The Canterbury Tales | Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Canterbury Tales | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In the Physician's tale of The Canterbury Tales, how is the Physician's advice to parents related to his tale?

The Physician prefaces his story with some advice to parents: "However many children you have had,/Yours is the duty of their supervision/As long as they are bound by your decision." He tells parents that being neglectful of this duty has terrible consequences. In the story Virginius is held up as a (rather extreme) example of the dutiful parenting the Physician is talking about. He believes that the violation of his daughter's chastity is a fate worse than mere death. As a man who takes seriously his duty as a father, he acts according to this belief by killing her before Appius is able to take her away to become his mistress.

In The Canterbury Tales, what does the Physician's tale suggest about the nature of justice?

In the Physician's tale, a lecherous judge schemes to obtain Virginia. He then uses the justice system to achieve his own unjust ends, setting up a fake court case and then ruling on the case before even hearing it. This suggests that systems of earthly justice are so corrupt they actually achieve the opposite of justice. In the story the only way for Virginia to escape this corrupt system is to escape her earthly life through death. However, even though it comes too late to save Virginia's life, true justice comes to Appius, Claudius, and the others who participated in the deception when they are caught and punished. The Physician attributes this just ending to God's intervention: "no one knows how God engages/Or when to smite the sinner." So, while earthly justice fails, divine justice does not.

In the Pardoner's Tale of The Canterbury Tales, do the three men find what they seek?

The three young men in the Pardoner's tale, also called the "rioters," swear to find and "kill this traitor Death," believing they are looking for a person. They do not find this "person," so in one way they are unsuccessful. However, they "meet Death": one man dies at the hands of his companions, who later die by poisoning. In this way their search for Death is successful.

In The Canterbury Tales, how do the sins the Pardoner warns about relate to his story?

The Pardoner tells the company that the topic of all of his sermons is avarice, or greed, though he admits that this is simply because preaching against greed makes people more willing to part with their money. In his story the three rioters ultimately die as a result of greed because they each want to keep a larger share of the discovered treasure. However, the Pardoner also spends a good deal of time preaching against gluttony and drunkenness, which are also sins that contribute to the rioters' demise. They are drinking when they decide to chase down Death and kill him, and their desire for food and drink is the mechanism by which they eventually all die.

In The Canterbury Tales, do the Wife of Bath's own marriages seem like "misery" and "woe"? Explain.

There are definite elements of mutual misery in some of the Wife of Bath's marriages. When her fourth husband hurts her by having an affair with another woman, she responds to her suffering by making his life a "purgatory." Her fifth husband, with whom she has a fistfight, has caused her a great deal of suffering, even causing her to lose hearing in one ear. Yet, if marriage is truly nothing but misery, it seems to be so only for the husbands. From her descriptions of married life the Wife of Bath takes some pleasure in it, especially in bed. She notes that virginity is not what God has gifted her with and describes physical pleasure in marriage as wonderful and sweet: "I will bestow the flower of life, the honey/Upon the acts and fruit of matrimony." She also enjoyed the wealth that her three "good" husbands gave her. Her husbands, on the other hand, seem constantly scolded, manipulated, and dominated.

In the Wife of Bath's tale of The Canterbury Tales, who gives the knight his sentence? Why is this significant?

In the Wife of Bath's tale, the queen sentences the knight to either death or a 12-month mission to search for the answer to the question "What is the thing that women most desire?" Although the knight's case comes before the king at first, the king quickly turns it over to the queen at her repeated requests. When the knight returns after his year of wandering, he comes before the queen to report what he had learned and to await her judgment. This is significant because ultimately the knight learns that women want to be in charge; they want to make the decisions. The queen, who obviously enjoys significant power in her own marriage, accepts the knight's answer as correct. Both the king and the knight demonstrate that their wives are happier when they make the decisions.

In the Friar's tale of The Canterbury Tales, Harry Bailey chastises the Summoner, saying, "The devil take your soul!" Why is this humorous in light of the story?

In the Friar's tale, about a corrupt summoner teaming up with a fiend from Hell, the fiend makes a distinction between curses that are not sincerely meant and curses that are. The farmer, who in frustration says "the devil take all" when his cart is stuck in the mud, is considered insincere. He is just exclaiming to vent some of his anger and doesn't mean he wants the devil to take his possessions. The widow, however, is sincere when she tells the summoner, "The hairiest, blackest devil out of Hell/Carry you off and take the pan as well!" Therefore, the summoner is sent to Hell. In light of this, Harry Bailey's words to the Summoner in the pilgrim company—"The devil take your soul!"—are humorous because they foreshadow the events of the story and ask readers to consider whether Harry Bailey is sincere or insincere in his curse.

In the Friar's tale of The Canterbury Tales, which character is more dishonest, the summoner or the fiend from Hell? Explain.

Situational irony occurs when it turns out that the summoner, rather than the fiend from Hell, is the more dishonest of the two. While both are in the business of cheating people and own up to the same kinds of schemes, the summoner is ready to use the farmer's careless exclamation "the devil take all." He doesn't care if the man means it or not—he is ready to take advantage of the opportunity. However, the actual devil from Hell draws the line at taking advantage of insincere curses, making him a very small step higher in honesty than the summoner. It is no wonder that the Summoner is so angered by the Friar's story!

How do the summoner in the Friar's tale of The Canterbury Tales and the friar in the Summoner's tale compare?

Each of these two storytellers creates a main character similar to his rival—the Friar tells a story about a summoner and the Summoner chooses a friar. Each main character is designed to put the rival's occupation into the worst possible light. The summoner in the Friar's tale is absolutely dishonest, a man who would cheat a poor farmer out of all of his possessions based on an offhand remark made in anger, a man who would accuse a widow to cheat her out of her money. The friar in the Summoner's tale is equally dishonest, taking money to sing prayers to lessen the suffering of people's souls in Purgatory, making a big show of writing down their names and then immediately erasing them. This friar never has any intention of following through, yet he takes people's money with a smile. Both characters abuse the power afforded by their connection to the church, although they apply slightly different brands of graft. The devious summoner, an employee of the church but not a clergyman, preys on the fear and shame of the people he is supposed to bring before the church court. The seemingly earnest friar preys on people's desire for salvation. Though the two characters are members of different estates, or classes, they are united in their greed and dishonesty.

How is the end of the Summoner's tale of The Canterbury Tales insulting to people of higher class?

The end of the Summoner's story makes those of high estate, such as the lord, squire, and friar, look foolish. It is obvious that Thomas's "contribution" was nothing more than a rude joke, meant to be insulting. But the friar is angry that Thomas has made a contribution that can't be easily divided, even though the friar has promised to do so. The lord is equally puzzled, though less angry. And the squire looks the most foolish of all because he gives this puzzle serious thought and comes up with a logical solution that really makes no sense at all. The lack of common sense in these characters, despite their higher class and better education, is a perfect example of Chaucer's biting satire.

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