Full title  The Canterbury Tales

Author  Geoffrey Chaucer

Type of work  Poetry (two tales are in prose: the Tale of Melibee and the Parson’s Tale)

Genres  Narrative collection of poems; character portraits; parody; estates satire; romance; fabliau

Language  Middle English

Time and place written  Around 1386–1395, England

Date of first publication  Sometime in the early fifteenth century

Publisher  Originally circulated in hand-copied manuscripts

Narrator  The primary narrator is an anonymous, naïve member of the pilgrimage, who is not described. The other pilgrims narrate most of the tales.

Point of view  In the General Prologue, the narrator speaks in the first person, describing each of the pilgrims as they appeared to him. Though narrated by different pilgrims, each of the tales is told from an omniscient third-person point of view, providing the reader with the thoughts as well as actions of the characters.

Tone   The Canterbury Tales incorporates an impressive range of attitudes toward life and literature. The tales are by turns satirical, elevated, pious, earthy, bawdy, and comical. The reader should not accept the naïve narrator’s point of view as Chaucer’s.

Tense  Past

Setting (Time)  The late fourteenth century, after 1381

Setting (Place)  The Tabard Inn; the road to Canterbury

Protagonists  Each individual tale has protagonists, but Chaucer’s plan is to make none of his storytellers superior to others; it is an equal company. In the Knight’s Tale, the protagonists are Palamon and Arcite; in the Miller’s Tale, Nicholas and Alisoun; in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, the errant knight and the loathsome hag; in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, the rooster Chanticleer.

Major conflict  The struggles between characters, manifested in the links between tales, mostly involve clashes between social classes, differing tastes, and competing professions. There are also clashes between the sexes, and there is resistance to the Host’s somewhat tyrannical leadership.

Rising action  As he sets off on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, the narrator encounters a group of other pilgrims and joins them. That night, the Host of the tavern where the pilgrims are staying presents them with a storytelling challenge and appoints himself judge of the competition and leader of the company.

Climax Not applicable (collection of tales)

Falling action  After twenty-three tales have been told, the Parson delivers a long sermon. Chaucer then makes a retraction, asking to be forgiven for his sins, including having written The Canterbury Tales.

Themes  The pervasiveness of courtly love, the importance of company, the corruption of the church

Motifs  Romance, fabliaux

Symbols  Springtime, clothing, physiognomy

Foreshadowing  Not applicable (collection of tales)