Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story Themes

  • Literature and Writing

    Since The Canterbury Tales are all about a tale-telling competition, it makes sense that a huge concern of this story would be literature and, more specifically, what makes for good literature. Is the best tale really one that both delights and instructs? Or is it enough for a tale to simply tickle the funny bone? Is it better to speak in poetry or prose? To repeat a story exactly as you heard it, or to improvise and add your own special touch? These are the questions that The Canterbury Tales explore not only by having characters ask them directly, but also by providing a huge range of different kinds of stories, from high-class romance to bawdy fabliau, saints' lives to sinners' stories, adventures to sermons. The contrast of the stories, the combinations of tellers and tales, and the presence of interludes between the tales in which characters reflect upon what they've just heard provide an extremely innovative way of exploring (although not really ever answering) million-dollar questions about the value and purpose of literature.

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. What are the different definitions of what makes a good story in The Canterbury Tales?
    2. As The Canterbury Tales progress, do we see any change in the characters' understanding of what makes a good story?
    3. Many of the characters, but especially the Host, try to draw morals from the stories they tell and hear. How do the morals they draw match up with your understanding of the story? What might this say about the characters as readers, or about stories more generally?
    4. What are the different reactions of characters to the stories they hear? What conclusions can we draw from these reactions about their beliefs about the power and purpose of stories?

    Chew on This

    In The Canterbury Tales, the Host's reactions to the stories the pilgrims tell suggest that he believes stories can have a strong effect upon the emotional and physical well-being of the hearer.

    The Parson's condemnation of frivolous "fables" is a condemnation of most of the other pilgrim's tales.

    The Parson's condemnation of frivolous "fables" is not meant as a condemnation of most of the other pilgrim's tales.

  • Competition

    The Canterbury Tales are about a tale-telling competition in which pilgrims engage on their way to Canterbury. This competition is supposed to be friendly, but it becomes the opposite of that when some of the professional competition between the pilgrims overshadows the tale-telling one. This leads to a contrast in the Tales between "good" and "bad" kinds of competition, and to questions about the pros and cons of competition and the ways in which it can both enhance and destroy fellowship. The kinds of competition in which the pilgrims engage, moreover, from jousts to wrestling matches to singing contests, can tell us important information about their characters.

    Questions About Competition

    1. To what extent does the competition between the pilgrims enhance the fellowship, or feeling of community, among them, and to what extent does it threaten to destroy the fellowship?
    2. What different kinds of competition do we see in the General Prologue and frame story? How does the type of competition in which a character engages reflect upon his character?
    3. Why do you think the most intense competitions in the frame story occur between the Reeve and the Miller, and the Friar and the Summoner?
    4. How can tales be a tool of competition? How can words be a tool of competition?

    Chew on This

    In the General Prologue and frame story of The Canterbury Tales, the competition among the pilgrims strengthens the fellowship, or feeling of community, among them.

    In the General Prologue and frame story of The Canterbury Tales, the competition among the pilgrims threatens to destroy the fellowship, or feeling of community, among them.

    In the General Prologue and frame story of The Canterbury Tales, the type of competition in which a pilgrim engages reveals important information about his or her character.

  • Society and Class

    Since Chaucer sets The Canterbury Tales at a time of economic transition in England, in which new mercantile and artisan classes are shaking things up for the more traditional "estates" of those who pray, those who fight, and those who work (clerics, nobles, serfs), you can bet that class is going to be a big issue in the Tales. It's most important in the portraits of members of these new classes like the Merchant or Tradesmen's. These portraits explore the source of these pilgrims' wealth and the way they (and their families) are dealing with their newfound social status. One of the most important questions this new class raises is what qualifies someone to have a position of power in their community. Is it only wealth, as seems to be the case when these men ascend to important positions in the government, or is something more "noble" required, as traditionalists would have us believe? The contrast between members of the new and traditional social classes allows The Canterbury Tales to explore this question. (See "Setting" for more on the historical context of the Tales.)

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What kind of a relationship do the religious figures in The Canterbury Tales have with the poor? Why do you think the issue of poverty and the poor comes up the most in the discussions of these figures?
    2. Do the portraits of the lower-class pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales agree with or complicate the late medieval stereotype that lower-class people are "all brawn, no brains"?
    3. How do the portraits of the upwardly-mobile or bourgeois characters like the Merchant, Sergeant of Law, or Tradesmen, compare with those of pilgrims from more "traditional" social classes, like the Knight or the Franklin? You can consider things like appearances and clothing, activities and behavior, and goals and motivations.

    Chew on This

    The conflict between pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales reflects the ongoing class conflicts between new and emerging versus traditional classes in the late medieval period.

    The portraits of the lower-class pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales agree with the late medieval stereotype that lower-class people are "all brawn, no brains."

    The portraits of the lower-class pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales complicate the late medieval stereotype that lower-class people are "all brawn, no brains."

