The Canterbury Tales | Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Canterbury Tales | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, what do Chaucer's first character descriptions suggest?

The Knight and his son, the Squire, are described first by Chaucer because of the Knight's high status. The Knight is described as "a distinguished man" who has been unfailingly chivalrous, generous, noble, and courteous. He has performed bravely in battle many times and has been honored for his service. Yet, despite all of his many reasons for pride, he is humble and modest, never saying one "boorish thing." His clothing reflects his humble attitude, being stained and worn from battle rather than fine and elaborate. The Squire, his son, is also described in complimentary terms: He "had done valiantly in little space/Of time, in hope to win his lady's grace." He knows how to perform many noble skills, such as ride a horse, sing, joust, dance, draw, and write poetry. The Squire is young—about 20 years old—and his clothing reflects his youth. It is embroidered with many flowers, which represent the fact that he is "fresh as is the month of May." Both the Knight and the Squire seem to be a credit to their class. In comparison to his father, however, the Squire seems a little green and a bit of a fop. The Knight represents an ideal, while the Squire is a more realistic character.

In the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, how does Chaucer characterize the Prioress?

The Prioress is described as doing everything just right but to an extreme. She speaks French extremely daintily. She does not let one tiny morsel fall when eating and wipes every trace of grease from her lips so that no mark at all can be seen on her cup. She weeps over the tiniest mouse's suffering or the injuries of her lap dogs (which she keeps against the rules of her order). Yet her manners and feelings do not come from within, as an honest expression of her inner virtue. They are "seemly"—they seem to be real but are not. She strains "to counterfeit a courtly kind of grace" and to "seem dignified." In general, she tries too hard to appear noble and courtly, as the very model of what a Prioress should be. But to Chaucer all of her actions are more like a show than the real thing. His description suggests that her elevated status as a member of the first estate has gone to her head.

In the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, how do Chaucer's descriptions of the Friar and the Parson compare?

The Friar is described as merry and beloved by others. He is well spoken and gives easy penances when people confess their sins, especially if they give a financial gift. He is friendly with tavern owners, innkeepers, and barmaids but less so with lepers and beggars: "It was not fitting with the dignity/Of his position, dealing with a scum/Of wretched lepers." He prefers the company of the wealthy to that of the poor and suffering. In short, he takes full advantage of his position in the first estate. The Parson is described in nearly the opposite way. He is poor himself but "rich in holy thought and work," setting an admirable example of Christian behavior for others. He hates taking any fee for his services but gives freely and generously to the poor. He visits everyone in this parish, in any weather, even those who live in remote places.

In the Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, how will the winner of the storytelling game be decided? Do the stories seem to meet these criteria?

The winner of the storytelling game will be chosen by Harry Bailey, the Host, who proposed the game and set up its rules. The winner will have told a story that is full of "good morality and general pleasure." So the stories should be entertaining and pleasurable, but they should also teach a moral lesson. Some of the stories seem to accomplish this. The Knight's story, for example, contains examples of what was considered noble behavior, such as Theseus avenging the wrongs done to the crowd of women. Yet it is a complex story with interesting characters, and the pilgrim company seems to enjoy it. However, there are also stories that have moral teaching yet are tedious, such as the Monk's endless string of tragic examples of powerful men brought low. And there are stories that entertain but whose lessons are less encouraging, such as the Miller's story, in which all of the characters are liars, unfaithful, or foolish.

In the Knight's tale of The Canterbury Tales, why is it significant that the knights first see Emily in May?

