Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer|
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The Wife of Bath’s Tale is preceded by a Prologue in which she gives an account of her colorful life with five husbands. Her tale continues the theme of women’s desire for mastery over men. A young Knight rapes a country maiden while returning home. As a punishment for his heinous act he has to discover within a year what women most desire. The Knight unsuccessfully wanders in the entire country in search of the answer. Eventually he promises to grant a wish to an ugly old hag in return for the right answer. When he has given the answer in court and secured his liberty, the old croon jumps up and demands that he marry her. The Knight begs her to reconsider and wish for something else but the old hag stubbornly refuses. The Knight marries her secretly. At night as they lie in bed, the Knight keeps on tossing and turning restlessly. The old hag asks him if he would prefer her ugly and faithful or beautiful and faithless. The Knight allows her to decide. The old woman is delighted to have won ‘maistrie’ over her husband and rewards him by becoming faithful and beautiful all the time.
The who enters into a partnership with a fiend disguised as a bailiff and agrees to work with him even Friar’s Tale is targeted against the Summoner. It relates the story of a corrupt Summoner after learning his true identity. They see a farmer whose cart is stuck in the mud cursing that the devil takes his horses along with the cart. However the fiend refuses to take them because the curse is insincere. The Summoner then tries to cheat an old woman by levying false charges against her. The poor woman then sincerely wishes that the Summoner is damned and the fiend carts him off to hell.
The Summoner’s Tale repays the Friar for his tale about the corrupt Summoner. The Summoner relates a story about a corrupt mendicant Friar. One day the Friar asks a dissatisfied and angry parishioner for more donations. The Friar then preaches against anger. The parishioner then slyly agrees to donate something if the Friar promised to divide it equally among all the twelve members of his chapter and tricks him into accepting a fart. The angry Friar wends his way to a landlord’s house and describes his predicament. The lord’s Squire, Jankin, explains that the fart nay indeed be divided among the members of the chapter by seating the twelve Friars around a cartwheel with their noses at the end of a spoke and letting off the fart from the center. Everybody except the Friar applauds the solution and Jankin is rewarded with a new coat.
The Clerk’s Tale is a rendition of the patient and long-suffering Griselda folk - tale. Griselda’s husband inhumanly subjects her to various cruelties simply to test the extent of her patience and love. These cruelties include the pretended murder of her children and his intended divorce and remarriage. Griselda silently bears one ordeal after another till her husband can bear the deception no longer and reveals everything. Her children are finally united with her and her husband once again her is wife.
The Merchant’s Tale recounts how old January marries a young maiden named May and is deceived by Damian. January suddenly loses his vision and becomes intensely jealous and possessive of his young wife. He is unaware of his wife’s affair with Damian. One day January and May go for a walk in the garden and May asks him to help her up into a pear tree to pick pears to satisfy her intense craving. Damian is hiding in the tree and they make love. Pluto who disapproves of women’s fickleness restores at this point January’s sight. However Prosperina, Pluto’s wife, gives May the ability to convince January that she was only struggling with Damian and had done so only because she had been led to believe that it would restore January’s sight.
The Squire’s Tale is an unfinished fragment. King Cambyuskan receives a magic horse, sword, mirror and ring as gifts from the king of Araby and India. The horse has the ability to transport a man anywhere he wants to go in a flash. The sword could magically cut through the thickest armor and even heal wounds. The mirror can reveal future misfortunes and tragedies and the ring imparts to its wearer the power to understand the speech of birds. The king’s daughter wears the ring and hears a falcon miserably lamenting her betrayal by her fickle lover. She takes the poor falcon to court and nurses its self-inflicted wounds.
The Franklin’s Tale recounts the story of Dorigen who is courted by Aurelius during her husband, Arveragus’, absence. She rejects his love and kiddingly says that he can have her if he can make all the rocks from the coastline vanish and thus make her husband’s return safe. In the meanwhile Arveragus returns from his trip and Dorigen is happily reunited with her husband. But Aurelius who still pines for her enlists the help of a magician and makes the rocks disappear. Dorigen is distraught when her condition has been met. Her husband insists that she must honor her promise. Arveragus’s nobility and Dorigen’s commitment to her husband move Aurelius. He releases Dorigen from her promise. Aurelius discovers that he does not have money to pay the magician and requests for more time. Upon learning the entire story the magician foregoes his fees and the tale ends with the Franklin’s appeal to the pilgrims to judge who is the most generous character.
