Tone in The Canterbury Tales: Characters & Overview

Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

The tone in ''The Canterbury Tales'' varies by tale, but the overall tone is satirical and comical. Chaucer manages to use the narrator role to mock and tease the characters in a way that is more humorous than mean.

The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is the story of a group of pilgrims who are on their way to see the shrine of the martyr Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury, England. They meet at the Tabard Inn, where they stop to rest for the night.They enjoy each other's company and decide to travel together at the suggestion of the Inn's host, Harry Bailley.

The Tone of the Main Story

The main story, which starts with the general prologue and continues on throughout the tales with prologues and interactions between each tale, is always humorous. The narrator and Host both tease the other characters. For example, the Host mocks the Cook's food, and although this can come off as mean, he also makes fun of himself, which makes his teasing less cruel.

The main story also has an ironic tone. Chaucer uses his role as narrator to praise aspects of a character that are not praiseworthy for their position, which allows him to ironically tell the good and bad about people. For example, he seems to praise the Prioress' virtues, but in doing so, exposes her lack of religious commitment. Instead of feeding and taking care of the poor, the Prioress enjoys a luxurious life and eats so well that she is overweight. The narrator does the same thing with the Friar. Chaucer describes the Friar as merry and doesn't make a lot of negative comments about him, yet still manages to intone the greediness of the Friar's behavior and his corruptible faith.


Chaucer's obvious disdain for the corruption of the church is evident throughout the novel. However, there are stories that show piety in their tone, and focus more on faith and trying to be a better person. The two characters that have this tone are the Parson and the Nun's Priest. These are also the two characters that Harry Bailley does not mock or tease through all of The Canterbury Tales.


Frankness can also be found within some of the stories. For example, the Wife of Bath is direct and frank in her story and in her prologue. She does not ask for forgiveness for who she is and how many men she has married. Instead, she knows it is the way she has to live her life to get what she wants. The Pardoner is also frank when he speaks about how he he sells fraudulent relics to the faithful. Interestingly enough, though, when the Pardoner goes to sell the relics to the people in the company, Harry Bailly gets incredibly angry, which is the only time in The Canterbury Tales that we see this. This seems to infer that Chaucer believes that this type of crime is one of the worst.

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