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What is the Main Frame Story of The Canterbury Tales?

Instructor: Katherine Garner

Katie teaches middle school English/Language Arts and has a master's degree in Secondary English Education

This lesson describes the main framing narrative that encompasses the 24 stories that comprise 'The Canterbury Tales' and also explains the general function of framing devices in 'The Canterbury Tales.'

What Is a Framing Device in a Narrative?

A framing device is a larger story that encompasses a smaller story. This is often used in narratives to add an extra layer of storytelling. You may remember framing devices utilized in movies such as The Princess Bride. In this film a grandfather reads his sick grandson a story, and the story that he tells is a story within a story about Princess Buttercup and her lover, Wesley. Some stories use the framing device of a dream, where a character falls asleep at the beginning and we learn that the main story was all a dream when the character wakes up at the end. You might recognize this dream device from the classic film The Wizard of Oz.

Framing Story of The Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales in the late 1300s over the period of more than a decade. The stories are joined together by an overall framing story. This larger story is outlined in the general prologue, or introductory poem. This prologue involves a group of people who are planning to make a pilgrimage, or long journey to a place that has religious significance. They are gathering at the Tabard Inn before they leave. This particular pilgrimage is to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral.

Illustration of characters from The Canterbury Tales gathered around a table at the Tabard Inn
Illustration of characters from The Canterbury Tales gathered around a table at the Tabard Inn

The Pilgrims

There are thirty pilgrims in all, and the innkeeper challenges each of them to tell two stories on the way there and two on the way back to keep each other entertained. The person who tells the best story will be rewarded with a dinner at the end of the journey. If Chaucer had followed through with this plan, there would have been over one hundred stories in the Tales, but there are actually only 24, as Chaucer did not finish writing the piece.

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