One of the most famous fourteenth-century English texts, and Geoffrey Chaucer’s greatest works, is “The Canterbury Tales”. It is a complex work where thematic choices are seen in concrete layers. Chaucer’s analyzes corruption in the church and politics, the role and position of women in medieval times and marriage, and gives an allegorical interpretation of the way of life. However, the most important thematic layer is the frame work of a story within a story. The religious pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral with twenty nine pilgrims and the portrayal of them by the narrator is the outer frame work of the story. The inner story built from each character’s tale, telling two stories on the way and two on the way back, gives pith and substance to the inside. During the Medieval Era, with the birth of a new spring, people set out on pilgrimages as a time of spiritual renewal and rededication. Chaucer’s “General Prologue” places readers in that moment, as twenty-nine pilgrims gather for a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral for the memorial shrine of Thomas Beckett. The pilgrims meet in a south London neighborhood called Southwerk at the Tabard Inn. Here at the inn is where the proposal is made by the host for each pilgrim to tell stories during the trip to help kill the time. When the pilgrims return the host would judge who had the best stories and that person would win supper paid by the others. The host’s proposal sets the frame for the inner story. The “General Prologue ”also introduces us to each of the characters individually and where each of them fits in the three social estates present during the Medieval era. Aristocracy, at the top, is represented only by the Knight. The Knight is depicted as virtuous and fights for honor but later we find that he may be a mercenary knight who will fight for whoever pays him. Clergy represents the middle estate. There are many clergymen on the trip, most of whom are corrupt in one way of another, such as the Monk, the Friar, the Prioresse and the Pardoner. The Pardoner who is supposed to lead a life of holiness tricks the uneducated out of money by giving them false pardons. The lowest estate is made of the commoners. Commoners on the trip are the Miller, the Cook, the Haberdasher, and the Wife of Bath. The Wife of Bath is a flamboyant, loud, domineering wife. Also, the Miller is crude, loud and talks a lot.
Once the pilgrims are on path to Canterbury they each take a turn giving their tale, thus beginning the inner frame of stories. The Knight’s Tale is about love and courage. He tells of two men who fight for the love of one woman. The Miller’s tale is about adultery in marriage. He tells of an older man who is married to a younger woman. She cheats and makes a fool of him only for her and her lover to be made a fool of in the end. The Wife of Bath tells of female dominance in marriage. A man marries an older woman to save his life only to find out she is young a beautiful. This then gives her control over him. The Pardoner tells a tale about greed. Greed causes a trio of men to kill each other over money.
Each tale from the characters in the inner frame reverts back to the outer frame and what we already know about them. The Knight’s tale represents his competitive lifestyle. The Miller’s tale, who we know as loud and crude, gives us an expected tale of a bawdy cheating wife. The Wife of Bath gives a predictable tale of a woman having control over her husband. And, the Pardoner, whose greed corrupts him, give a tale of greed and murder. Without the outer frame work of the “General Prologue” the connections between the characters and their stories would not be made. The tales, mostly, are matched to the characters who express them. For each one Chaucer styles a quality that is anticipated.
When it comes to Chaucer’s “General Prologue” the layering of its many themes is the strategy for interpretation. The “General Prologue” is not like the normal introduction of a book that most readers over look. It has a highly refined structure. It is a major part of Chaucer’s work and is as equally important to each character’s tale. It introduces us to the period and each pilgrim on the trip to Canterbury Cathedral. It builds a solid frame to hold the colorful stories from each character. Each story gives us a little deeper look into the lives and character of each narrator. It is by this that the reader moves through the work, from the introduction to the most particular details about each individual, and then connect their stories with them.