Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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The Parsonís Tale: Prologue

By the time the Mancipleís tale had ended it was already afternoon and the pilgrims were entering a village. The Host then calls upon the Parson to tell a lively story since he was the only person left who hadnít told a tale. But the Parson tartly replies that the Host wouldnít get any stories out of him since St. Paul reproved of romances, fables and similar ideas. He could only provide them with a moral and edifying homily. He also says that he canít rhyme and alliterate and would tell a pleasing thing in prose and promises that he will guide them on their glorious pilgrimage to the Celestial City of Jerusalem. The pilgrims agree to hear the Parson and the Host bids him to hurry up with his homily since the sun would soon set.

The Parsonís Tale


The Parsonís Tale starts by defining (as the Parson had promised in the Prologue to his tale) "the right way to Jerusalem the Celestial". The Parson states that God is loving and merciful and does not wish the damnation of any man. The proper way to gain admittance into the celestial city is by contrition or repentance for oneís sins and a determination to lead a good life. The first cause of contrition is the sorrowful remembrance of oneís sins. The Parson adds later in the tale that another cause of contrition is the sorrowful remembrance of the good that one has left undone on earth. The Pardoner then launches into a long sermon about the Seven Deadly Sins of Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, and Lechery. The Parson says that repentance for oneís sins may be made through voluntary confessions and also by giving charity and fasting. The Parson ends his tale with a reminder that no matter how long a person has lived his life in sin the mercy of God is always ready to receive him. Thus a sinner can attain salvation and divine bliss through the love and grace of God.


The Parsonís Tale is the longest one in the poem. It is written in prose. In fact it isnít a tale but a sermon on penance and a long treatise on the seven deadly sins. It is far from a pleasing thing that the Parson promised in his Prologue. The repentance theme is taken up again by Chaucerís ĎRetracciounsí. The source for the Parsonís tale is attributed to two thirteenth century religious tracts namely:
1) De Poenitentia by Raymond de Pennaforte, and 2) Summa de Vitiis by Guilielmus Peraldus.

The Parsonís Tale is in contrast with all the tales. It is a treatise on sin and repentance and shows the pilgrims the right way or the true pilgrimage. It is thus a suitable ending for the book. It provides the reader with a vision of the celestial city of Jerusalem and examines human experience in its entirety. The underlying moral of the tale is that self-awareness is a pre-requisite for the way to salvation.

Critics have argued that Chaucer designed the entire structure of The Canterbury Tales in order to illustrate the Parsonís theme of the Seven Deadly Sins. Hence The Parsonís Tale can be seen as providing a serious comment on what has gone before.

Chaucerís Retractions

Chaucer addresses the readers and tells them to thank Christ if they find anything pleasurable in the book since He is the source of all wisdom and goodness. However if the readers find something that they do not like in the book, he begs them to ascribe the fault to his incompetence and not to his will. He proclaims that he has written with the intention of teaching.

He entreats the reader to pray for Godís mercy on him and asks forgiveness for the trespasses he has made especially his translations and writing of works dealing with worldly vanity. In this retraction he denounces Troilus and Cressida, The House of Fame, The Nineteen Ladies, The Book of the Duchess, The Parliament of Fowls, and also The Canterbury Tales which he believes are sinful. He also refers to The Book of the Lion and many other books which he now cannot remember. But he asks for Divine Grace for his translations of Boethius and other books of legends of the saints and prays for his soulís salvation.


In ĎRetracciounsí Chaucer renounces all his previous works apart from the Christian pieces. Scholars have been locked in a stormy debate over the significance of this final part of the text. Although it is a part of The Canterbury Tales it begs forgiveness for "the tales of Canterbury" --- those that deal with immorality. It is indeed puzzling why Chaucer wrote this retraction. Possibly the retraction could be merely conventional, or sincere, or ironic. It is also possible that it was not written by Chaucer and only added to the text at a later date.

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