Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales may seem like just a story about people telling stories on the surface, but in reality it goes much deeper than that. The Canterbury Tales represent a cross-section of Medieval life, as well as a look at corruption within society. Each story has at least two messages, the point the narrator was trying to make, and the point Chaucer wanted to make, and all throughout there are many underlying themes and messages. One of these themes is the idea that morals in a conventional sense to not apply to the world. In other words, idealistic moral ideas such as chivalry, chastity, and honesty do not apply to the world as it is and in fact sometimes hinder one’s ability to live well. When reading the Canterbury Tales, one must realize that none of the characters really represents Chaucer’s view of the right way to live. Most of them are either too worldly, like the Miller and the Wife of Bath, or too high-minded, like the Knight, the Parson and the Oxford Scholar. This is shown through subtle inconsistencies within the text. Finding these inconsistencies is part of what makes the Canterbury Tales a joy to read.
First, there are parts of each tale that are inherently wrong if the reader were to take conventional morals into account. In some the narrator finds the wrong message from the context of the story, which can be seen in the Knight’s tale as well as the Sea Captain’s tale. In the Knight’s Tale, after all that happens, the message he comes up with is that great gladness will come from great sadness and “there where we find the deepest sorrow, there shall we first of all begin the cure” (Chaucer 78). The Sea Captain never tries to make a message, although at the end of his tale where the moral goes he finds it fitting to say “may He who lives in heaven send us tail in plenty” (Chaucer 158). The Host Sam Bailey also falls short of finding a fitting moral when he says “never ever bring a monk into the house” (Chaucer 159). Some stories, such as the Reeve’s Tale, the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the Clerk’s Tale, and the Sea Captain’s Tale involve immoral acts with no retribution. The Reeve’s Tale involves the two Scholars sleeping with the millers wife and daughter, but they don’t receive any punishment for it and in some ways are rewarded (the miller’s daughter reveals where they can get their stolen flour). (Chaucer 106 - 109) The knight in the Wife of Bath’s Tale rapes a woman, but the instance is quickly forgotten after he is sent on his quest to find what women want (Chaucer 241). The marquis from the Oxford Scholar’s tale treats his wife horridly; (sends away her children, tells her he’s marrying another) the narrator himself says that what the marquis is doing is “ruthless” (Chaucer 300). However, the marquis in the end receives a happy marriage. Finally, in the Sea Captain’s Tale the monk sleeps with his friend’s wife, but he isn’t punished at all. In fact the people that possibly were punished were the merchant and his wife, and all the wife got was a firm scolding and the knowledge she had been duped. (Chaucer 149 -158).
Still other tales are incongruous, such as the Sergeant at Law’s Tale, and the Prioress’s Tale. At the beginning he talks about “hateful poverty, of all evils worst” stating finally that “it’s better to be dead than to be poor” (Chaucer 115-116). However, his story is about a woman who keeps her faith in Christ no matter what. These themes just don’t connect at all. The Prioress, a lady who would “cry if she saw a mouse in a trap” (Chaucer 4) tells a tale of Anti-Semitism, (Chaucer 162) which features a cold telling of countless Jews being tortured and killed (Chaucer 164). In this story, Chaucer is showing that the Prioress is living a double standard.
One of the themes throughout most of the tales is every attempt to do the right thing turns out wrong. In the Knight’s Tale, King Theseus suggests the tournament in order to have a more chivalrous, more ordered fight. (Chaucer 45). He also proclaims that no mortal blow may be struck (Chaucer 65). Does this sound like an ordered tournament?
