Throughout The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer seems to question the popularity of courtly love in his own culture, and to highlight the contradictions between courtly love and Christianity, and social casts and convention. Courtly love is the notion that true love only exists outside of marriage; that true love may be idealized and spiritual, and may exist without ever being physically consummated. In the Knights Tale, both Palamon and Arcite fall madly in love at first sight with Princess Emily.
They are prisoners kept in a tower cell, and only glimpse the beauty from their barred cell window. Throughout their quest for her love, they undergo harm and torment, a staple of the idea of courtly love. Another example of courtly love is the Squire in the General Prologue, he wishes to be a Knight as his father, but intertwines love and compassion, instead of his fathers brutality and warrior-like notions, toward the occupation.
This brings foreword the ironic imagery used in The Canterbury Tales to substantiate these contradictions of the stereotypical Middle English occupations. In the General Prologue, the clothing and physical attributes of the characters are used to showcase the subtle, and sometimes obvious, satirical observations by the narrator. In a sense, the clothes symbolize what lies beneath the surface of each personality. The Physician’s love of wealth reveals itself most clearly to the reader in the rich silk and fur of his gown.
The excessive floral brocade on his tunic symbolizes the Squire’s youthful vanity. The Merchant’s forked beard symbolizes his duplicity. The Prioress, though a nun, wears the garb and acts like a highborn lady, and wears a broach with the insignia “Love Conquers All”, seemingly to contradict the idea of a nun’s celibacy. Through the long, and sometimes laborious, descriptions made in the General Prologue the narrator uses imagery to set up the remaining tale to be ironic, and satirical of social class and convention of the Middle English Era.
Irony is rampant in this comedic satire, a precursor to the dark comedy of today’s society. The use of irony is the main literary device implored by Chaucer to highlight, and critique social casts and convention. The characters are all divided into three distinct classes, the classes being “those who pray” (the clergy), “those who fight” (the nobility), and “those who work” (the commoners and peasantry). Convention is followed when the Knight begins the game with a tale, as he represents the highest social class in the group.
But when the Miller, who represents a lower class, follows him it sets the stage for the Canterbury Tales to reflect both a respect for and a disregard for upper class rules. Each tale is a separate story from one member of the traveling band of pilgrims, although some seem to “quite” each other, which is someone who repays for a service, the service here being the telling of stories. In the case of the Canterbury Tales, a “quite” is when one member of the storytellers purposely follows another person story with something disgraceful or to mock the previous story. The Millers Tale” follows the Knights Tale, which an example of an overtly satirical version of courtly love as explained above, while the Millers Tale vastly different from the serious tone of the Knights Tale. “The Miller’s Tale” is the story of a carpenter, his lovely wife, and the two clerks who are eager to get her into bed. They eventually succeed, but the tale takes, one could argue, a fabliau turn. Chaucer utilizes a literary device called fabliau, which is defined as a short narrative in (usually octosyllabic) verse, between 300 and 400 lines long, its content often comic or satiric.
In the Millers Tale the common fabliau of the misdirect kiss is utilized, when the second clerk comes to kiss the wife, but instead kisses her behind, and the second flood, when the two clerks trick the carpenter into thinking a second flood is coming, like the one in Noah’s Ark, so the carpenter sleeps in a suspended bath tub in his house so the first clerk can make love to his wife in the carpenter husbands bed without the carpenters knowledge.
The use of the disturbing fabliau trademarks reinforces the disregard for social convention, with farts, butt kisses, and bath tub deception following a tale of courtly love by the noble Knight; quite scandalous for 1382. This is evidence perhaps of the idea of One Story, or Archetypal, literary storytelling, considering fabliau tales were common during Chaucer’s time just as the idea of happily ever after tales is rampant among 21st century society. In the Wife of Baths Tale, insight is given to the reader from the narrator of the life of women in the middle Ages.
The tale starts with a Knight in King Arthur’s time who rapes a fair young maiden. King Arthur sends out a decree out that the Knight must be brought to justice. When the Knight is captured, he is condemned to death, but the Queen intercedes on behalf of the Knight and asks the King to allow her to pass judgment on the Knight. The Queen tells him he can keep his life if he can successfully tell her what women most desire, and gives him a year and a day to roam wherever he pleases and return with an answer.
