Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story Literature and Writing

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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.

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