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The Use of Irony in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales"

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The Use of Irony in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales"

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  • Jan. 6, 2002
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Irony is the general name given to literary techniques that involve surprising, interesting, or amusing contradictions. Two stories from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales that serve as excellent demonstrations of irony are "The Pardoners Tale" and "The Nun's Priest's Tale." Although these two stories are very different, they both use irony to teach a lesson.

In "The Pardoner's Tale, the Pardoner uses his story to speak out against many social problems, all of which he is guilty of. He preaches about drunkenness, while he is intoxicated while telling the story. Blasphemy and greed are other problems he speaks of. Ironically, he attempts to sell fake religious relics and is amazingly greedy. Yet there are also many ironic situations in the story itself. In the beginning of the story, the three rioters make a pact to "be brothers," "to each defend the others," and "to live and die for one another" in protection from death. In going out to fulfill their vows, they encounter money and end up killing each other over greed. After finding the money, the men plan to stay with it until it becomes dark when they can safely take it away. To tide themselves over until then, they send the youngest one out to get food and wine, and while he is away they plan to kill for his share of the money. Ironically, the youngest one is planning the same thing by slipping poison into the drinks of his companions. When he returns, he is attacked and stabbed to death by the other men. The remaining men drink to his death and their newfound fortune and as a result of the poison and, theoretically, their greed, they die as well.

"The Nun's Priest's Tale" is also filled with irony, the most obvious of which is the characters themselves. The story begins by the telling of an old woman who owns several farm animals, but while the woman is described as "a poor old widow" who "led a patient, simple life," the animals are described as royalty. For example, the animals had regal names and...