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The Canterbury Tales: The Purpose Of A Narrative

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While analyzing a major literary work, it is important to uncover the key elements and purposes of the specific text. By revealing the author’s motivation for writing, readers can understand the true meaning and fully appreciate the language. In a narrative work such as The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, the narrator has the purpose of conveying a message through a relatable voice. In this work, Chaucer used various speakers to touch on multiple subjects whilst painting a realistic picture of the period. According to “Some New Light on Chaucer” by John Manly, the “Method of… letting readers see the person and events of the writer’s vision is habitual with [Geoffrey] Chaucer (pg. 295).” This “method” essentially underscores Chaucer’s ability to tell the story through the lens personal experience. By employing the convention of the frame story, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales lays bare the true nature of pilgrims from all social stratification- an effort requiring the consideration of varying perspectives through the cloak of his voice behind several layers of the narrative.

One of Chaucer’s skills as a Renaissance writer is his ability to present characters that have real-life qualities and convince readers to relate to each character. The Tales can be viewed as a literary renaissance for lower-class English representation, as it includes a variety of characters that realistically represent each estate during the Middle Ages. With the application of this narrative style, Chaucer allows each character to share the perspective of their societal position while humbly critiquing their physiognomy to present the flaws within their respective classes. According to Gail Asthon’s analysis of “Chaucer’s Styles and Narrative Skills”:

[The work] is a melting pot of themes and ideas expressed in a rich mix of styles and techniques, mingling the comic and serious, entertainment and instruction…. the individual poems within the Tales can be categorized by genre…[and] many examination questions focus on upon Chaucer’s style [can reveal that] characterization, and narration form part of an overall impression alongside themes and purpose. (pg. 7)

By placing the pilgrims as the narrators of their tales, Chaucer gave himself the freedom to speak upon the subjects that he wishes. For example, when Alyson (The Wife of Bath’s) narrates on the social problem of female mistreatment in society, Chaucer writes freely on the subject by using a woman to speak on women’s issues. In the tales, Allison states;

Women may go saufly up and doun.

In every bussh or under every tree

Ther is noon oother incubus but he,

And he ne wol doon hem but dishonour. (lines 884-887)

Clearly, the speaker addresses the societal malignancy that is sexual assault. Statistically, women are most commonly the victims of sexual abuse, Chaucer’s attempts to use Alison as a speaker effectively relate the message to the readers. In that women face this sexist societal oppression; women are often inclined to take an activist role on the issue.

While the Tales can be considered an aggregation of Chaucer’s thoughts and opinions, he genuinely believes it is significant for readers to view each topic with a variety of alternative perspectives. This use of perspective narratives grants Chaucer the ability to combine his opinions and the opinions of society in a merging form. Each character of the work carries a different voice, ranging from a peaceful activist to a violent fiend. According to David Hadbawnik’s analysis of “Links and Frame” in The Canterbury Tales:

Chaucer’s ‘framing narrative’—the links between tales, which consist of pilgrims’ prologues and in some cases epilogues—the pilgrims respond to what they have heard, bicker over who will speak next, and continue to mull and argue over some of the larger themes of the Tales (such as language, marriage, class issues, and gender, among others).

Each pilgrim in the Tales represents a different estate, thus, they share a spectrum of opinions. In this, they do not share a mutual understanding for each other’s perspective, the tension between the characters represent the clashing between social classes. He does this without placing one character superior to any other- creating an equal platform for each storyteller to express their reality as they perceive it. By doing this, Chaucer presents to readers both the positive and negative perspectives of the matter- leaving readers to interpret their personal views. In the “Wife of Bath’s Prologue”, the conflict between Alyson and the Pardoner can be viewed as an example. The Interlude states:

Up stirte the Pardoner, and that anon;

‘Now, dame,’ quod he, ‘by God and by Seint John!

Ye been a noble prechour in this cas.

I was aboute to wedde a wyf; allas!

What sholde I bye it on my flessh so deere?

Yet hadde I levere wedde no wyf to-yeere!’

‘Abyde!’ quod she, ‘my tale is nat bigonne.

Nay, thou shalt drynken of another tonne,

Er that I go, shal savoure wors than ale.

And whan that I have toold thee forth my tale

Of tribulacion in mariage,

Of which I am expert in al myn age —

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This is to seyn, myself have been the whippe –

Than maystow chese wheither thou wolt sippe

Of thilke tonne that I shal abroche.