Everywhere the knight went he explained his predicament to women and asked their opinion, but “No two of those he questioned answered the same. ” The answers ranged from fame and riches to play, or clothes, or sexual pleasure, or flattery, or freedom. Once it came time for him to return to the Court he still does not have a good answer. Until he finds an old hag who, once he explains the problem to her offers to give him the answer but forces him to promise to fulfill any favor she asks of him in return.
The Knight agrees. Arriving at the court, he gives the answer that women most desire sovereignty over their husbands, which is unanimously agreed to be true by the women of the court, who accordingly free the Knight. The old hag then explains to the court the deal she had struck with the Knight, and publicly requests his hand in marriage. In agony, he eventually agrees, left with no other choice. On their wedding night the hag is upset that she repulses him in bed.
She reminds him that her looks can be an asset because she will be a virtuous wife to him because no other men would desire her. She asks him what he would prefer – an old ugly hag who is loyal, true and humble or a beautiful woman whom he would always have doubts about concerning her faithfulness. The Knight responds by saying that the choice was hers, an answer that pleases her greatly. Now that she has won power over him, she asks him to kiss her, promising beauty and fidelity.
The Knight turns to look at the hag again, but now finds a young and lovely woman. They lived happily into old age together. In the tale, the normal roles of women are portrayed yet, even the storyteller who is a women with five husbands, the heroine is a women who wants control and power over her husband. This tale is the most profound in directly contradicting the social structure and convention of the time. The mere inclusion of this story tells the reader of the satirical nature of the Tales.
Although, in the end the old hag turns out to be beautiful for both the Knight and her to live happily after, another indication of the physical description and beauty the Middle Ages relied on to define character traits. Each story is told in iambic pentameter, which 10 syllables to each line with a heavily emphasized (stressed) syllable followed by a less emphasized (unstressed) syllable. In the General Prologue, and some tales the use of rhyming couplets is utilized or rhyme royal, which was first introduced by Chaucer himself.
Rhyme royal is stanzas consisting of seven lines, with a rhyme scheme of a-b-a-b-b-c-c. The singsong effect of both these rhyme schemes only adds to the further comedy of The Canterbury Tales. When read aloud, in Middle English, it sounds like a children story, and further adds to the hilarity considering the tales of rampant sex, farts, deceit, and other unpleasant things of such things not discussed at the dinner table. In the beginning of the tale, the setting is placed in early April, during the springtime, “whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote”.
Springtime is a metaphor of beginnings. The poem emphasizes how the wind spreads the seeds that peek their heads above the soil as they begin to grow into crops, and how birds begin their mating season. Further, spring symbolizes sex. In its masterful opening, the poem links springtime and sex in the way that they both cause new life to begin. This reminds the reader how pilgrimages are also a start of new beginnings. The idea of a pilgrimage is that one starts on a journey of repentance, beginning a new life, one free from sin.
In the beginning of the poem, then, the springtime is a symbol of the new beginnings and the creation of new lives the pilgrims are about to undertake. An allegory begins to emerge for the reader about the entirety of the pilgrimage to Canterbury, for the entire journey is a metaphor for the eventual journey from earth to heaven. In the beginning, these travelers are full of secrets with sinful habits and desires, as related through their tales, and also their choice of dress noted by the narrator.
Their pilgrimage is meant to be a journey of repentance, so that by the time they reach Canterbury, they will be fully cleansed of these sins. Thus, in this allegory, the tavern represents the sinful life on Earth, while Canterbury represents the sin-free life in heaven all people are trying to reach. For although the Canterbury tales ridicules the Church through the tales, such as the Frier, the symbol of the repentance is what leads these hardy travelers to tell their tales, and the carrot of a free tavern meal upon their return from Canterbury for the person who tells the best tale.
The Canterbury Tales is full of contradictions of both social convention, as such a satirical tone, from the narrator himself who seems impossibly naive one moment, and then solemn and tongue and cheek the next, and the ultimate contradiction of the tales themselves when Chaucer himself writes to the reader at the end to thank Jesus if they enjoyed his book (because a mere mortal is not capable of producing something entertaining without God’s help) and not to blame him if they didn’t (because it certainly wasn’t his intent to displease them, but only the fault of his “unkonnyng,” or lack of skill).
Through his use of irony, satire, and rhyme and iambic pentameter, and the sing song approach of an almost childlike storytelling, he creates stories full of contradictions of social class, convention, and how to tell the perfect story.
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