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The Canterbury Tales: Literary Terms, People, Places, and Social Commentary (Grade 10)

Frame Narrative
overall unifying story within which one or more tales are related. In the initial story, the opening and closing makes a “frame.”

Iambic Pentameter
A line of poetry that is written in 5 (penta) feet (iambs). This means that the line is 10 syllables. Every other syllable is stressed.

Heroic Couplet
two rhyming lines in iambic pentameter

Direct Characterization
in literature, the method of character development in which the author simply tells what the character is like

Indirect Characterization
the process by which the personality of a fictitious character is revealed through the character’s speech, actions, appearance, etc.

Social Commentary
writing that makes a point about society, its values, and its customs. It can have positive tones or negative tones.

Chaucer
All of the descriptions of the pilgrims in the Prologue are narrated through the perspective of the character of this character. Although the narrator is not initially preparing to go on pilgrimage, after describing all the pilgrims, he decides to join the merry company on their journey.

Harry Bailey
He establishes the main frame narrative of the Tales, since his the one who proposes the tale-telling game and sets the rules that it will follow. The Host joins the pilgrimage not as a figure seeking religious guidance but as a guide and judge to the game. The Host’s presence shows us that the main purpose of this pilgrimage lies not so much in the devout religious act but in the fun that these tourists will have along the way.

The Knight
a noble man who fights for truth and for Christ rather than for his own glory or wealth.

The Prioress
She attempts to be dainty and well-bred, and speaks French with a terrible accent and sings the liturgy straight through her nose.

The Friar
A beggar who could not work but had to live off the charity of others. Although he is supposed to be humble and modest, he is jolly and wants to lead a comfortable life.

The Wife of Bath
She is a seamstress by trade and presents herself as the world’s expert in matters of marriage and the relations between men and women.

Tabard Inn
The starting point of the pilgrimage.

Canterbury Cathedral
The destination for the pilgrimage.

The Knight’s Social Commentary
Chaucer’s goal with his description of The Knight is to set him up as an ideal. He is a perfect example of chivalry (being truthful, honest, generous, and courteous). The Knight’s behavior/actions, religious devotion, humbleness, and morality are a standard for all people to try to obtain. The Knight is representing the estate of the nobility, and it is no coincidence that The Knight is described first out of all of the pilgrims. The Knight also gets to tell his tale first. He is to be respected. Chaucer’s commentary for The Knight is POSITIVE.

The Prioress’ Social Commentary
Chaucer’s goal with his description of The Prioress (who holds a high position in the church as the head of the convent) is to point out that perhaps women are not suited to be leaders in the church. Women are distracted by and concerned with their appearance and with romantic love. Because they care about things like this, they cannot truly devote themselves to their vows and serving God’s people. Also, Chaucer seems to be saying that when a person tries too hard to be something that they are not (like The Prioress tries to be like the noble ladies of the court) and to be seen in a certain way….the person ends up looking silly or foolish. Chaucer’s commentary for The Prioress is NEGATIVE.

The Friar’s Social Commentary
Chaucer’s goal with his description of The Friar is to show that there is a lot of corruption in the church. There are men in the church who care more about money (such as The Friar) and power than they do about caring for God’s people. Instead of following the vows that they have taken and being models for morality and spirituality, they are examples of sin. They are leading their people to sin instead of leading them away from it. Many men in the church took advantage of the people that they were supposed to serve and put themselves before God. Chaucer’s commentary for The Friar is NEGATIVE.

The Wife of Bath’s Social Commentary
Chaucer’s goal with his description of The Wife of Bath is to show the pros and cons of independent women and feminism (the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes). On one hand, women can be excellent people of business as shown by The Wife of Bath. She is a great maker of clothes and her cloth making business is even better than Ypres and Ghent. She has no husband to give her orders so she is able to be independent and has made enough money to also be able to travel on many pilgrimages. On the other hand, women are shown to be led by their more base instincts, such as lust. The Wife of Bath’s history that includes many men and the fact that she wears tight red hose and has a red face show her lust. Chaucer’s commentary for The Wife of Bath is MIXED (both positive and negative).

The Canterbury Tales Overall Social Commentary
Chaucer’s goal with the telling of The Canterbury Tales is to show that perhaps the hierarchy of the medieval estates is too rigid/strict. After all, the pilgrims from the different estates (nobility, intellectual, merchant, church, peasantry) are all headed to the same place (in the story Canterbury Cathedral). All people are on the same journey, life. Also, Chaucer is showing us that most people (ESPECIALLY THE MEMBERS OF THE CHURCH) have flaws and do not live up to what’s expected of them. Chaucer’s commentary for The Canterbury Tales is MIXED (both positive and negative).

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