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The Parson's Tale in The Canterbury Tales: Prologue & Summary

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

'The Canterbury Tales' are full of lust, greed, and all other manner of sins. But in the last of the tale, we hear the true message of the story and finally meet a character who is moral and upstanding in the Parson.

The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer, is an unfinished collection of stories. The overall plot is that a group of pilgrims who are visiting the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury are having a contest to see who can tell the best story. 'The Parson's Tale', which is thought to be the one Chaucer intended to be the last story, is more of a moral lesson than a story.

While other books may leave the moral of their stories open for interpretation, the lesson in 'The Parson's Tale' is abundantly clear: repent while you still can!

The tale told by the Parson is the last of the Tales.
The tale told by the Parson is the last of the Tales.

This lesson will focus on the prologue and summary of 'The Parson's Tale.'

The Parson's Prologue

The sun has almost set and all the pilgrims but the Parson have told their tale. The Host asks the Parson to tell a fable, but the Parson replies that fables are full of sin. Instead, he will tell a moral tale, and he won't use poetry because he lacks the skill. Instead of a story, the Parson gives a sermon on the topic of repentance (or being sorry for your sins).

The Parson's Tale

The Parson, unlike the other religious figures in The Canterbury Tales, appears to be a genuinely good person. He's described as smart and also as a good leader of people. Though he is poor in worldly goods, he is rich in spiritual gifts.

The Parson spends a good portion of his sermon dealing with pentenance, or the forgiveness of sins. His insistence on being sin-free highlights just how bad some of the other pilgrims really were. He sets up his tale into three parts: contrition, confession, and satisfaction.

The Parson was a genuinely good person.
The Parson was a genuinely good person.

Contrition

The Parson spends a lot of time talking about contrition, the act of being sorry for something. He uses multiple references from the Bible to make his point. He also uses this section of his sermon to discuss the meaning of the terms confession and satisfaction.

Confession

Confession, according to the Parson, can only happen when you use your mouth to talk to a priest. He explains that sin is the struggle between the body and the soul for dominance.

The Parson then goes on to talk about the different types of sins. He breaks sin down into two subgroups: venial (or minor) and mortal (or deadly).

Satisfaction

In the section on satisfaction, the Parson lists the seven deadly sins: sloth, greed, wrath, lust, gluttony, envy, and pride. He tells the other pilgrims how to guard against each type of sin. He then says that the seven deadly sins are like a tree: pride, the worst of them all, is the trunk and the other sins are the branches.

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