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The Canterbury Tales | Study Guide

Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Canterbury Tales | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


What spiritual lesson is the company told to learn from the Clerk's tale of The Canterbury Tales? Is it convincing?

At the end of the Clerk's story, he interprets it for the pilgrim company so they do not take away from his tale the wrong lesson. He says it would be wrong for wives to attempt to be like Griselda as she relates to her husband. In fact, he says this would be "unendurable." Rather, all people should try to be more like Griselda in their relationship with God to whom obedience should be complete no matter what happens. Each one should strive to be "as perfect in his constancy" as Griselda, taking "in patience all that God may do." The lesson is not entirely convincing because Griselda's treatment at the hands of her husband has been so grossly unfair. Chaucer seems to leave the real moral of the story up to the interpretation of the reader.

In the Merchant's tale of The Canterbury Tales, how does Justinus's advice about choosing a wife foreshadow plot events?

Justinus advises January to find a wife who is "discreet" and "sober" and who is not "extravagant," "too poor" or "too rich." He also tells him to be careful of getting a young, pretty wife because it will be too much work to keep her faithful. This foreshadows the rest of the events: January scoffs at this advice and is "caught" by May's "fresh beauty and her age so tender," the exact qualities Justinus warned him against. In fact, January does have trouble keeping May from straying with other men, even though he "laboured till the break of day" on several occasions.

How is the Squire's tale of The Canterbury Tales similar to Harry Bailey's storytelling game?

Originally Harry Bailey's storytelling game plan was to have each pilgrim tell one story on the way to Canterbury and one on the way back, for a total of four stories each. After the Squire tells his story, Harry Bailey seems to change the terms of the game, saying that "each must tell a tale or two at least" in the game. He seems to think that his original plan was too ambitious. The Squire's tale is too ambitious as well. The end of Part II of the Squire's story is simply an outline of all the things he has yet to tell, and it is a long list. Then Part III opens with the soaring "Apollo whirled his chariot on high/Up through the house of Mercury, the sly" before the Squire is cut off by the Franklin. Like the storytelling game, the Squire's grand plan is never finished.

According to the Franklin in The Canterbury Tales, how are mastery and love related?

According to the Franklin, mastery and love are not compatible with one another; a husband (or wife) can't have both in a marriage. He says that lovers must obey each other because love "will not be constrained by mastery." He goes on to say that, as soon as mastery enters the picture, "the god of love ... Stretches his wings" and flies away. Arvéragus and Dorigen are the example of true love in the Franklin's tale, and they each pledge to obey the other: He says he will obey her "in simple trust," and she then promises to be a "true and humble wife."

In the Second Nun's tale of The Canterbury Tales, what is Cecilia's attitude when she is brought before Almachius? How does she compare with other virtuous women in the Tales?

Cecilia is completely unafraid of Almachius, even though he has killed several of her friends and fellow Christians already. She responds to his first questions by assertively stating, "You have begun your questions foolishly," then proceeding to point out flaws in his logic. Later she even laughs at him. Her attitude is due to her complete lack of fear. She does not consider Almachius powerful because he is just a man and "power of mortal man is soon discerned/To be a bladder full of wind." While Almachius keeps insisting on his power over her, she knows that he only has power over her physical self. She also believes that what he is doing is ridiculous—killing people just for being Christians, not for any actual crime, and asking the innocent to sin by denying their faith. Of all the pilgrims' tales of virtuous women, only Cecilia's is told by a female pilgrim. Tellingly, Cecilia is far more assertive and independent than her counterparts. Griselda is virtuous and passive, as is Constance, while Dorigen is humble and loving.

Which two characters join the pilgrim company on the road in The Canterbury Tales? What is their stated motive for joining? Is it believable?

As the pilgrim company continues its path to Canterbury, two new characters come galloping up, sweating and breathing hard. They tell the company that they have ridden hard to catch up, having noticed them at the Tabard Inn and thinking what a "happy crowd" they were and how pleasant it would be to ride "in company." The Canon and his Yeoman are very complimentary and jolly and admit no motive other than a desire for friendly companionship on the road. However, as the Yeoman talks about his master and his dishonest enterprises begin to be revealed, the Canon leaves quickly. This strange behavior makes it seem that the Canon noticed the company at the inn, decided they looked like easy marks, and waited for a chance to intersect with them to swindle them with a con like the one in "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale." When his Yeoman gives the company reason to distrust him, he runs away as if guilty.

How is the theme of social class developed in the Manciple's tale of The Canterbury Tales?

In the Manciple's tale, Phoebus and his wife are of the highest social class. Yet his wife takes a lover that is "one of the lowest creatures/Beneath him and of little reputation,/Worth nothing next to a man of Phoebus' station." This prompts the Manciple to discuss the way that social class influences the way a person's actions are judged. For example, he says that, if a high-class wife cheats on her husband with a man of lower rank than she, she is called his "lady-love." If she is of a lower social class, however, and commits adultery, she is called a "whore" or "wench." In the same way, he argues, a tyrant and an outlaw are really the same except for their social class. A tyrant can kill and destroy and is called a captain, but an outlaw does similar actions (and, of course, the harm he can do pales in comparison with the harm a tyrant can do) and is called a thief.

In the Manciple's tale of The Canterbury Tales, how is the Manciple's mother's advice an example of dramatic irony?

The Manciple tells the company that his mother said "restrain your tongue in self-denial/On all occasions" and "fashion nothing new/By way of tidings, whether false or true." This lengthy bit of advice is an example of dramatic irony because the readers know something that the characters in the story do not. Readers know that Chaucer the writer has written thousands of words and that his characters have spoken them over the course of the pilgrimage. Both false and true things have been said, and tongues have not been restrained. He also tells the company that his mother said to "hold your tongue and hold your friends," which creates verbal irony given the fact that the entire company has been part of a game of narrative. In fact, the company was formed on the basis of storytelling, if one considers the addition of Harry Bailey to the company. While some of the pilgrims have been angered by each other's stories, overall the company seems to have a friendly mood based on all the talking.

How is the Parson's tale of The Canterbury Tales related to Chaucer's retraction of his work?

Chaucer's retraction directly follows the Parson's tale, and this placement does not seem coincidental. The Parson's story is really a sermon about the importance and process of penitence. He points out that the Apostle Paul "reproves all those who waive aside the truth/For fables that are wretched and uncouth." Then he tells the pilgrims how to regret and confess their sins, amend their lives, and so gain forgiveness. Chaucer included stories that might seem "uncouth" and "wretched" in The Canterbury Tales. Therefore, it makes sense that a retraction of those tales follows the Parson's admonition. Chaucer's retraction also follows the model of a devout confession and prayer for forgiveness.

What is Chaucer's attitude toward the Parson in The Canterbury Tales? How do the pilgrims, Harry Bailey, and Chaucer himself contribute to this tone?

There is no hint of satire in the way the Parson is described in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, in which he is accounted as a "benign" and "intelligent" man who does his job perfectly—preaching the Gospel, visiting the sick, helping the poor, and so on. Similarly, when the Parson is called on to take his turn and says he will not tell a story but will focus on "virtuous matter, moral teaching," the company unanimously agrees to hear him. He "gained assent from everyone" because this is exactly what they all feel is appropriate for the pilgrimage. The Host also encourages him in the most sincere manner: "And may God send you grace to do it well!/Say what you please; you will be gladly heard." From the way Chaucer, Harry Bailey, and the pilgrims describe and respond to the Parson, the attitude is clearly one of admiration and respect.

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