Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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"The Canterbury Tales" has several overlapping themes, which not only enrich the book’s texture but also lend it some kind of coherence and unity. Most of these themes are abstract and cannot be stated as singular propositions. Nearly all the subjects of Chaucer’s most serious contemplation can be found in his magnificent epic. The major themes are: critique of the church, the problem of predestination and foreknowledge, themes of the inherent corruptness of human nature and decline of moral values, the problem of the position of women and marriage relationships, themes of honor and truth, and themes of Christian virtue and chivalry.


The prevailing mood of "The Canterbury Tales" is obviously that of comedy. The most prominent aspect of the book is the amazing magnitude of the range of its representation of medieval society. The poem aims at wholeness and presents an amalgam of all the themes and conventions of contemporary medieval literature. The tales thus range from courtly romance (Knight’s Tale, Sergeant at Law’s Tale, Squire’s Tale), Breton Lay (Franklin’s Tale), Fabliaux (Miller’s Tale, Reeve’s Tale, Merchant’s Tale), Saint’s Legend (Second Nun’s Tale), tragedy (Monk’s Tale), exemplum (Pardoner’s Tale), sermon (Parson’s Tale, Tale of Melibee), to a beast fable (Nun's Priest’s Tale). As such the poem has a wide range of tone and mood. The "General Prologue" serves as a kind of sample of what will follow. The serious ideals of chivalry, religion, and agricultural labor which operate in the portraits of the Knight, Parson and Plowman, provide a sober and solemn tone, while the comic, ironic and satiric portraits of the Prioress, Monk, Merchant, and others provide the predominant comic tone. There are frequent abrupt shifts of mood and tone from the ludicrous to the sublime, from a note of sincere appraisal to outright mockery, from scathing criticism of social corruption and moral depravity to light-hearted gibes at a certain innocuous inanity. This contributes to the charm and humor of the work. The main body of the tales also operates on a similar principle. Serious, grave and sober tales are offset by comic ones.

Geoffrey Chaucer - BIOGRAPHY

A Short List of the Principal Dates in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Life

There is a controversy regarding the exact year in which Chaucer was born. The only source of information of his life is primarily the records pertaining to his career as a courtier and a civil servant. In 1386 when testifying at a trial Chaucer declared that he was around forty years or more. Accordingly his year of birth can be placed anywhere between 1340 to 1345.

• 1340 - 1345 Chaucer was born in London, in the Vintry.

• 1357 Page to the Countess of Ulster.

• 1359 Taken captive while on a military expedition to France.

• 1360 Released on ransom and returned to England.

• 1366 Married Philippa Roet, a Lady in waiting to the queen.

• 1367 Served Edward III as a Valet.

• 1368 Went abroad as a Diplomat.

• 1369 Sent to Italy to negotiate a commercial treaty.

• 1374 Becomes Controller of Customs at the Port of London.

• 1378 Sent to Italy as a diplomat.

• 1379 Became Controller of Petty Customs, London.

• 1380 Became Justice of Peace for Kent.

• 1381 Became Knight of the Shire for Kent.

• 1382 Chaucer’s wife Philippa Roet died.

• 1384 Started receiving pension from Richard II due to strained financial conditions.

• 1385 Granted an annual hogshead of wine from the King.

• 1386 Pension increased by Henry IV.

• 1389 Became Clerk of the King’s Works.

• 1400 Died on October 25 and buried in the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

A Brief Look at the Chief Works of Geoffrey Chaucer

1. Early Works :

2. Middle Works:

3. Late Works:

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