A fall/ need not be counted, it’s incidental/And to be hauled by main force to the stake/
Unyeilding, captured by a score of knights,/ One man all on his own, and harried so/
Pulled and propelled with arm and foot and toe/ And his horse driven off with stave and cudgel/
By yeomen, men on foot, and boys as well:/There’s nobody would count that as disgrace/
Or who would dare call it cowardice!/It was proclaimed by order of the duke,/
To put a stop to rancor and malice. (Chaucer 69)
Also King Theseus decided to destroy an entire kingdom because some women were complaining about their husbands not receiving a proper burial. (Chaucer 25). The carpenter in the Miller’s tale did everything he could to keep his wife chaste “Jealous was he and kept her closely caged” (Chaucer 82). Yet he still is cuckolded by Nicolas. In the Sea Captain’s Tale, the merchant, who never gives any evidence that he’s immoral, is cheated out of a hundred pounds and cheated by his wife as well. In the Doctor of Medicine’s Tale, the Knight preserves his daughter’s chastity by chopping off her head (Chaucer 392). All of these instances just seem wrong. Seemingly moral acts are twisted around so that they are in fact immoral. In doing this Chaucer shows that trying to act in a moral way doesn’t always receive a just result.
Also, the tales that are the most twisted, and the most incomplete are also the ones which seem to try the hardest to follow conventional morals. The Knight’s Tale is a great example of this. King Theseus, after just winning a war against the Amazons (Chaucer 23), sees a group of women crying on the side of the road. The description the Knight employs to describe them isn’t very flattering either: “But such a cry, such clamouring they made that in this world there is no creature living that ever heard the like of their lamenting.” (Chaucer 24) They claim that their husbands have had improper burial at the hands of King Creon. Well, Theseus upon hearing this decides to wage war on all of Thebes. While in battle he fought valiantly enough against Creon “and killed him, as befits a valiant knight, in fair combat” but after he had won his actions were not very chivalrous. First he “took the town by storm and wall and beam and rafter he tore down.” Then “the pillagers went busily to work… to rummage in the pile of slaughtered men and strip the armour and clothes from them.” So basically after starting a war because some bodies were disrespected after death, he allows pillagers to steal from the dead bodies of the enemies he killed, in effect showing disrespect for the bodies of his enemies. (Chaucer 26) Afterward he finds Palamon and Arcita, and can’t think of anything to do with them, so he throws them in prison with no chance of being let out. (Chaucer 27). Later Palamon and Arcita catch sight of the beautiful Emily and are immediately stricken. They then bicker over who should have her, even though neither has taken into account whether she likes them. Their arguments are pretty childish too. Palamon says “I saw her first” while Arcita says “All’s fair in love in war” (Chaucer 30). Their actions can be compared to the actions of stalkers. They both obsess about Emily to the point where they would do anything to be near her. Arcita, after being released from prison, disguises himself as a lower class person so he can work for his love. (Chaucer 37) Also, neither of them takes into account how Emily feels, choosing to instead fight with each other. Theseus finds them fighting in the forest and decides to hold a tournament for the heart of Emily. Again, Emily’s feelings in the matter aren’t taken into account. (Chaucer 45). Finally, Emily is forced to marry against her will. Palamon loses the battle, and Arcita dies, but everyone is happy, and Palamon and Emily spend the rest of their lives in “wealth and health and happiness” (Chaucer 78). This is of course a fitting ending to this tale.