  • Wealth

    Since The Canterbury Tales are set in a time of economic transition for medieval society, money and wealth play a very big role here, particularly in the portraits of the pilgrims. We see the things money can buy in the descriptions of the clothes people are wearing, the horses they're on, and the gadgets they've got. And we learn about the ways people can make money in portraits of characters like the Merchant, the Tradesmen, or the Wife of Bath. We also hear a lot about the way characters can steal or cheat their way to money, as the Reeve or Pardoner do. In many of the portraits, we witness the way that skill with money-handling can lead to power, deserved or otherwise, and the way lack of concern for money (the Clerk) can be just as troubling as excessive greed (almost all the other characters). Most often, when the Tales talk about money, it's to question the ethics of a particular character's relationship to it, particularly in the case of the religious characters who have taken vows of poverty.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. How do the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales display or use their wealth? What can we learn about their characters from these choices?
    2. Which characters are good at making money, and how do they accomplish this?
    3. How does a pilgrim's relationship to money and wealth, or their handling of money and wealth, reflect upon their moral virtue?

    Chew on This

    In The Canterbury Tales, facility with money-handling is an important way in which lower-class pilgrims demonstrate and gain power over their masters.

    In The Canterbury Tales, the choices a pilgrim makes about how to use his wealth reveal important information about his character.

  • Friendship

    Among the Canterbury pilgrims we see varying versions of, and motivations for, friendship, ranging from similar interests to greed to obligations of friendship that are very different from those of today. All of these versions of friendship reflect upon the ultimate friendship in The Canterbury Tales, the fellowship of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. One of the Host's main goals is to keep the pilgrims in a state of easy fellowship with one another, which is why, in the course of the pilgrimage, questions arise about the proper behavior of a fellowship. Should members of fellowship engage in debate? How should they solve conflicts between members? And can just anyone belong to a fellowship? The conflicts that arise between the pilgrims as they travel suggest that, of all the ways one might make one's way to Canterbury, in "felaweshipe" is the most difficult of all.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. What are some different versions of friendship we see in The Canterbury Tales? Compare and contrast the motivations for these friendships.
    2. What makes for an ideal fellowship in The Canterbury Tales? Do the pilgrims achieve this? Why or why not?
    3. Why do you think the Host is the character who most often tries to promote fellowship among the pilgrims? What methods does he use to do so, and does he do a good job?

    Chew on This

    The Canterbury Tales give an example of the creation of an ideal fellowship.

    The Canterbury Tales give an example of the breakdown of an ideal fellowship.

    Despite his attempts to promote fellowship among the Canterbury pilgrims, the Host is the character who most severely damages the fellow-feeling among them.

    The Host is successful at promoting fellowship among the Canterbury pilgrims.

  • Time

    The Canterbury Tales constantly mark the passing of time. The narrator often tells us exactly what time it was when a particular event occurred, and even the way he (or the Host) arrived at this calculation by coordinating the day of the year with the position of the sun. The Host seems to have a sense of urgency about the tale-telling competition, constantly reminding the pilgrims that time is slipping away from them. When he waxes poetic about time, the Host compares it to a stream that's running quickly, the water never to be regained. Yet, despite this fatalism, or sense of powerlessness, about the passage of time, the poem also suggests that it's possible to avoid what's depressing about lost time by using it well. That's probably the reason the Host is so emphatic that the pilgrims keep on telling those tales. To him, at least, tale-telling is a way of using time well.

    Questions About Time

    1. Which characters in the poem are most concerned with the passing of time? Why do you think these characters are the ones who worry about it the most?
    2. What metaphors do characters use to talk about time? What is the effect of this language on our perception of time in the poem?
    3. Why is marking the passing of time so important in the frame story? What effect does this have upon the reader?

    Chew on This

    The frame story of The Canterbury Tales marks the passing of time in order to make its readers understand the urgency of reaching salvation, represented by Canterbury.

    The language used to talk about time in The Canterbury Tales emphasizes the way in which time is always escaping from us, despite our best efforts to prevent that from happening.

  • Lies and Deceit

    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

    1. 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?
    2. 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?
    3. 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?
    4. 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.

  • Spirituality

    Since there are many religious figures in The Canterbury Tales, we would expect religion and its attendant subjects to be a common topic, and it is. The biggest question about holiness in the Tales is whether outward shows of piety, like those practiced by the Summoner and the Pardoner, are enough to constitute true holiness. This question is not as cut-and-dried as it might appear, since the medieval church endorsed the value of outward, physical shows of piety like the very pilgrimage upon which these characters have embarked. But characters like the Parson and the Plowman suggest that something more might be required for true holiness, and that the "something more" might not be as fussy and complicated as pilgrims like the Prioress, Pardoner, or Summoner would have us believe.

    Questions About Spirituality

    1. What are the different ways in which characters attempt to demonstrate piety in The Canterbury Tales? What are their motivations for these demonstrations?
    2. Which characters in the Prologue most closely approach true holiness? In what ways do they, and their portraits, differ from those of the other pilgrims?
    3. How and where do we see the "commoditization" of spiritual goods like pardons and repentance in The Canterbury Tales? What effect do these examples have upon our view of the religious figures in the Tales?

    Chew on This

    In suggesting that something more than an outward physical demonstration is necessary for true piety, The Canterbury Tales complicate our understanding of pilgrimage.

    The portrayal of the commoditization of spiritual goods like pardons and repentance in The Canterbury Tales questions the extent to which the physical and material should play a part in the spiritual life.