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The Canterbury Tales | Themes

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Love, Sex, and Fellowship

Throughout the frame story, character prologues, and tales, Chaucer explores human relationships. The tales discuss brotherly love and the betrayal of it, as well as the partnerships among thieves and rogues. The camaraderie and fellowship of the pilgrim company set the tone of the frame story. Most pilgrims complete their tales by directly addressing the listening company; in more than one case, a story creates friction between pilgrims.

Male-female relationships feature prominently in The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer lived in a time when men held all political and religious power but women retained some financial power. For example, a woman could inherit her husband's wealth after he died—a custom that evidently benefited the Wife of Bath several times over. Women had the power of sex, as so many of the tales vividly illustrate. Sex within marriage, as well as outside of it, is a topic of several stories, with examples of both faithful and unfaithful wives and an ample dose of sexual trickery and bed hopping. Women also appear to have power in the realm of courtly love, as illustrated by the Knight's tale. The courtly love tradition began in 11th-century France and soon spread throughout Europe. In this tradition a young aristocrat would (through secret signs) declare himself smitten by and pledge himself to a seemingly unattainable woman. This woman would thus have power over her lover—as long as she remained out of reach, of course. Chaucer both invokes and subverts all of these types of male-female relationships in the The Canterbury Tales through the pilgrims themselves and the tales they tell.

Social Class

The diverse social classes of the pilgrims are an important part of the Prologue. As Chaucer describes the pilgrims, he gives their occupations, and many are never known beyond these designations. At the time Chaucer wrote the tales, society was moving from the estate system to a system that included a growing middle class. There are pilgrims from every class in the company—both traditional and emerging. The stereotypes about these classes and the conflicts between them emerge in the frame story and in the individual tales. Morality is still connected with the first estate: the only member of the nobility, the Knight, is treated as an honest and upright person, as is the poorest member of the clergy, the Parson. Yet not all members of the first estate meet this high moral standard, as the Friar and the Pardoner illustrate.

Story and Storyteller

The connection between story and storyteller is a crucial part of what makes The Canterbury Tales unique. The layer upon layer of storytelling involved is staggering and often hilarious. Geoffrey Chaucer is the author, yet Chaucer the pilgrim is the narrator, and while Geoffrey Chaucer's tales are excellent examples of narrative and poetry, Chaucer the pilgrim's poetry fails to satisfy, and his narrative is long and tedious. Most of the storytellers tell tales that match their personality or social status in some way. For example, the Second Nun tells a story about a virgin martyr; the Knight tells a romantic tale of love and battle; and the Wife of Bath, who has been married five times, tells a story about what women want.

The connection between storyteller and audience are also important in the Tales, as the occasional angry eruptions or approving responses indicate. These responses between pilgrims stand in for the real audience that Chaucer lacked but may have imagined. Although he wrote his tales in the common tongue of his fellow citizens, the day when the printing press would let his stories be widely distributed had not yet dawned. The pilgrims' responses also allow Chaucer to provide a running commentary—a sort of Greek chorus—about each tale as it is told. Not all tales have a response, however. Chaucer's intended order of the tales is uncertain, and interpretations of the interactions between tellers and tales have differed over the years.

Rivalry

The theme of rivalry is introduced by the storytelling competition, but this game is just one example of many rivalries in The Canterbury Tales. There are rivals in love, fighting for the same woman; storytellers who try to get back at or outdo one another in insults; and rivals in trickery who try to outsmart one another with their tricks. Although Harry Bailey intends the storytelling game to be friendly, many of the rivalries seem to bring out the worst in people. In the Knight's Tale, Palamon and Arcita, in competition for Emily, give up their bond of brotherhood and engage in violence as a result of their rivalry. Similarly, the rivalry between young and old men that is a feature of several tales comes to no good, and the rivalry between some members of the company—such as the Miller and the Reeve—threatens the jolly mood of the pilgrims.

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