In the Sergeant of Law’s Tale, Constance is shown as a very faithful person. She’s described as a “most perfect beauty… all arrogance quelled in humility.” However, as she passively goes about her life, people around her are made to suffer, especially the people she converts to Christianity. First a sultan hears about her and decides to convert to Christianity just so he can marry her (but we know he wants more than that). Before he can successfully marry, however, the sultaness decides to kill all the Christians at the party. “The sultan and the Christians, every one, were stabbed and hacked to pieces, all but the Lady Constance, she alone.” So everyone at the party died but Constance by some divine twist of fate (Chaucer 125). Afterward she is put on a boat with limited supplies and floats there for “many a year and a day”, somehow surviving. The narrator notes that this is highly unlikely but offers that Daniel survived a lion somehow. He says that Constance was saved by “no one but God, whom [she] bore in [her] heart” Next she lands in a land near Northumberland, claiming her “wits were so bedevilled by the sea that she lost her memory” but she still remembers her faith in Christ. Somehow in a land where “no Christians dared assemble” Constance is able to convert the governor’s wife to Christianity, (Chaucer 128) as well as the governor himself (Chaucer 129). Then one of the knights of this kingdom decides to frame her for the death of the governors wife, but no one believes him, despite the fact that Constance is holding the knife and was sleeping in the same bed as the governor’s wife, because she is so pure. (Chaucer 130) The knight is then brought to justice by being killed. Next Alla decides to take her as his wife. At this moment is the only time sex is mentioned in the story. “They go to bed as is both meet and right; for although women are most saintly beings, they’ve got to take in patience at night such customary and necessary things.” (Chaucer 133). However, Constance has yet another enemy, again in the form of the king’s mother. She makes the king believe that Constance bore him an evil child and then has Constance exiled. When the king hears what has happened, he decides to torture the messenger until he says what happened, then kill his mother, which is a decision the narrator agrees with. “Thus ended old Donegild and good riddance.” (Chaucer 138) Now Constance is on a boat again. This time she sails for five years when she lands again in a heathen land. Now the castle steward of this land tries to rape her, but “she fought and she struggled desperately and overboard went that scoundrel suddenly” (Chaucer 139) This is significant since this is the first time the narrator has her do anything besides accept her fate passively. This passage gives me the feeling that during the entire story, Constance was doing more than the narrator lets on. Around this time the emperor finds out that the sultaness had massacred the Christians. This is at least seven years after it happened, by the way. So he sends out “his imperative order to exact full and summary vengeance.” His armies then “burned and killed and wasted the Syrians” which took days to accomplish, and decided to return home when they find Constance on a ship. They take her back to her father, but she’s “lost her memory” so she can’t remember him. (Chaucer 140) Then Alla, Constance’s husband invites the senator to dinner and Constance sends her son there. “It’s it was at Constance’s desire the child stood, while the banquet ran it’s course, in front of Alla, gazing at his face.” (Chaucer 142) Constance decides to send her son to the banquet and tells him to stand near Alla over the course of the meal. Alla remembers Constance and finds her at the senator’s house. He then explained everything that happened and that the mother was to blame for Constance’s sorrow. After this Constance conveniently regains her memory and tells her father all that happened. Constance and Alla settle down again for a married life, and live happily ever after, except that Alla dies a year later. This tale has so many plot holes and relies so much on chance, it’s hard to believe. The fact that these two tales are so incomplete despite the best efforts of the tellers shows that Chaucer believes the old standards are lacking. (Chaucer 146)
Tales where the characters follow looser moral standards however, like the Miller’s Tale, and The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and the Pardoner’s Tale, are much more cohesive. The Miller’s Tale especially is an excellent example of how conventional ideals fail to hold up in the real world. When Nicolas woos Alison, he is very straight-forward. “And on the quiet caught her by the cunt and said to her ‘Unless I have my way, sweetheart, for love of you I’ll surely die.” (Chaucer 83) Absolon, on the other hand woos Alison in the traditional way. He makes himself look nice, sends messengers, and serenades her underneath her window. (Chaucer 86) Although he still is trying to woo someone else’s wife, he does so in a more accepted manner. In the end, it’s Nicolas, who sexually assaulted Alison the first time he talks to her, who finally gets her in bed. But in the end everything comes together, Absolon gets to kiss Alison, even though he didn’t get to kiss her where he wanted. Nicolas is burned on the “arse,” the carpenter is ridiculed by all his neighbors, and Alison gets off scot free for not being stupid enough to try the same trick twice. “And that’s how the carpenter’s wife got poked…and Absolon kissed her bottom eye, and Nicholas get a blistered bum (Chaucer 96-98). The only problem with this story that I can find is that Alison didn’t get punished for cheating on her husband, but that’s just one minor detail.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale is also very cohesive, if you ignore the fact that the knight in the story raped a woman and you never see the woman he raped again, but the entire story is cause and effect. He goes on trial, the queen gives him a challenge to find out what women really want, in his quest to find the answer, he meets the ugly hag who tells him the right answer for the price of whatever she may ask in the future. The request she makes is marriage. He agrees to marry her. She argues that having an ugly wife isn’t that bad, but gives him the choice of having a beautiful, unfaithful wife or an ugly faithful one. He can’t decide, lets her, and gets the best of both worlds (a beautiful and faithful wife). Another great point in this story is that it’s focused and never loses track of what it’s trying to say, mainly that women should be in control of men, which is a very progressive and unconventional view. This is shown in many instances. Queen Guinevere gives him the challenge and decides his fate. The hag gives him the answer, and when he lets her decide what she will be the dialogue shows that the female has gained control of the relationship: “‘Then I’ve the mastery over you’ said she ‘since I may choose and decide as I wish?’ ‘Yes certainly’ said he, ‘I think it best.’” Since it never loses track of its goal and is easy to follow, the Wife of Bath’s tale holds together really well.
