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The Canterbury Tales Genre

Instructor: Jacob Belknap

Jake has taught English in middle and high school, has a degree in Literature, and has a master's degree in teaching.

''The Canterbury Tales'' by Geoffrey Chaucer creates a unique dialogue when it comes to determining the genre. In this lesson, we will examine the levels of depth created when the author crafts this story and its effect on determining the genre.

Genre in Literature

It can be difficult to choose a book at random and it is similarly difficult to choose a movie. This is where genre can help viewers choose a movie or book.

Genre is the type or category of a story. It places it within a specific context. This helps the reader or watcher recognize some of the parameters the author may make.

Geoffrey Chaucer makes use of several genres in The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer sets up the tales as a larger story of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and back. Each character tells one or more tales, each falling into their own genre. Told in Middle English,--the common language at the time in England--Chaucer lays out a sprawling fiction told in prose and poetry within the romance, dream vision, and satire genres.

Getting Started with the separate stories in Canterbury Tales

Before jumping into the tales, let's first review the layout of Chaucer's classic work. The Canterbury Tales begins with a prologue which introduces the frame of the book. It explains there will be several stories told by characters on the way to Canterbury, as well as brief introductions to the separate characters. Some characters have introductions or prologues whereas others get right into telling their story. With each story, the reader is made to feel like a fellow pilgrim on the journey who overhears the character beginning the story. Each is characteristic of the individual who tells it.

Romance in Canterbury Tales

When we think of romance, we typically think of love. However, as used in Chaucer's time and throughout most of literature, romance in writing applies to both love and war, usually in a refined setting. It typically involves idealized behavior or events. Women are beautiful and remote, men try to impress them with bold acts, and the love never seems to go as planned.

Several of the tales in The Canterbury Tales are in whole or part romances: The Knight's Tale, The Squire's Tale, Sir Thopas, The Wife of Bath's Tale, The Merchant's Tale, The Franklin's Tale, The Book of the Duchess, Anelida and Arcite, The Parliament of Birds, Troilus and Criseyde, and The Prologue to the Legend of Good Women all use characteristics of romances.

This is where a new character tells his story.
chaucer 1

Dream Vision in Canterbury Tales

Dream visions are stories in which the narrator or protagonist receives guidance in a dream from God or a god, the devil, or natural causes. A dream vision usually follows this timeline:

  1. The dreamer falls asleep during some crisis or problematic time
  2. The dreamer enters a beautiful place
  3. The dreamer encounters a guide
  4. Something causes the dreamer to wake up before all the meaning can be taken from the dream

Chaucer uses the dream vision in several of his tales to provide guidance for his characters. Chaucer usually added a book by a classical author, a mystery, and a moral or social reference.

Another character offering a story.
chaucer 2

Satire in The Canterbury Tales

Another important genre in The Canterbury Tales is satire. Satire is the use of humor to ridicule and expose people's problems, often in the context of contemporary politics. Satire resounds in Chaucer's tales and provides several layers of biting critiques on society.

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