It is a collection of stories that come after a prologue. A company of thirty people are leaving on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury and they meet at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. The host, Harry Baily, proposes that each of them should tell two stories on the way to and two on the way back, a proposal that is readily accepted. Then, the tales follow accompanied by short “links” which string them together and carry on the design of the Prologue. The Prologue is considered the most important part of the work and contains superb portraits of the various pilgrims, forming a delightful gallery of English medieval society. All classes, except the highest and the lowest, are represented. There is the knight, the Squire, the Prioress, the Monk, the Wife of Bath, the poor Parson, the Ploughman, the Carpenter, the Miller, and many other characters and they are all portrayed with extraordinary vividness, humour and verve.
Characterization is an attempt to describe the medieval middle class with its positive and negative aspects. Let’s take the knight. It is the first character to be introduced and is, in a sense, a traditional character, the man of continuity with the past who aims at keeping order and respecting the idea of chivalry.
The portrait of the Knight’s son, the Squire, is quite different. Their different set of values is underlined with irony and whereas the father represents nobleness, the son embodies the pursuit of personal interest.
A female equivalent of the knight is provided by the Prioress, daughter of nobility, fascinated by manners as a sign of distinction, much more important than matters. With her Chaucer uses humorous hints that become open satire when it becomes evident that the pity she directs to animals would hardly reach Christians and human beings.
The Monk is an ambiguous character too. Instead of following the rules of order and respect, as his social role would request him to, he only cares about himself. His portrait is bitter and the denunciation of his abuses makes him repulsive, without the humorous traits we find with the prioress. His physical traits reveal his greed and his capacity of exploiting others.
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