The Pardoner had got to be the most interesting character in the Canterbury Tales. He sins openly and even admits that he enjoys it. He preaches against the very sin he’s most guilty of: “Thus I know how to preach against the vice which masters me- and that is avarice. Though I myself am guilty of the sin” and he revels in the irony of his preaching: “I only preach of avarice and the like and in this way induce them to be free in giving cash-especially to me.” The Pardoner also has the tale which best fits the character in the entire book. This tale, although extremely simple on the surface, is very complex in the different layers of meanings it has. The Pardoner’s speech before the tale begins almost nullifies the message behind his story, but not quite. The tale itself is a huge didactic against various sins, such as drinking (”lechery springs from wine and drunkedness” (Chaucer 398)), gluttony (”o if men only knew how many a malady proceeds from gluttony and from excess” (Chaucer 399)), and of course greed. The story tells of three revelers who had too much to drink and decide to hunt for death. On the way they come across an old man “wrapped up and muffled to the eyes” (Chaucer 404) The old man tells them that he can’t die. He tells them that Death can be found “in a grove under a tree… see that oak there? Right underneath you’ll find Death.” However, instead of death, the three men find “gold florins, newly minted, fine and round, and near eight bushels of them” Of course after they saw this, they quickly forgot about Death (Chaucer 405). In the end, their greed leads them to murder, and they kill each other off. (Chaucer 407). It is interesting to note that although the Pardoner is the basest character of the Canterbury Tales, his tale is the best mix of both high-minded moral ideals and knowledge of worldly ways. The Pardoner is the bridge between moral living and worldly ways, since he understands both. However, he seems to prefer one over the other. What Chaucer is trying to say through this character is that if conventional morals applied to this world, the Pardoner wouldn’t be as successful as he is at what he does.
If that isn’t enough to convince that conventional and living purely through traditional methods are seen by Chaucer as outdated, then the Parson should be enough to show otherwise. The Parson in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is the ultimate priest in terms of traditional standards. “He was the needy priest of a village, but rich enough in saintly though and work and educated too, for he could read”; “For unpaid tithes, he’d not excommunicate, for he would rather give… from his own pocket to the parish poor”; “He practiced first what later he would teach”; “You’d never find a better priest, I swear” (Chaucer 13-14). However when the host first asks him to tell a tale, the Parson answers with “Bless us! What ails the man to swear so wickedly?” at which the host ridicules him. “The next thing we’ll be getting is a sermon. This Lollard here is going to preach a bit.” Chaucer with that small scene shows that people like the Parson don’t have as much of an influence over as they thought they did. The inconsistencies within the stories and the fact that almost all the characters are indulging in one vice or another gives the feeling that an ideal world will never happen. In the end Chaucer uses the Canterbury tales to suggest that the human race needs to rethink their moral code.