In The Canterbury Tales, a group of pilgrims traveling to Canterbury Cathedral compete in a storytelling contest. This overarching plot, or frame, provides a reason for the pilgrims to tell their stories, which reflect the concerns sparked by the social upheavals of late medieval England. The General Prologue sets the scene for these societal tensions by introducing a wide variety of pilgrims from across different social classes. When the Host suggests the storytelling contest and claims the best storyteller will win a free tavern meal, he incites the plot because this contest both creates a reason for the pilgrims to tell stories and also places the pilgrims in competition with each other.
The Knight, who speaks first in accordance with his rank, roots his tale firmly in rigid courtly sensibilities. However, the Miller insists on going next, disrupting the hierarchy. His bawdy tale that celebrates adultery contrasts sharply with the courtly love of “The Knight’s Tale.” The Reeve follows in response to a slight in “The Miller’s Tale,” emphasizing that social class no longer plays any role in determining the order of the tales.
The subsequent tales often respond to each other thematically, creating dialogues about social concerns in the Middle Ages. Several tales depict tensions around the changing roles of women, particularly in regard to marriage. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” ignites this conflict, using courtly romance to subvert courtly norms and arguing for female independence. “The Clerk’s Tale” aims to refute the Wife’s story, asserting that marriage is happiest when the wife is obedient. The Franklin promotes a middle ground. He describes a devoted young couple who share power in their marriage.
Other tales in this middle section examine tensions around the role of the church in public life, particularly given the institution’s prevalent corruption. The Friar tells a story about a corrupt summoner, while the Summoner describes a friar who, seeking to cheat parishioners of their money, is himself cheated. Their tales introduce the theme of corrupt church officials abusing their positions for financial gain while also illustrating the rivalries among different religious professions. The repeated hypocrisy demonstrated by most of the higher ranking clerical characters brings up questions about the sincerity of church officials and their prominent roles in the community.
Ultimately, The Canterbury Tales concludes with no real resolution to the multiple conflicts it raises and with no conclusion to the storytelling contest. The final tale is told by the Parson, a generous and honest religious leader who, in lieu of a story, preaches repentance to the pilgrims, wanting them to remain in good standing with God. Following “The Parson’s Tale,” Chaucer includes several paragraphs apologizing if his readers did not like parts of The Canterbury Tales and retracting any sexual or violent content that offended rigid church morality.
Because Chaucer maintains a wry tone throughout, it’s difficult to tell whether Chaucer means for “The Parson’s Tale” and his own subsequent Retraction to be received sincerely or as a satire of religious performances. Nevertheless, the fact that The Canterbury Tales ends with a call for individual repentance of wrongdoing suggests that there is no collective resolution for the conflicts introduced throughout the tales. Rather, as Chaucer writes his own Retraction, so people are individually responsible for navigating the tensions among class, gender, and religion, ultimately determining their own courses of action.