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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 Emily.

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 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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