First Palamon and then Arcita look out the window on a May morning. Palamon, the first to look out the window on this "loveliest of mornings," sees Emily walking and reacts as if he has been stabbed in the heart. Arcita then has a similar experience, saying, "The freshness of her beauty strikes me dead." The fact that this all occurs in May, a spring month known for its beautiful flowers, is completely appropriate. Spring is symbolic of sexual awakening, among other things, and the knights are overcome suddenly not with simple love but with overwhelming desire due to her beauty. Spring also highlights the youth and "freshness" of Emily. Like the flowers in the garden where she walks, she is lovely, young, and a pleasure to look at. Spring's significance in this tale contrasts with its symbolic association in the church with spiritual renewal and rededication. The pilgrims are traveling in spring, around Easter time, in what should be a celebration of Christ's resurrection. However, both this tale and other hints, such as the language found in the Prologue, suggest a more secular mood among the majority of pilgrims.

Does Arcita or Palamon suffer more in the Knight's tale of The Canterbury Tales?

On the one hand, Palamon can be seen to suffer most because he spends much more time in prison, while Arcita is free to pursue a new life, which turns out to be fairly comfortable. The only thing that spoils it is his inability to stop thinking about Emily. Furthermore, he lives in Emily's household, so he is near her even though she is not his lover. On the other hand, Arcita is completely separated from Emily for some years, while Palamon gets to at least see her through the window during this time. Arcita also barely gets to enjoy winning her hand in marriage. Palamon is the one who goes on to live happily ever after with Emily. Arcita's suffering is also very great, and possibly more tragic ultimately, than Palamon's.

In The Canterbury Tales, how do the final fights of the Knight's and Miller's tales compare?

In both the battle at the end of the Knight's tale and the confrontation between Nicholas and Absalon at the end of the Miller's tale, two young men who have been rivals for a woman confront each other. In the Knight's tale, Palamon and Arcita go to battle in grand and courtly fashion, confronting each other face to face to win a lady's hand. In the Miller's tale, two young men who have been rivals for a woman also have a sort of confrontation, but this one is not face to face—it is hot poker to gaseous rear end. While Palamon and Arcita engage in a proper tournament with life-and-death consequences, the young scholars Nicholas and Absalon engage in a comical fight in which nothing more than their pride is at stake.

How does love make the knights foolish in the Knight's tale of The Canterbury Tales?

When Theseus finds Arcita and Palamon fighting to the death in the woods, he is perplexed as to why two such brave and "well arrayed" men would choose fighting to the death. He points out that they could have run away and lived as free men nearly anywhere. Then he asks, rhetorically, "What is so foolish as a man in love?" They certainly seem like fools, throwing away every chance of freedom for the sake of a chance with Emily. The also foolishly forsake their bond of brotherhood with each other simply based on a glimpse of a beautiful woman.

What is the fate of each character in the Miller's tale of The Canterbury Tales, and why might Chaucer have chosen to let one character go unpunished?

John, the carpenter, is a jealous husband who restricts his wife's freedom. He is also described as stupid—first for marrying a young wife instead of one who is a match for him in age and then for falling for Alison and Nicholas's scheme. He is repaid for these flaws by having an unfaithful wife, being a laughingstock, and breaking his arm. Absalon is repaid for his annoying persistence in trying to get attention from Alison by being tricked into kissing her "hinder parts." Nicholas is "branded on the bum" as repayment for having an affair with another man's wife and for being silly enough to try the same trick—sticking his bare rear end out of a window—twice. Only Alison escapes punishment, perhaps because she is presented as a fun-loving earthy woman who is a welcome contrast to the chaste Emily of the Knight's tale.

In The Canterbury Tales, how is the humiliation Absalon of the Miller's tale endures twice at the window appropriate, based on his character's preoccupations?

When Absalon kisses Alison's buttocks in the first window scene, his sense of taste and touch are so offended that he rubs his lips with dust, sand, straw, and cloth. Then, in the second window scene, Absalon is nearly blinded by a fart "as loud as if it were a thunder-clap," which offends his senses of sight, smell, and hearing all at once. The Miller has described Absalon as "a little squeamish in the matter/Of farting," so this near-blinding blast would have been particularly offensive. These assaults on his senses could be seen as just punishment for his preoccupation with making his breath sweet, combing his hair just so, and other dandyish ways, which were not suitable for a man who worked for the parish church.

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