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Analysis of The Parson's Tale in The Canterbury Tales

Instructor: Catherine Smith

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

In this lesson, learn that 'The Parson's Tale' is the final story in ''The Canterbury Tales''; it is a three-part sermon that focuses on repentance, as well as the different kinds of sins and how to repent from each kind.

Plot Summary

The Parson is asked to tell a fable, but instead opts for prose, and offers a discussion of repentance, which he believes is the answer to living a moral life which will pave the way to the afterlife. The first part of the sermon includes a definition of penance and distinguishes between venial sins and deadly sins. Part Two is divided into three sub-sections: the first discusses the seven deadly sins, the second looks at confession, and the final examines satisfaction, which means doing penance for the sins one has committed. The Parson concludes by beseeching everyone to make amends for their sins.

Analysis

Relevance of Location in The Canterbury Tales

'The Parson's Tale' is the final story in The Canterbury Tales and is followed by 'Chaucer's Retraction', in which the 'Chaucer' character (or Chaucer the author) claims to beg forgiveness for any of his works that have dealt with the sins discussed in 'The Parson's Tale'. This is certainly an interesting way to end a collection of tales that showcase a variety of plots and literary devices: with a tale told as a lengthy sermon, followed by an apology that appears to have been inspired by the focus of the sermon. There is no clear explanation for why Chaucer chose to end The Canterbury Tales in this way, although one could make the case that it is designed to pay due respect to God, who clearly features prominently throughout the tales. One could also read this unique ending as calling into question an understanding of God that flies in the face of the literature that Chaucer has been celebrating; that is, would God really classify fables as untruths and see this type of story-telling as sinful? It is left to the reader to decide this question.

Genre

This is simply told as a sermon, a treatise on sin and repentance. The choice of genre is underscored at the beginning when the Host asks for a fable, and the Parson replies, 'Thou gettest fable none y-told for me, For Paul, that writeth unto Timothy, Reproveth them that weive soothfastness (forsake truth) And telle fables, and such wretchedness.' Instead, the Parson opts for 'a little tale in prose,' which turns out to be a rather lengthy sermon. Like other sermons of the period, this one relies on Biblical references as well as frequent references to writings of the Church Fathers (e.g. St. Augustine).

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