Critical Analysis of The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales is a frame narrative which is narrated around another story or stories. It was written by the Father of English Poetry Geoffrey Chaucer who was at once a courtier, scholar, traveller, businessman and a prominent literary figure of the fourteenth century. Geoffrey Chaucer was the first to have made the English language popular by giving the language its prominent place in his literature. The Canterbury Tales is such a literary masterpiece written in English.

The Canterbury Tales is said to have been probably adopted soon after 1386-the same year that Chaucer composed the ‘Prologue to the Legend of Good Women’. This work was completed before the close of 1390.

A collection of 24 stories, The Canterbury Tales comprises 17,000 lines mostly in verse. All the stories were narrated by a group of some 30 pilgrims including Geoffrey Chaucer himself. Each of the pilgrims was to narrate 2 stories on the way to Canterbury and 2 on the way back; thus all of them were to narrate 120 stories in totality; but we have a record of only 24 stories. So, this magnum opus by Chaucer is an unfinished work.

The frame narrative The Canterbury Tales opens with a gathering of people at the Tabard Inn in London. In the month of April, they prepare for their journey to the shrine of Saint Thomas-a-Becket who was the archbishop of Canterbury and who had sacrificed his life for a cause. Chaucer probably took this method of story-telling from Boccaccio’s Decameron. Going for pilgrimage to the shrine used to be a yearly occurrence in those days. The pilgrimage used to be full of religious spirit, fun and even show.

हिंदी में देखने के लिए यहाँ क्लिक करें

At Tabard Inn, the Host named Harry Bailly, promised to arrange a free meal for one who would tell the best tale; but it is not clear what would have happened at last in the story as Chaucer could never complete the story.

Chaucer has employed many characters ranging from clergymen to working class and from moralistic individuals to those less scrupulous. The characters’ tales are based on sexual deviance, vulgarity, hypocrisy, humour which used to be in vogue in the contemporary society. The Knight tale is chivalrous, the Clerk’s devotional, the Miller’s and the Reeve’s are coarse and farcical in complete harmony with their own characters. Chaucer has employed so many characters in this work that John Dryden says:-

‘Here is God’s plenty.’

Chaucer paints an ironic and critical portrait of the contemporary English society through a wide range of classes and types in this magnum opus ‘The Canterbury Tales’. His Prioress who is a nun keeps up the appearance of a rich woman despite the fact that she should refrain herself from the worldly pleasures. So, the narrator says:

‘…peyned hire to countrefete chere

Of court, and to ben estatlich of manere,

And to ben holden digne of reverence.’

Chaucer paints the Parson in the following words:

But rather wolde (the Parson) yeven, out of doute,

Unto his povre parisshens aboute

Of his offring, and eek of his substaunce.’

Through the above lines, Chaucer describes that unlike the Prioress who tries to appear as a well-to-do woman in spite of being a nun, the Parson leads the life of a simple clergyman with the goal of helping others.

Thus, Chaucer paints his characters in contrast with their professions and duties.

Chaucer contributed a lot to the development of the English Language which was the language of the common people. At his hand, this language could establish itself as the official language of England replacing Latin and French. So, Spenser talks about Chaucer as;

‘The Well of English undefiled.’

The Canterbury Tales deals with a fantastic imagery. The opening lines of its Prologue very wonderfully depicts the pleasant month of April when all the pilgrims of Chaucer were to start their pilgrimage. Chaucer uses imagery with holistic skill in the following lines:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Objective Type Questions:

  1. How many pilgrims including Chaucer are there in ‘The Canterbury Tales’?
  2. How many pilgrims excluding Chaucer are there in ‘The Canterbury Tales’?
  3. In which month is the pilgrimage made?
  4. What is the name of the Host in ‘The Canterbury Tales’?
  5. When did Chaucer complete ‘The Canterbury Tales’?
  6. Who said, ‘The Well of English undefiled’?
  7. Who said, ‘Chaucer is the father of English Poetry’?
  8. How many tales are to be told by each pilgrim in ‘The Canterbury Tales’?
  9. Who was ‘St. Thomas-a-Becket?
  10. Which kind of poetry is ‘The Canterbury Tales’?

Important Links:

Critical Analysis of the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
Critical Analysis of the Canterbury Tales in Hindi
Geoffrey Chaucer-At a glance
Social, Political and Religious Condition during Chaucer’s Age