Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer|
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FREE BOOKNOTES: THE CANTERBURY TALES
SHORT PLOT SUMMARY (Synopsis)
The Canterbury Tales consists
of the stories related by the 29 pilgrims on their way to Saint Thomas Becket’s
shrine in Canterbury. Harry Bailey, the Host, had proposed a scheme in the General
Prologue whereby each pilgrim was to narrate two tales on the way to Canterbury
and two more while returning. In the course of the journey the Canon and his Yeoman
join the pilgrims. However The Canterbury Tales are incomplete. There should
have been a hundred and twenty tales in all according to the original plan but
Chaucer only completed twenty-three tales. Out of these, the Cook’s and the Squire’s
tales are unfinished. Two tales are imperfectly attributed to the teller: the
Sea captain’s tale begins as though a woman were telling it and was actually earlier
meant for the Wife of Bath, while the Second Nun refers to herself as an "unworthy
son of Eve". The Knight tells the first tale.
The Knight’s Tale describes how two kinsmen Arcite and Palamon
fall in love with the same woman named Emily whom they first see out of
their prison window. Emily is the niece of King Theseus. Arcite gains
his freedom but is banished from Athens. He comes back in a disguise since
he cannot bear to live away from Emily. In the meanwhile Palamon breaks
out of prison and coincidentally meets Arcite in a forest grove. Here
Theseus discovers them fighting a bloody duel. Theseus puts an end to
their fight and organizes a contest to resolve their quarrel about Emily.
Before the contest Arcite prays to Mars for victory while Palamon prays
to Venus for the sole possession of Emily. This creates uproar in heaven
and finally both the wishes are granted. Arcite emerges victorious in
the joust but falls from his horse and dies and eventually Palamon marries
The Miller’s Tale relates how Old John, an Oxford carpenter,
was deceived by a clerk named Nicholas. That is, he had an affair with
the carpenter’s wife. Nicholas deceives the carpenter into believing that
Noah’s flood is about to recur and makes him hang three tubs from the
ceiling to escape the deluge. The carpenter sleeps fitfully in one tub
while his wife Alison spends the night with Nicholas. The young parish
clerk Absolon who is also trying to woo Alison arrives beneath her bedroom
window only to be humiliated. When Absolon desperately begs Alison for
a kiss she thrusts her posterior out of the window. He is angry and returns
to take revenge. But now Nicholas extends his backside out of the window
and Absolon brands him with a red-hot iron. Nicholas’s screams wakes the
carpenter who cuts the cord and plunges down breaking his arm.
The Reeve’s Tale continues in the bawdy vein and repays the Miller
for his sarcastic depiction of a carpenter. It describes how two clerks
named John and Alan, whose flour had been stolen, cheat a flour miller.
While Alan sleeps with the miller’s daughter, John moves the baby’s cot
near his bed so that the miller’s wife gets into it mistaking it for her
husband’s. At dawn Alan goes to the miller’s bed and thinking that John
is in it boasts about how he has had theter that night. The miller is
furious to hear this and starts cursing. The miller’s wife, thinking that
she is in bed with her husband strikes the miller mistaking him for one
of the clerks. The clerks then escape with their flour that has been baked
into a cake.
The Cook’s Tale is an unfinished fragment and deals with the
story of an apprentice cook named Perkin who loses his job because of
his loose habits. The dismissal however has no effect on Perkin and he
moves in with a like-minded friend whose wife is a prostitute.
The Sergeant at Law’s Tale relates the tragic story of Constance
who gets married to a Syrian Sultan after he converts to Christianity.
However the Sultan’s evil mother is outraged at his renunciation of the
Muslim faith and plots to kill all the Christians in Syria along with
the Sultan. She then sets the widowed Constance adrift in a boat. Constance
finally lands in Northumberland and starts living with the governor and
his wife. She converts her heathen hosts to Christianity and miraculously
cures a blind man. Satan makes a young Knight fall in love with her but
she rejects him. Seething with the desire to take revenge the Knight murders
the governor’s wife and hides the blood stained knife in Constance’s bed
to implicate her. Constance is produced in court before King Alla and
a mysterious voice condemns the Knight when he falsely testifies against
Constance. The Knight is killed and Constance marries the king. She gives
birth to a baby boy while the king is away on a Scottish expedition. However
Donegild, the King’s malicious mother interferes with the messages with
the result that Constance is once again set adrift along with her newly
born son. When the king returns and realizes the truth he kills his mother.
Constance eventually arrives with her son in Rome and lives with a senator
and his wife. She is finally reunited with King Alla when the latter comes
on a pilgrimage to Rome.
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 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
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
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
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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