Be war of it, er thou to ny approche;

For I shal telle ensamples mo than ten.

`Whoso that nyl be war by othere men,

By hym shul othere men corrected be.’

The same wordes writeth Ptholomee;

Rede in his Almageste, and take it there.’ ‘Dame, I wolde praye yow, if youre wyl it were,’

Seyde this Pardoner, ‘as ye bigan,

Telle forth youre tale, spareth for no man,

And teche us yonge men of youre praktike.’ ‘Gladly,’ quod she, ‘sith it may yow like;

But yet I praye to al this compaignye,

If that I speke after my fantasye,

As taketh not agrief of that I seye,

For myn entente nys but for to pleye. (lines 169-195)

Due to Alyson’s exuding female dominance, the Pardoner was uneasy and quickly challenged her by abruptly inserting himself. She retaliates by accentuating his alcoholic behavior as a pardoner and proceeds to reasons her reasons for multiple marriages. The bickering between these characters is a representation of different perspectives on gender conflict of the period. As a whole, the dialogue consists of Chaucer’s reoccurring technique of exploring different perspectives on a specific matter and presenting his opinion.

Frequently in today’s society, opinions on societal matters are often masked by an anonymous online profile. Speakers can write and post their criticism without the fear of the possible repercussions faced when in public. Whilst writing this epic criticism of the Church, Chaucer carefully masked himself behind the voice of the saturated clergymen. In Roger Ellis’ work on Patterns of Religious Narrative in the Canterbury Tales, the author states that:

The voices we hear in [the work] …suggest the cooperation of author and fictional characters in the final product. Analysis, however, finds this task every bit as difficult as its earlier attempts to describe religion in terms of both ends and means, and [the work] as both form and matter. The circle simply will not square… [this can be represented by observing how] the author carefully created [such controversial] persona and the guarantee of such autonomous life as his characters enjoy. (pg. 26)

Even though The Canterbury Tales sheds light on the weakening Church during the period, its influence still had a great effect on numerous English works and Chaucer himself. By placing himself behind a fictional voice, Chaucer guaranteed himself a seemingly removed stance while still raising grating questions about the abuse of power of the Church.

In addition to placing the blame on the individual characters in the Tales for their sins, Chaucer included a retraction at the end of his works. Chaucer had planned to write 120 tales in total, but strategically proceeding wrote a retraction to be placed at the end; knowing what precedes it would be controversial and cause outrage throughout the Church. To save himself from the consequences and punishment, the “Retraction” states:

Now preye I to hem alle that herkne this litel tretys or rede, that if ther be any thyng in it that liketh hem, that thereof they thanken oure Lord Jhesu Crist, of whom procedeth al wit and al goodnesse. / And if ther be any thyng that displease hem, I preye hem also that they arrette it to the defaute of myn unkonnynge and nat to my wyl, that wolde ful fayn have seyd bettre if I hadde had conning. (pg. 287-288)

To let the Church takes what they please and disregard what they displease, Chaucer carefully rectifies himself through presenting his devotion to Christ. While it could be argued that the retraction was added by another author, the Retraction ends The Canterbury Tales with a final complexity; repentant or not, that slyly leaves the resolution to the readers. This completely ties in with the recurrent theme of subliminal critiques of the Church throughout the work.

By analyzing Chaucer’s use of frame narrative, readers can unlock the significance of the author’s motivation. The frame story of The Canterbury Tales gives readers access to the societal conflict between classes during the Middle Ages and highlights the significance of social themes. Within the work, the conflict between characters represents the different perspectives and opinions on such matters. Chaucer convinces readers to contemplate their social beliefs as well as their perception of reality. His presentation of the controversial social commentary was well masked using various narrators. With the addition of the Retraction, Chaucer creates a safe passage for his clever critique of the Church. To finalize, Chaucer is the modern-day keyboard warrior.

Works Cited

  1. Ashton, Gail. Chaucer : The Canterbury Tales. St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
  2. Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Canterbury Tales.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, Portable 12th Edition, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton, 2017, pp. 235-288.
  3. Ellis, Roger. Patterns of Religious Narrative in The Canterbury Tales. Barnes & Noble Books, 1986.
  4. Hadbawnik, David. “Links and Frame.” The Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales, Nov. 2017,
  5. Manly, John Matthews. Some New Light on Chaucer. H. Holt, 1926.

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