Knights are supposed to fight battles? Well this Knight's been at practically every battle ever fought in the past twenty years! Wives are supposed to be lustful (and married)? Well this Wife's had five husbands, in addition to numerous lovers in her youth! So there you go: comedy and satire. Oh, and since this story is about a group of pilgrims on their way to a shrine in a quest for forgiveness, you might also consider this part of the "Quest" genre.
Chaucer and his early scribes actually called his collection The Tales of Canterbury. The name by which we now know it, The Canterbury Tales, was a change made by the collection's later publishers. The tales are a collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury – hence, the title.
Chaucer ends The Canterbury Tales with an address to his readers and to God. Using what literary types refer to as "the humility topos," he tells his readers to thank Jesus if they enjoyed his book (because a mere mortal is not capable of producing something entertaining without God's help) and not to blame him if they didn't (because it certainly wasn't his intent to displease them, but only the fault of his "unkonnyng," or lack of skill). In fact, says Chaucer, his real intent in writing this book was to teach spiritually worthy things, because that's the purpose of all good stories. He goes on to ask forgiveness not only for anything in The Canterbury Tales that had to do with worldly "vanitees" (which, if you've read the tales, you know this is a lot), but also for most of the other major works he's written. On the other hand, he thanks God for his ability to write various holy works, including saints' lives and homilies, and then asks God to send him remorse for his sins and grace, so that he can go to heaven.
So, what's up with this ending? After all, when an author repents of writing something, it doesn't exactly light a fire under you to go out and read it. And maybe it really is Chaucer's intent to keep people from reading things he's now decided are sinful. Coming right after the Parson's sermon on sin and repentance, this ending could be Chaucer's demonstration of the repentance the Parson is teaching.
A more cynical point of view, though, is that this "retraction," or acknowledgment of the error in previous work, is really an excuse for Chaucer to give himself a shout-out – to claim all of his previous writing as his and do some advertising for himself at the same time as he refuses blame if his readers don't like it. How's that for crafty?
And finally, considering how a lot of The Canterbury Tales is about telling stories – their purpose, what makes a good one or a bad one, why we tell them – it seems strangely fitting that Chaucer concludes the tales by reflecting on these questions. If he comes to the conclusion that he hasn't fulfilled his own definition of a good story, well, you and all of us here at Shmoop can respectfully disagree.
Chaucer likely wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 1380s and early 1390s, after his retirement from life as a civil servant, and this is when he sets the action. This was a time of great social upheaval in England. The plague had killed a huge percentage of the population, making way for social mobility that led to class tension. In the past, medieval society had been made up of three "estates," or broad groupings by occupation: military types, religious people (like priests and nuns), and peasants. But now, a new, middle class of artisans and merchants, of which Chaucer was a part, was taking over England. Their concerns and interests, as well as the conflict between their new, more cosmopolitan way of life and the traditional values of the "three estate" society, are behind of a lot of the conflict we see in The Canterbury Tales.
Another important social issue at this time was the very lowest class's increased power. Because so many able-bodied workers had died in the Plague, farm workers could now auction off their services to the highest bidder. This meant that these members of society had more power and geographic mobility than ever before. Naturally, the landowners who paid them were unhappy about this, and tried to pass laws restricting these people's movement. The tension between these social groups may have been responsible for the hardening of negative stereotypes about lower-class people, which we see expressed in portraits of people like the Miller and Reeve.
A hugely important part of life in the medieval period was the Church (there was only one Christian church then – Protestants had not yet split from Catholicism). The Christian faith was an integral part of daily life for most people, who believed that their salvation depended upon the Sacraments, like the Eucharist and Confession, that only the Church could provide. But many controversial practices, like the selling of pardons, forgiveness from sins, or the monopoly over religious positions by members of the same powerful families, had become more and more prevalent in the late fourteenth century. In addition, rivalries between priests, who generally stayed in one parish and had their salary paid by the tithes of its members, and friars, who begged for money from the same people, had grown fierce. All of these factors led to various anticlerical stereotypes, or negative assumptions, about many religious figures. The Canterbury Tales draw upon these stereotypes and controversies in their portrayal of religious figures like the Summoner, Pardoner, and Friar.
