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The Nun's Priest's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Catherine Smith

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

''The Nun's Priest's Tale'' is one of the many stories told on the pilgrimage to Canterbury in ''The Canterbury Tales'' by Geoffrey Chaucer. This tale is told by the nun's priest in response to a request for a light-hearted story, and it is indeed one of the merrier tales in the book. The nun's priest's tale is a beast fable about a rooster and his encounter with a fox. In this lesson we will analyze and explore the literary devices in this tale.

Plot Summary

Chanticleer and Lady Pertelote

'The Nun's Priest's Tale' follows 'The Monk's Tale' in The Canterbury Tales, when the host and knight ask for a more entertaining story. The nun's priest obliges, and tells the tale of a rooster's misadventures with a fox. The story takes place at a farm, owned and managed by a poor widow who lives quite modestly. The central figure in the fable is a rooster called Chanticleer, who is described as being the most beautiful rooster in the land, and having the loveliest crow. He has seven wives (the seven hens who live on the farm with him), the favorite of whom is Lady Pertelote.

Chanticleer's Dream

One morning, Chanticleer wakes from a nightmare in which a creature who resembles a fox is trying to attack him. Lady Pertelote ridicules Chanticleer as a coward for being scared of a dream, and insists that dreams have no meaning. Chanticleer argues that dreams do have meaning, and cites various examples from history and literature to prove his case.

Chanticleer and the Fox

Nevertheless, Chanticleer heeds his wife's advice to ignore his dream, and returns to the yard. He suddenly notices a fox watching him, and before he can run, the fox reassures him that he does not wish to attack, but only wants to hear his beautiful song. When Chanticleer begins to sing, however, the fox seizes him by the neck and runs away with him. All the animals on the farm pursue the fox, attempting to rescue Chanticleer. Chanticleer ultimately escapes by encouraging the fox to taunt his pursuers; to do this, the fox must open his mouth, at which point Chanticleer manages to escape the fox's jaws and run away. The narrator ends the tale here, explaining that the moral is to not fall prey to flattery.

Literary Devices

Vanity Versus Modesty

The tale opens with a description of the widow and her farm. The widow is described as living modestly and abstaining from many of life's pleasures (such as wine), but never lacking in anything she needs, and generally being quite content with her life. This is contrasted with the description of Chanticleer, who is depicted as vain and self-absorbed; an important figure on the farm, who revels in his own beautify and significance. However, his vanity leads to him falling for the fox's flattery, and thus being abducted. Chaucer juxtaposes the widow and the rooster to highlight the virtues of the modest life; the widow is happy, comfortable, and avoids the troubles that come with vanity and self-importance.

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