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The Monk's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In this lesson we will look at 'The Monk's Tale' from 'The Canterbury Tales'. We will explore the theme of tragedy in The Monk's Tale and analyze what this means in the story as a whole and for the characters.

Theme of The Monk's Tale

The entire premise of The Canterbury Tales is that this is a storytelling convention. It is a time for the various characters to show off their storytelling abilities, and time for us (as the reader) to learn about different aspects of storytelling. The Monk's Tale is really a collection of tales giving us the Monk's definition of tragedy.

There are several different definitions of tragedy. The Monk defines tragedy as when someone of high station (or power) falls to a low station (or power) and misery. He then goes on to tell many different tragedy stories. Several of these stories are Bible stories. Many of these stories may have been unfamiliar to many of the listeners since the Bible was not readily accessible for anyone to read at this time. Some of the other stories were historical accounts that the listeners likely would have been familiar with these stories so that it felt as though it had affected them personally.

The Monk starts with a story of Lucifer falling from heaven, and then one of Adam falling from paradise to this fallen world. The message is clear: from the very beginning of time those of high station have fallen to a lower station. And he continues showing different ways that people have fallen from grace.

The Monk tells story after story until finally the Knight interrupts him, stopping him from telling more stories. Of everyone at this convention the Knight probably had the highest station, and thus was probably made most uncomfortable by these stories.

Analysis of The Monk's Tale

The atmosphere of this storytelling convention is one of pride and fun. Then the Monk suddenly throws in a serious side to remind everyone that good times will always come to an end, and prosperity will end in misery. His definition of tragedy isn't the typical definition, as the tragedy typically comes about due to the failings of the hero or heroine. Although many of The Monk's tales do show people bringing about their own demise, the full outpouring of tragedies seem to be saying that everyone in prosperity will fall into misery. Happiness leads to sorrow.

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