Allegory in The Canterbury Tales: Examples & Analysis

Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

Chaucer makes use of several literary devices within ''The Canterbury Tales'', and allegory is one that makes several appearances in the work. This lesson covers the overarching plot of the journey from the tavern to Canterbury, which is an allegory itself, as well as three allegorical tales.

Pilgrimage as Allegory

The first and most important example of allegory, or a story that can be understood on both a literal and symbolic level, is The Canterbury Tales itself, taken as a whole. This collection of tales is generally analyzed according to individual stories, so it is easy to forget that the pilgrims are making a journey together from the tavern to Canterbury. This trip can be considered an allegory for the journey from Earth to heaven. The pilgrims meet in the tavern, which stands in the place of the sinful human life. They journey together, discussing various stories and characters; their journey together can be viewed as life itself. Canterbury, their destination, is an allegory for heaven.

Examples of Allegory in Individual Tales

While there are several plots within The Canterbury Tales that can be interpreted as allegory, this lesson discusses three in some depth, which are generally considered to be intended as allegory.

The Nun's Priest's Tale

'The Nun's Priest's Tale' is an animal story that serves as an allegory for human behavior, much like Aesop's fables. This tale focuses on a farm owned by a poor widow. On the farm lives an arrogant rooster, who is overly proud of his physical appearance and his crowing. His pride distracts him, and he is taken by a fox. The fox in turn is distracted by his need to taunt the animals who are chasing him, and he drops the fox out of his mouth, thus losing his prey. The moral of this tale is that the modest, simple life (like that of the widow who owns the farm) leads to greater happiness than pride. That the proud and immodest lives are depicted by animals makes pride appear even more absurd, as though people who take pride in their lives are as silly as a rooster who prances around feeling proud of his crowing.

The Pardoner's Tale

'The Pardoner's Tale' can also be understood as an allegory. In this tale, three men set out to find Death personified so that they can avenge the death of their friend. On their way to find Death, they meet an Old Man, who tells them that they can find Death under an oak tree. When they reach the tree, they find treasure. One friend leaves to find food and drink for the group, while the others stay to guard the treasure. When the third friend returns, the two kill him; however, the third friend had poisoned the wine that he returned with, which the other two friends proceed to drink, so all three end up dead by the end of the tale, making the Old Man's prediction correct. The moral of this story is understood to be that greed leads to bad ends. While there is some debate about what or whom the Old Man is an allegory for, it is generally agreed that he stands in for Death or Death's messenger, since his directions to the men lead to their deaths.

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