While the tone of the stories that comprise The Canterbury Tales ranges from pious to plain to comical, Chaucer as narrator takes an upbeat but wry tone, allowing himself to make his social commentary through humor and irony instead of direct criticism. For example, Chaucer describes the Friar as jovial and agreeable, and while he never directly insults him, Chaucer still manages to emphasize the Friar’s greediness and hypocrisy. He also describes the Prioress’s virtues, but indicates that she’s really just a woman neglecting her religious commitments in favor of a life of high-class luxury.

Read more about social commentary in literature in the context of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth.

Thus, while Chaucer’s commentary deals with serious social issues, his tone remains light and airy, and he praises the pilgrims for traits that he does not in fact believe are praiseworthy. However, some literary scholars interpret Chaucer’s tone as naïve, believing that he—as the fictional narrator, not as the actual author himself—blindly accepts the characters for all their faults and does not recognize the hypocrisy apparent in many of them. For example, in his description of the Monk who prefers hunting to his religious duties, Chaucer claims to agree with the Monk’s decision to shirk his monastic vows of poverty and chastity.

It is not always obvious when Chaucer is being ironic and when he is being sincere and naïve, but the reader can assume that his tone as the narrator does indeed vary throughout his descriptions of the pilgrims.