The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories related by the pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Thomas Backet at Canterbury . These pilgrims represent different sections of contemporary English society , and in the description of the most prominent of these people in the Prologue .
Chanucer’s powers are shown at their best . All these characters are individualized , yet their thoroughly typical quality gives a unique value to Chaucer’s picture of men and manners in the England of this time . The idea of framing a collection of stories was not a new one , but there was never a frame so artful as Chaucer’s ; it is a moving frame . a cinematography . A medieval pilgrimage brought people of all ranks together in a combination of piety and holiday making . Thus his ” moving frame ” enabled Chaucer to show us a cross – section almost complete , of English life in the fourteenth century . All classes have representatives here except the highest and the lowest : and Chaucer delights in them all . As a moralist .
Chaucer disapproves many of them . but as a poet he accepts them all . according to Keats famous dictum . ” The poet lives in gusto . be in foul or fair …. He has as much delight in conceiving an lago as an Imogen . ” But Chaucer insists that every character . good or bad . must be a perfect specimen of his class . The knight is a very perfect knight ; the doctor has not his like in the world : the shipman is a smuggler .The idea of a pilgrimage on which each of some thirty travellers was supposed to relate four stories was brilliant and original . though Chaucer attempted only twenty – four of the stories before his death in or about 1400.
The passages which link the tales and describe the interplay between the various pilgrims offer a human comedy of great wit and insight . These stories represent the romantic allegory . satire , the fabliau of popular tale of oral traditions . the fable or animal story , the sermon or morality , and the literary burlesque . By suiting each tale to a character of its narrator Chaucer gave unity to what would otherwise have seemed an oddly assorted anthology of different styles . Thus the Knight is appropriately given the chivalric tale of Palawon and Arcite , and the Nun’s Priest is given an animal fable containing theological speculations and an obvious moral purpose . The Canterbury Tales is the greatest poetical work of Chaucer , and in it are represented his main characteristics as a poet- humour . character – portraiture and realism . Referring to these Warton observed in The History of English Poetry ( 1781 ) : “
But Chaucer’s vein of humour . although conspicuous in the Canterbury Tales . is chiefly displayed in the characters with which they are introduced . In these his knowledge of the world availed him in a particular degree and enabled him to give much accurate pictures of ancient manners as no contemporary nation has transmitted to posterity . It is here that we view the pursuits and employments . the customs and diversions . of our ancestors . copied from the life and represented with equal truth and spirit , by a judge of mankind . whose penetration qualified him to discern their foibles , or discriminating peculiarities , and by an artist . who understood that proper section of circumstances and those predominant characteristics . which from a finished portrait we are surprised to find . in so gross and ignorant an age . such talent of satire . and for observation of life . qualities which exert themselve s at more civilized periods .
when the improved state of society . by subtilising our speculations . and establishing uniform models of behaviour . disposes mankind to study themselves . and render deviations of conduct . and singularities of character . more immediately and necessarily the objects of censure and ridicule . These curious and valuable remains are specimens of Chaucer’s genius unassisted and unalloyed . The figures are all British and bear no suspicious signatures of classical . Italian or French imitation . “he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales the various manners and humours of the whole of English nation in his age . Not a single character has escaped him .
All his pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other and not only in their inclination . but in their very physiognomies and persons ….. The matter and manners of their tale and of their telling . are so suited to their different educations . humour and callings . that each of them would be improper in any other mouth . Even the grave and serious characters are distinguished by their several sorts of gravity : their discourses are such as belong to their age . their calling and their breeding : such as are becoming of them and of them only . Some of his persons are vicious . and some virtuous ; some are unlearned . or ( Chaucer calls them ) lewd and some are learned . Even the ribaldry of the low characters is different ; the Reeve . the Miller and the Cook several men and distinguished from each other are the mincing Lady – Prioress . and the broad – speaking . gaptoothed Wife of Bath . But enough of this ; there is such a variety of game sprining up before me . that I am distracted in my choice , and know not which to follow . It’s sufficient to say . according to the proverb . that here is God’s plenty ; we have our forefathers and great grand – dames all before us . as they were in Chaucer’s day : their general characters are still remaining in mankind . and even in England . though they are called by other names than those of Monks . and Friars and Lady Abbesses , and the Nuns ; for mankind is ever the same , and nothing lost out of Nature . though everything is altered . “