The Canterbury Tales Themes, Symbols and Motifs
Women and Society
Several of the Canterbury Tales explore questions of what roles women should play in society, what power or choices were available to them, and what results these situations produced. In The Wife of Bath’s Tale, for instance, Chaucer argues that giving women power or “mastery” in marriage may lead to greater happiness than forcing them to submit to their husbands’ wills in all things; this and several other tales explore the dynamics of male-female marriages. Although modern Western feminism was not an element of medieval thought, questions about what roles women should play and how they should behave in them were central questions in many medieval minds.
Christianity was central to English life in the Middle Ages, and it appears in the Tales in a number of ways. The setting for the Tales as a whole is on a religious pilgrimage to Canterbury, and they end with a “Retraction” that begs God’s forgiveness, attributes any good in the tales to Jesus Christ, and apologizes for the ways in which the Tales tend toward sin. Several tales, including those told by the Prioress, the Parson, and the Clerk, are expressly religious.
Words and Language
“What nedeth words mo?” (“What more needs to be said?”) is a question several of the taletellers ask, from the Knight to the Manciple; indeed, the theme of the Manciple’s Tale is that it is wise to know when to hold your tongue. The Friar’s Tale explores the consequences of thoughtlessly spoken words, as does the Franklin’s Tale. The nature of language and words and their value are all themes that arise at various points in the Canterbury Tales.
Revenge and Repaying Debts
Several of the pilgrims “quit,” or repay, one another for real or imagined slights through the telling of their tales. The Miller and Reeve do this somewhat jokingly in their tales, but between the Summoner and the Friar, the argument gets more serious; while the Miller and Reeve are meant to be lighthearted, the Summoner and Friar paint downright rude pictures of one another’s professions. The habit of “quitting” invites comparison of several of the Tales as it pulls them into complementary relationships with one another.
Serious vs. Silly
Although Chaucer warns us in several Tales not to take them too seriously and begs in his Retraction not to be taken seriously at all, many of the tales play with the relationship between seriousness on the one hand and silliness, games, or jokes on the other. Some of the “funny” tales have serious consequences, while a few of the “serious” ones have comic or ironic moments. These echo the frame of the Tales as a whole, which are told as part of a “game” but which offer the opportunity to give moral instruction, which many of the tale-tellers try to take.