To speak more specifically about the setting, The Canterbury Tales begin in a tavern just outside London. A tavern was one of the few places where a group of people from such varied social classes and occupations might cross paths, allowing the chance meeting of them all that leads to the creation of these pilgrims' fellowship. The same is true of pilgrimage, since members of all social classes might undertake a visit to a saints' shrine or holy place at some point in their lives, in hopes of earning forgiveness for their sins. Whether or not they would all travel together, as they do in The Canterbury Tales, is less certain, but this possibly artificial situation allows the work to explore a huge variety of medieval characters and narrative genres.
The Canterbury Tales are in Middle English. We're not going to lie to you – Middle English is really hard to read. At first. It takes a lot of practice, a lot of studying pronunciation guides and glossaries and reading aloud to get it. But the good news is that learning to read Middle English can be fun. And once you learn how to do it, you get to read Chaucer, which is even more fun. So break out the crib sheets and glossaries, and dive in! (Pssst: Check out "Best of the Web" for some resources to help you learn Middle English.)
The style of The Canterbury Tales is characterized by rhyming couplets. That means that every two lines rhyme with each other. It's also in iambic pentameter (the same style as Shakespeare), meaning that in each line there are ten syllables, and a heavily emphasized (stressed) syllable follows a less emphasized (unstressed) syllable: [dah DAH] [dah DAH] [da DAH] [da DAH] [da DAH]. Each [da DAH] is an iamb, and there are five of them per line.
Chaucer's poetic style can be a little bit difficult because, a lot of the time, he twists his sentences around. As English-speakers, we're used to hearing the subject come first in the sentence, followed by the verb. But Chaucer will often do the opposite. Take the line "Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages" (General Prologue 12). The subject, "folk," comes after the verb, "longen." Chaucer does this a lot, meaning that sometimes you have to wait until you get to the end of a line before you can really understand what's happening in the sentence. The reason for it is to help him keep his couplets rhyming, but darn does it make the Tales hard to read sometimes!
The pilgrimage begins in the spring, "whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote" (General Prologue 1 – 2). Since this is the beginning of the poem, and the beginning of the pilgrimage (which itself is the beginning of repentance), it's likely that springtime here is a symbol of beginnings. And the beginning of things is exactly what the poem emphasizes in its description of springtime, talking about how the wind spreads the seeds that peek their heads above the soil as they begin to grow into crops, and how birds begin their mating season.
This brings us to another thing that springtime symbolizes: sexuality. You see it in the way April is piercing March "to the roote" with his showers, watering things and causing them to grow in the same way a penis "waters" the ovum and causes it to grow. In its masterful opening, the poem links springtime and sex in the way that they both cause new life to begin.
The poem might start this way in order to remind us how pilgrimages are also a start of new beginnings. See, the idea of a pilgrimage is that you start on a journey of repentance, beginning a new life, one free from sin. In the beginning of the poem, then, the springtime is a symbol of the new beginnings and the creation of new lives the pilgrims are about to undertake.
The practitioners of medieval physiognomy thought that it was possible to learn things about someone's personality from their physical characteristics. For this reason, various physical features in the pilgrim's portraits are symbols of certain character traits. The Wife of Bath's gap teeth are a symbol of sexuality, as are the Miller's red beard and hair. The Pardoner's beady eyes and long, limp hair are symbols of duplicity or deceitfulness. Broad, earthy features like the Miller's symbolize lower-class status. Since these symbols were a part of their culture, a medieval person would likely immediately have recognized the significance of the physical traits in the pilgrims' portraits.
The portraits of the pilgrims use their clothing as a symbol of the personality traits of the wearer. The Wife of Bath's red stockings probably symbolize her lustful nature, and her large hat represents her love of fashion and luxury. Some characters, like the Merchant or the Pardoner, reveal their concern with the latest fashions in the way they dress and style their hair. Most often, pilgrims' clothing symbolizes their possession or lack of money in how fancy or simple it is.
It's probable that the pilgrims' journey from London to Canterbury represents another journey that was very important to a medieval person: the journey from Earth to Heaven. As the journey begins, we have a sinful group of pilgrims, many of whom are hiding various vices and dirty secrets. Their pilgrimage is meant to be a journey of repentance, so that by the time they reach Canterbury, they will be fully cleansed of these sins. Thus, in this allegory, the tavern represents the sinful life on Earth, while Canterbury represents the sin-free life in heaven all people are trying to reach.