The Physician’s Tale describes a tragic tale of a beautiful and chaste maiden named Virginia. A corrupt judge named Apius lusts after her and invents a charge of kidnapping to force her father to relinquish the young girl to the scoundrel Claudius who is in league with the judge. However the father beheads Virginia in order to protect her honor and virginity and gives the head to Apius. In the meanwhile the town folk discover the fraudulent charge and throw Apius into prison where he kills himself. The rascal Claudius is exiled.
The Pardoner’s Tale relates how three drunken men set out in search of death after their friend has been killed by the plague. On their way they encounter an extremely old man who directs them to an oak tree at the end of the lane and tells them that he had last seen death there. The men hurry to the spot and instead find eight bushels of gold. They decide to keep the treasure for themselves. However they grow greedy and kill themselves through trickery.
The Sea captain’s Tale recounts how a Monk deceived a Merchant. The Merchant’s wife borrows a hundred francs from the Monk and agrees to sleep with him in exchange of his favor. The Monk in turn has borrowed the money from the Merchant. When the Merchant returns from his trip the Monk tells him that he had returned the money to his wife while he was away. The Merchant asks his wife about the money who informs him that she spent it on clothes.
The Prioress’s Tale is a dedication to the Virgin and describes how the Jews murdered a Christian boy. The Virgin gives the dead boy the power of speech. He is thus able to reveal his whereabouts and avenge his death.
Sir Topas’ Tale is the 1st story related by Chaucer. It tells of a young Knight named Sir Topas who rides in search of an elf queen. On reaching fairyland he encounters a giant. He promises to engage in a duel and returns to his land. Chaucer then describes the preparation for the duel in great detail. The Host however interrupts the tale and tells Chaucer to narrate some sensible story.
Chaucer then relates the Tale of Melibee. Melibee’s enemies attack his house and his daughter is injured. But his wife, Dame Prudence persuades him to banish all thoughts of revenge and to forgive his enemies.
The Monk’s Tale comprises of a series of tragedies. The Knight who can no longer bear the tediously dismal stories interrupts the Monk.
The Nun's Priest’s Tale is a merry beast fable. It concerns the misfortune that befalls a cock named Chaunticleer when he chooses to ignore the import of his dream to please his lovely wife Pertelote. A fox called Daun Russel catches him off guard by praising his melodious voice. Chaunticleer’s abduction raises a great hue and cry and all the villagers chase the fox. Chaunticleer urges the fox to shout abuses at the villagers. As soon as the fox opens his mouth Chaunticleer flew safely to a tree top. The fox again praised Chaunticleer but the cock refused to fall in the same trap twice.
The Second Nun’s Tale invokes the Virgin Mary. It relates how a virgin maiden named Cecilia converted her husband and his brother to Christianity. They were soon prosecuted for this act but they refused to worship the pagan gods. In the meanwhile Cecilia managed to convert even some of their prosecutors. She was eventually murdered.
The Canon's Yeoman’s Tale deals with his own experiences during the practice of alchemy. The tale recounts how a Canon duped a priest into believing that he could transform mercury into silver and sold him the fake formula for forty pounds.
The Manciple’s Tale recounts the story of Phoebus who had a white crow that could sing and talk. While Phoebus is away on a trip his wife sleeps with her secret lover. The crow betrays the secret. Phoebus kills his wife. He is then overcome with sorrow and angrily spurns the crow. He plucks out its feathers and replaces it with black ones and curses that all its descendants shall have a coarse voice.
The Parson’s Tale is the concluding tale. It is a very long prose sermon on the seven deadly sins.
The Canterbury Tales
ends with Chaucer’s Retracciouns where he renounces all his secular works including
those tales of Canterbury that are immoral.
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