Canterbury Tales: General Prologue - Summary and Analysis

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Summary
      As the title indicates, the poem is a prologue or introduction to Chaucer's collection of Canterbury Tales. In it the poet sets forth the occasion of these tales namely the annual pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas-a-Becket in Canterbury. It describes in the author's characteristic humour and acute insight the band of twenty-nine pilgrims besides the poet, drawn from all classes of society, moving jauntily on the way to Canterbury in the month of April, with its 'shoures soota', that pierced to the 'root' the draught of March. The company of people includes all classes of English society from the Oxford scholar to the drunken miller. The jovial host of the inn suggests that to enliven the journey, each of the company shall tell four tales, two going and two coming. The best teller of stories would be given a fine supper at the general expense on their return.

Canterbury Tales

Critical Analysis
      The prologue is a sort of picture gallery. Chaucer creates a host of vital and individualised characters. He is the first English writer to bring the atmosphere of romantic interest about the men and women and the daily works of one's own world - which is the aim of all modern literatures. Beowulf and Ronald are ideal heroes, essentially creatures of the imagination; but the merry host of the inn, the fat monk, the Parish priest, the kindly ploughman - all are recognisable characters true to life. In the Prologue, all people from all walks of English life are described with a quiet kindly humour which seeks instinctively the best in human nature. Chaucer's quick surprising strokes portray the pilgrims at once as types and individuals.

      The greatness of the Prologue may be said to reside in the vividness of its individual portraiture. In it, the essential humanity is emphasised - each is measured by absolute standard of manners. Langland with his allegory of heaven and hell gains much in grandeur and impressiveness, but Chaucer with his individualised types gains infinitely in reality and in human sympathy. This realism of painting human life is the abiding contribution of Chaucer to literature.

      The dramatic method adopted by Chaucer in the portrayal of characters anticipated the character-portrayals in the drama and the novel that developed in the subsequent ages. The wife of Bath is typical of certain primary instincts of women, but she is given local habitation. There is a merchant who represents his class in his greed but he is dressed in a neat and gaudy dress. Chaucer's humour is gentle and ironical. The vivacious wife of Bath had fixed her mind on a sixth husband after the fifth had died. The prioress is more interested in cultivating courtly manners than holiness of life. She is a woman of exaggerated sensibility. She, would weep if she sees a mouse caught in a trap. The Knight enumerates in an exaggerated manner the distant places he had visited in the course of his holy campaign's. The hypocrisy of religious men and women (Monk, Summoner, Pardoner) is glanced at with tolerant humour. In rich comedy, variety of humour and descriptive powers and study of characters, the Canterbury Tales is a unique achievement and has great historical importance.

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