AP Notecard: The Canterbury Tales
Author: Geoffrey Chaucer
Setting: England, late 14th century
Narrator- the main narrator is an anonymous pilgrim
The prologue begins with the Narrator, who is a pilgrim himself, describing the spring
weather, and he tells how many people in England go on religious pilgrimages to visit
shrines in distant holy lands at this time of year. Many people go to Canterbury to visit
the relics of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, because it wasn’t far or a
difficult destination for an English pilgrim to make.
St. Thomas Becket: Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162-1170
Saint and martyr by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican
Got into a conflict with King Henry II over rights and privileges of the
church and was assassinated by followers of the king in Canterbury
Cathedral, which is why people made pilgrimages to Canterbury to visit
Soon the narrator begins his tale of the pilgrimage.
The narrator was spending the night at the Tabard Inn in preparation for his
pilgrimage when 29 travelers enter who were also on a journey to Canterbury.
The narrator joins the group and begins to address each character:
o Mentions their dress, social status
o He makes it clear that he is also a character in the book
o He describes each pilgrim as they appear to him. He describes them from
memory, and in an opinionated manner, giving us clear ideas of whom he
does and does not like, and only tells us as much about the characters as he
wants to share/as much as the character has told him.
Point of View
The primary, general narrator is one of the pilgrims on the pilgrimage to Canterbury who
speaks in first person and describes each pilgrim as they appear to him.
Then, each individual tale is narrated by different pilgrims from an omniscient 3rd
person point of view: you know what the characters are thinking as well as their actions.
It is also supposed to be understood that the point of view of the general narrator
is not the point of view of Chaucer, the narrator is seen as naïve.
The Knight’s Tale
-The Knight: Noble, respectable man -The Squire: The Knight’s son,
-The Yeoman: The Knight’s servant attractive, devoted to love
-Palamon: Theban soldier -Arcite: Theban Soldier
-Emily: Beautiful Athenian girl
After the Knight’s prologue, which describes the Knight, the Squire, and the Yeoman, the
tale of Arcite and Palamon begins. Arcite and Palamon are two Theban soldiers who
were wounded and found by the Athenian duke, Theseus, and condemned to a life of
imprisonment in an Athenian tower. One day, Palamon and Arcite spotted Emily, a
beautiful Athenian girl, making flower garlands and they immediately fall in love with
her. When Arcite is suddenly released, he miserably returns to Thebes. Although he is
free, he can no longer gaze at Emily, and he is jealous because Palamon can. Later,
Arcite returns to Athens in search of Emily and he sings about his love for her in a forest.
Palamon, who escaped from the tower that very same day, heard his song and they dueled
over Emily, a woman neither of them had ever met. Theseus decides that the two men,
along with 100 other men each, will duel again and whoever wins will be awarded Emily.
Palamon wins, and they marry.
Courtly Love- A mixture of honor, love, chivalry and adventure. The Knight's tale
has tournaments and duels, and the woman they desire is fought over in a respectable
fashion for the time period.
Love is a Sickness- Palamon and Arcite moan and cry in heartache for Emily, the
woman they love, yet who is completely unattainable.
Instability of Life- Nobody is safe from disaster. Although Arcite is free, he is
miserable and longs for Emily. Palamon is in prison, but he has the liberty to gaze at
Emily whenever he wants.
Emily: Emily is a symbol of power in the sense that she has the ability to turn two
close friends into a state of total rivalry before they even speak to her.
The Knight is a soldier, but is romantic and does not like conflict or unhappiness.
The Miller’s Tale
-The Miller: Drunken, obnoxious man
-Nicholas: Oxford student, lives with John and Alison
-John: Old carpenter, very possessive of his wife
-Alison: John’s attractive 18-year-old wife
-Absolon: Parish clerk, loves Alison
In the Miller’s Prologue, the host offers for the Monk to tell the second tale because he
wanted the tales to be told in order of social rank. However, the Miller, who was already
drunk, jumped ahead and insisted upon telling his story first, and got in a little quarrel
with him and the Monk. The tale begins with the Miller describing Nicholas. One day,
Alison and Nicholas begin flirting, and Nicholas tells her that he will devise a plan so that
they can spend a whole night together without John knowing. He pretends to be sick, and
when John comes to check on him he tells him that he had a vision and there will be a
great flood. In order to save them, John must build three tubs for them to float in once
the flood comes. When the night comes that the “flood” was supposed to come, Alison,
Nicholas, and John settle in the tubs, and when John falls asleep, Nicholas and Alison
sneak back inside and spend the night in John’s bed. Early in the morning, Absolon
arrives at the window and calls to Alison. Alison agrees to give him one quick kiss to
make him go away, and as he waits at the window, his lips find not her lips but her
“naked arse”. Determined to avenge Alison’s prank, he returns to the window with a red-
hot iron poker and calls to Alison again. This time, Nicholas shows up at the window
and Absolon brands his “naked arse” with the poker. Nicholas yells “Help! Water!
