The Canterbury Tales: Summary & Plot

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  • 0:04 Canterbury Tales Summary
  • 1:45 Morality and Human Nature
  • 3:08 Humor and Vulgarity
  • 4:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joe Ricker
'The Canterbury Tales' is a collection of moral and humorous stories told by a diverse group of people. Tensions run high as this group of strangers travels to Canterbury, sharing their best stories along the way.

Canterbury Tales Summary

The Canterbury Tales is a frame narrative, or a story told around another story or stories. The frame of the story opens with a gathering of people at the Tabard Inn in London who are preparing for their journey to the shrine of St. Becket in Canterbury. This is a yearly occurrence, and Chaucer is among the people preparing for the journey. The Host of the inn suggests that they all take turns telling a tale as they travel. Whoever tells the best tale, to be judged by the Host, will receive a free meal upon their return.

In total, there are 24 tales. It's possible that Chaucer never finished the work since the prologue lists people who made the journey but did not tell a tale. The tales include lessons on morality, human struggles, and more humorous fare. Many are tales of spite directed at the other individuals. It's no surprise that these tales are the most vulgar and sexually explicit in nature and also the most well-known ones.

The Host of the Tabard acts as a moderator during the trip, calling upon various characters to share a tale. The Host often becomes bored or overwhelmed with some of the tales, especially those that are emotionally tormenting. In response, he demands that the characters tell more light-hearted tales which focus on love, chivalry, or something else.

The cast of characters is eclectic, ranging from clergymen to working-class and from moralistic individuals to those less scrupulous. This mix of characters is what makes the frame narrative so compelling during the journey. Characters like the Miller and the Reeve, as well as the Friar and the Summoner, tell tales that not only insult each other, but are also explicit in nature. Their tales include sexual deviance, profanity, and vulgar, low-brow humor, such as a hot fire poker being jabbed into someone's rear end.

Morality and Human Nature

The Knight, the Man of Law, the Wife of Bath, the Clerk, the Franklin, the Prioress, the Nun's Priest, the Parson, the Merchant, and the Second Nun all tell morality tales. These characters' stories emphasize their moral values, or a struggle that each individual has endured. The Knight, for example, speaks at length on matters of chivalry while the Wife of Bath speaks of the necessity of a submissive husband for a happy marriage. The Pardoner shares tales of morality concerning avarice, despite the acknowledgement of his own greed. At the end of his tale, he offers the other travelers a chance to buy his wares, so that they may be pardoned for their sins.

There is often interruption, too, especially by the Host whose preference seems to lie in the tales of morality. Some tales, such as Chaucer's and the Cook are left unfinished. Chaucer does finish a tale, but not on his first attempt because the Host does not enjoy Chaucer's use of poetic rhyme. So instead of finishing his tale about Sir Topaz, Chaucer begrudgingly tells a tale in prose about Melibee. The Physician, the Monk, the Pardoner, and the Squire all tell tragic tales, which also upset the host.

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