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Unity, Identity and Fellowship in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales

Academic Discipline: English
Course Name: Chaucer
Assignment Subject: Unity, Identity and Fellowship in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales
Academic Level: Undergraduate
Referencing Style: MLA
Word Count: 2,110

In the opening of the General Prologue to “The Canterbury Tales,” Geoffrey Chaucer’s narrator (Geoffrey Chaucer) emphasizes the unity, fellowship and common identity of the pilgrims about to set forth on a journey to the shrine of Saint Thomas á Becket in Canterbury, southeast of London (A 23-26). This insistence on unity and wholeness is important because Chaucer’s text attempts to capture the entirety of medieval English society; the three estates – the nobility, the clergy and the commoners – are all represented, but the assumptions embedded within this (generally) fixed social hierarchy (spiritually, politically and in terms of gender assumptions) represented by the three estates is problematized as the text develops. In fact, the emphasis on companionship and a common identity revealed in the opening of the General Prologue serves as a counterpoint to the social tensions revealed through the interplay of the tales, their tellers, and the frame narrative. This paper will briefly illustrate how the frame narrative, the pilgrims, and their tales work to comment on the assumptions of unity, fellowship and common identity insisted upon by the narrator in the General Prologue. A brief explanation will also be given as to why the frame narrative structure employed by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales is particularly well-suited to representing the whole of late fourteenth century English society.

The frame narrative employed by Chaucer is, in the simplest sense, a story utilized to contextualize a series of smaller stories or tales. The story of the frame narrative is that twenty-nine pilgrims have met in the Tabard Inn in South London before heading off on their journey to the shrine of Saint Thomas á Becket in Canterbury (A 20-27). Their host at the tavern offers to provide the pilgrims with a game to kill time on the way to the shrine; he proposes that each of the pilgrims tell four tales, two on the way to the shrine, two on the way back (in actual fact, each pilgrim tells only one tale; the tales were condensed and the return journey was never written by Chaucer) (A 790-795). The host – who decides to act as the pilgrims’ guide on the journey – then states that the pilgrim whom he judges to have told the tales “. . . of best sentence and moost solaas” (A 798), will have supper at his tavern at the other pilgrim’s cost (A 799-800). The framing narrative, therefore, allows each pilgrim – each representing a member of English society – a chance to express themselves; to this end, the narrator makes an (apologetic) point of stating that he will recount the tales exactly as told by the pilgrims, regardless of how vulgar they might be (A 725-736). Thus, the framing narrative allows Chaucer to explore the character of each pilgrim, both through the tales they tell and through the commentary they provide to each other’s tales. Also, the framing narrative structure works to allow Chaucer to add or remove pilgrims as he sees fit (allowing for him to create a more all-encompassing portrait of medieval English society). If Chaucer thinks of a new pilgrim not mentioned in the General Prologue, he can simply have them ride up and join the rest of the pilgrims during the journey.

The framing narrative works to reveal the societal tensions hidden beneath the veneer of unity presented in the opening of the General Prologue. These tensions are revealed in the apologetic stance taken by the narrator in regard to both the potential for vulgarity in the tales and his inability to present the tales in order of social rank (A 743-746) – a point which initially seems to become less relevant when the Knight (the highest-ranking pilgrim) wins the right to tell his tale first (A 835-846). The Knight, as the highest-ranking pilgrim (itself a problematic point, given that Christ was both poor and common – and given that Christianity is based on both humility and the universal equality of the human soul), decides to tell a romance – a “high” form of literature, befitting his position as a noble. Thus, even the literary style of the tale can be seen as commentary; this becomes especially clear when the (drunken) Miller reacts negatively against the content of “The Knight’s Tale.” The Miller’s interjection is important for a number of reasons. The Miller disrupts the social hierarchy – the Host, upon the completion of “The Knight’s Tale,” asks the Monk (an attempt to respect social hierarchy; the monk is a member of the clergy) to match “The Knight’s Tale” with one of his own (A 3118-3119) – and will not be silenced, even threatening to leave the journey if he is not allowed to speak (another instance wherein the interplay of the frame narrative and the tales facilitate the dialogue and reveal the social tensions between the characters) (A 3132-3133).

“The Miller’s Tale” – his vision of what really constitutes courtly love – is told in the form of a fablieaux, a “low” form of literature befitting his common status. Thus, the Miller’s interjection, facilitated by the frame narrative structure linking the tales, also serves to present a stylistic juxtaposition between high and low forms of literature; the dialogue between the characters is mirrored in the dialogue between literary styles. The stylistic juxtaposition, combined with the characters (their social rank and gender), combined with the frame narrative which allows this interplay to take place, presents a more complete and realistic picture (both socially and artistically) of the “wholeness” of medieval England, while simultaneously undercutting the notions of “unity” and “fellowship” posited by the narrator in the General Prologue. It is through the contrivance of the frame narrative (the idea that a member from each societal rank and vocation would gather together and travel on a pilgrimage is contrived in that it is highly unlikely that this would happen in reality) that these characters are allowed to engage directly with one another. The Miller, a commoner, is here given an opportunity to challenge a member of the aristocracy; the Miller’s refusal to respect the social hierarchy – the Host wants to find “Som better man” (A 3130) than Miller to match “The Knight’s Tale” – illustrates in a microcosmic fashion, the societal tensions then at play in late fourteenth century England at large; there was a major peasant’s revolt in England in1381 (Britannia Web site: History: Docs: Peasant n. pag).