The character of Chaucer serves as our guide to the action. Sometimes Chaucer narrates like he's really there in the tavern, just meeting these pilgrims for the first time, and we feel like we're right there with him. At other times, though, Chaucer is a narrator who seems to know way more than he should. For example, he tells us that, when the Shipman wins a fight, he murders the loser by throwing him overboard, or that the Reeve is stealing from his master. Now is that really something these people would tell Chaucer on first meeting him? And how does Chaucer know so many details of the pilgrims' day-to-day lives? At these moments, Chaucer acts much more like an omniscient, or all-knowing, narrator, than one who's truly in the heat of the action. The reason for this choice could be that verisimilitude, or making things seem like real life, was not as important to a medieval author as it is to authors today. Instead, the narrator might choose to tell whatever he wants to tell to serve the purposes of characterization.
So many of Chaucer's pilgrims are not what they appear or what, in a perfect world, they would be. The Pardoner pretends to be a holy man intent on saving souls with his relics; in reality he's a money-grubbing liar. The Friar should be living a life of poverty and chastity; instead he's living the high life with rich people and whores. The darkness that is oppressing the pilgrims is no one person or figure, but rather a general state of sinfulness.
The pilgrims' pride and sinfulness brings them into conflict with one another as the pilgrimage progresses. The 'felaweshipe' that is the goal of any group of pilgrims eludes these ones despite the Host's and others' best efforts to ensure it, because these pilgrims' sinfulness puts them into a state of division.
Since the pilgrims never arrive at Canterbury, which is where their sins would be cleansed, they never reach a state of joyful union. The whole point of a pilgrimage is to receive absolution for your sins and thus, perfect union with God. This perfect union with God would also lead to perfect union with your fellow Christians. The pilgrims would at last be able to achieve perfect fellowship. But since we never get to see them reach Canterbury, we never get to see them in a state of joyful union.
This is the situation that leads to all the rest of the action. Were the pilgrims not gathered here, there would be no group pilgrimage, no need for entertainment and hence tale-telling, and no Canterbury Tales. Were Chaucer not to happen upon them at the tavern, there would be no occasion for him to narrate the Tales.
This very obviously creates conflict between the pilgrims because each one wants to win the contest. It also creates a conflict between the Host's goals of an orderly and fun contest, and the natural proclivities of the pilgrims. This is the conflict that will turn out to be most important in the action that follows.
All of these situations – the Miller's drunken obstinance, the Reeve's reaction to the Miller's tale, the Friar and the Summoner's dislike of one another, the appearance of a mysterious stranger in the distance – complicate the Host's plan to have the tale-tellers tell stories in an orderly fashion, and to have fun, because they have the potential to create interruptions and fights.
The things that seemed likely to happen in the complication stage actually happen.
All of these moments represent times when things are about to get very, very bad for the Host's stated goals of having fun and telling tales. If the Miller were to leave in anger, he would definitely not be having fun and the harmony of the group would be further disrupted. The same deal would happen if the Host were to refuse to let the Reeve tell his tale. And what if the Friar took so much offense at the Summoner's story, he decked the Summoner, rather than allowing him to tell his tale? You get the idea.
Here, the conflicts that were getting in the way of the tale-telling and fun are resolved, if not entirely to everyone's satisfaction, then at least enough that the tale-telling can continue.
The end of the journey and the announcement of a winner to the contest would conclude the action that's set in motion in the conflict stage. We would find out not only who wins the contest, but whether the Host's plan for everybody to tell tales and have fun was successful.
Act I lasts from the beginning of the story until the moment when the characters agree to the Host's proposal of a tale-telling competition.
When the characters take oaths to engage in a tale-telling competition and abide by the Host's judgment and authority, they are fully committed to the action that follows. Chaucer's description of meeting the pilgrims at the tavern in Southwark and becoming one of their number, as well as the portraits that follow, establish the characters and set the stage for the fun that ensues.
Act II lasts for the entire pilgrimage, not to conclude until the last pilgrim has told his last tale.
Since we can't know who the most successful tale-teller is until the last pilgrim has told his last tale, Act II lasts for the entire length of the pilgrimage. Only then, when all the tales have been told, can the story begin to make its way toward resolution.
The Canterbury Tales have no third act, because they're not finished.
The third act would be everything that happens after the last pilgrim tells his last tale: the revelation of the competition's winner, maybe some discussion about what makes for a "good" tale, perhaps the celebratory banquet. But the pilgrims don't reach Canterbury, let alone arrive back at the tavern, so the story doesn't even begin to approach Act III.