Water!” which John hears and, still assuming that a flood is coming, cuts his tub from
where he was hanging, and falls straight to the ground where he breaks his arm. When
John explains to the townspeople about the flood, Nicholas and Alison pretend they know
nothing about it, causing John to look like a madman.
Tension Between Social Classes- In the Miller’s Prologue, the host and the Miller
get into a quarrel over whose turn it was to tell their tale. The host wanted the monk
to follow the Knight so that the tales would be told in order of social rank from
highest to lowest, but the Miller rudely insisted upon going second.
o Also, Absolon continuously tries to win Alison’s heart with gifts and he sings
to her, but Alison shoos him away rudely, showing the contrast in Absolon’s
courtly love and Alison’s middle class manner.
Women as Objects- Alison is seen as a prize that is fought over among the three
principle male characters.
Secrecy Between Characters- Alison sneaks behind her husband’s back to spend the
night with Nicholas.
Don’t be gullible!
Kisses- Absolon and Alison
Adultery- Alison and Nicholas
Pranks- Alison and Absolon, and Absolon and Nicholas
Fabliaux- Fabliaux were comical and often grotesque stories in which the characters most
often succeed by means of their sharp wits, and often including a bodily noise or function
o (From dictionary.com- A medieval verse tale characterized by comic, ribald treatment of themes
drawn from life.)
Satire: The Miller’s Tale was written to satirize, and is in stark contrast to, the Knight’s
Tale. While in both stories there is an aspect of love and longing for a female character,
in the Knight’s Tale Arcite and Palamon simply yearn to touch Emily. In The Miller’s
Tale, both of the men get intimate with the woman, Nicholas in bed and Absolon kissing
Additionally, when Alison leans out the window and farts in Absolon’s face, is
shows another contrast between The Knight’s Tale’s Emily, who is gentle and has a very
The Wife of Bath’s Tale
-The Wife of Bath: Has had 5 husbands, has been on multiple pilgrimages
-The Knight: Young man on quest to find out what woman really want
-The Old Woman: ugly, helps the knight find his answer
The Wife of Bath’s prologue is longer than most of the other pilgrims’, and she begins by
saying that she is an expert on marriage- she’s had five husbands since age 12! The Wife
explains that her “gift” is sexual pleasure, and she uses it to control her husbands. She
still feels the need to prove to the other pilgrims that she is not only experienced and
sexually powerful, but knowledgeable and smart too by talking about the Bible and
references figures such as Abraham, Jacob, and Solomon, all of whom had multiple
wives. However, she often misuses her references in irrelevant ways and makes her seem
dimwitted anyway. The Wife also explains that her fifth husband, who was 20 years
younger than she, was the only husband that she married for love, and he was the only
one who treated her badly and beat her. The others were older and easily submissive, and
she could get whatever she wanted out of them. Although she is initially portrayed as
wicked because of the way she treated her first 4 husbands, she eventually is seen as a
sympathetic character when she describes her life with her fifth husband and her love for
The Wife of Bath’s tale is about young knight who rapes a beautiful girl. Instead of
being sentenced to death, the queen and other ladies want to give him another chance to
save his life, and send him on a year-long mission to find out what women really want. If
he returns in a year without the right answer, he would be decapitated.
He sets off, but to his dismay he finds that everyone he asks has a different
answer. Many say that they want to be considered secretive and mysterious, but the Wife
of Bath interjects that this is clearly untrue because no woman can keep a secret, and she
tells the story of Midas as proof. She returns to the story of the knight, it is almost time
for him to return to the queen when he meets an ugly old woman. She agrees to help him
with his quest and save his life if he promises to marry her.
The two go to meet the queen, and with the answer the hag has told him, the
knight tells the queen that what women really want is to be in charge of their husbands
and lovers. The answer is right, the knight’s life is saved thanks to the hag, and he
reluctantly marries her. Later that night, the knight reveals that he is so ashamed to be
married to such an ugly woman. When she asks him if he would rather she be ugly and
loyal or beautiful and unfaithful, he can’t decide and let’s her make the judgment.
Because the knight’s answer gave the woman what she most desired, the authority to
choose for herself, she becomes both beautiful and good! They have a long, happy, and
faithful marriage together.
Fickleness of Women
Good Conquers Evil
All Women Should be Treated Equally
Old Hag- represents goodness and honesty
Queen- holds all the power
Old Hag- May also represent the Wife of Bath herself, because although the old hag was
not beautiful on the outside, she was honest and good. The Wife of Bath wants others to
see her that way, and although she is getting older, she wanted her fifth husband to see
her inner youthfulness and goodness.