“The Miller’s Tale” also contrasts with “The Knight’s Tale” in terms of content. “The Miller’s Tale” – stylistically low – interprets love as something physical, while “The Knight’s Tale” – stylistically high – interprets love as something remote. “The Miller’s Tale” is very sensual – the characters of Nicholas and Absalom are motivated by lust (though they do eventually “fall in love”); Nicholas’ pursuit of Alison is further complicated by the fact that she is married to a carpenter named John. When Nicholas finally wins her over, they make love in her husband’s bed (A 3651-3656). “The Miller’s Tale” is meant to be funny, contemporary and populated with realistic characters (a fablieaux). It therefore, presents a stark contrast to “The Knight’s Tale,” which is set in a distant past, concerns morality and virtue and involves aristocratic characters (a romance). In “The Knight’s Tale,” the two young knights fall in love with a young woman from afar – first with her beauty (A 1098-1100; A 1114-1115) and then with her virtue; unlike “The Miller’s tale,” “The Knight’s Tale” lacks any sense of physicality or sensuality in the nature of love – it is highly formalized. The two knights spend years loving Emily from a distance (in this case because they are locked in prison), they have no idea who she is, only that they love her (based on her beauty) and that they will fight each other to the death to have her (A 1592-1621). The content of the two tales, therefore, engage in a kind of dialogue with one another. Both knights in “The Knight’s Tale” objectify Emily; even the Gods tell her that she must wed one of the two young knights, though she wishes to remain a virgin (A 2348-2352). In “The Miller’s Tale” the reader is given an example of what can happen when a man marries a woman as an object. John is old and his wife Alison is only eighteen (A 3223-3227). John is characterized as viewing himself as a cuckold and as having fallen into a snare (A 3226; A 3231). John’s humiliation in the tale illustrates the consequences of a marriage devoid of physical attraction; Alison and John are married because he is wealthy – he does not love her as a person; he “heeld hire narwe in cage” (A 3224) – and he values Alison as an object to be coveted. Here again, in the dialogue between the tales, their tellers and the frame narrative, is an example of how certain ideals (courtly love, chivalry) are undercut in the text. The interplay between the Miller and the Host (and the narrator) in the prologue to his tale (the frame narrative), serves to contextualize “The Miller’s Tale” as a response to the “ideals” both stylistic and social, articulated in “The Knight’s Tale.”

The narrator also acts as commentator on the dialogue between the characters and the content of their tales. The narrator’s commentary is not objective, however, and because of this it exposes some of the inconsistent or illogical assumptions embedded within the societal structure (the estate system; chivalry etc…). For example, in the General Prologue, the narrator comments that the Knight is a “worthy man” (A 43) and is also “meeke as is a mayde” (A 69). Yet, the narrator also catalogues every battle the “verray parfit, gentil knyght” (A 73) has taken part in – many of which paint the Knight in a less than favourable light. The narrator notes that the Knight has worked as a mercenary in wars between two Islamic powers (A 64-66) and took part in the slaughter of the Christian population of Alexandria (A 51). Yet, the narrator never comments negatively about these facts and continues to insist upon the “gentleness” and “meekness” of a knight that has killed more than fifteen human beings for money (A 61). The absence of a negative judgment by the narrator acts as an implicit commentary on the “ideals” surrounding knightly behaviour – honour, truth, freedom, chivalry (A 46) – and the realities of it; it also informs the reader about the character of the narrator himself.

The juxtaposition of the narrator’s commentary with the reality implied by the facts of the Knight’s endeavours illustrates the superficiality of the General Prologue’s “unity” and “fellowship”; it also illustrates how the frame narrative (which gives the narrator his rationale for commenting on the Knight) works to challenge idealized societal assumptions obliquely. The narrator’s commentary on the Miller also reveals a lack of objectivity; he states that the Miller “tolde his cherles tale in his manere” (A 3169) and both apologizes for the ensuing tale and tells the reader that they should “Turne over the leef and chese another tale” (A 3177) if they want to read about morality and holiness. At the very least, the apologizing by the narrator reveals a tension between himself and the Miller (not present with the Knight) that undercuts the assumptions of unity and fellowship posited in the General Prologue. While the Miller is self-admittedly drunk, the narrator’s attempt to dissuade the reader from reading the Miller’s tale – both via his negative characterization of the Miller and his tale, and through his stating that there are other tales focusing on virtue and holiness later in the text (implying these are worthier of reading) – can be interpreted as an active attempt to impose order on the Miller by encouraging readers to avoid his tale, and thereby silencing him.

The frame narrative therefore, in linking the tales and their tellers together, allows for the characters to interact with one another, so that the tales do not simply inform us about who the characters are, but also about how they feel about one another. The tales, the frame, the characters and the narrator, all work together to present a world of conflicting views, hypocrisy and resentment, where fixed assumptions about etiquette, morality and social standing are all coming under increasing pressure. The overall structure of The Canterbury Tales allows for competing viewpoints to be expressed by members of the various estates and professions of society – even the narrator becomes involved in this process. These often-conflictual perspectives challenge the notion of unity and wholeness insisted upon in the General Prologue.

Work Cited:
Chaucer, G. “The Canterbury Tales.” Chaucer to Spenser: An Anthology, edited by Derek Pearsol, Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, 1999,79-164.