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The Canterbury Tales Essays

Below you will find five outstanding thesis statements / paper topics on “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffery Chaucer that can be used as essay starters. All five incorporate at least one of the themes found in “The Canterbury Tales” and are broad enough so that it will be easy to find textual support, yet narrow enough to provide a focused clear thesis statement. These thesis statements from “The Canterbury Tales” offer a summary of different elements that could be important in an essay but you are free to add your own analysis and understanding of the plot or themes to them. Using the essay topics for “The Canterbury Tales” below in conjunction with the list of important quotes at the bottom of the page, you should have no trouble connecting with the text and writing an excellent paper.

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #1: The Use of a Frame Narrative in “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories that all fit within one single narrative, yet each could also stand alone. This narrative strategy is referred to as a frame narrative, in which a larger story serves as the framework within which a series of smaller tales fit. Examine the structure of this particular frame narrative and analyze its function. Does this narrative strategy work? What are its advantages in “The Canterbury Tales”? Does it present any disadvantages? How might The Canterbury Tales have been different if a different narrative approach had been employed? ( and another work of medieval literature, The Decameron by Boccaccio)

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #2: “The Canterbury Tales” as Social Anecdote and Social Antidote

One of the reasons why The Canterbury Tales has endured in the literary canon for centuries is that it represents a slice of medieval life while simultaneously serving as an antidote to the extreme social difficulties of that period, namely, the Plague. Notice that multiple social classes, genders, and perspectives are represented in “The Canterbury Tales”, and that each teller of tales has ample time to entertain, incite, or persuade the listener to adopt his or her point of view. Choose two specific tales from “The Canterbury Tales” representing distinctly different viewpoints and compare and contrast their tellers, as well as their content, and the effect on the listeners. How do these two tales function both as social anecdotes and as social antidotes?

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #3: The Treatment of Love and Marriage in The Canterbury Tales

Throughout “The Canterbury Tales” one of the recurrent subjects in the tellers’ tales is love. Not all of the tellers agree about what love is, however, nor how it should be shared. They philosophize about related concepts, including marriage, fidelity, and chastity, and argue about men’s and women’s roles in the context of an intimate relationship. Choose two tales from “The Canterbury Tales” by Chaucer that convey different perspectives about love and analyze the “lessons" that they teach the listeners. One of the best places to start is with the Wife of Bath. If there’s anyone in “The Canterbury Tales” with an opinion on the function of marriage, she’s the one…. Also, if you’re working on a comparison essay dealing with women and/or marriage in medieval times, you can always compare these themes with the Book of Margery Kempe.(Tip: For an excellent analysis of the Wife of Bath, check out this summary of her from more a feminist viewpoint)

Thesis Statement / Essay Topic #4: The Clever and the Comic in “The Canterbury Tales”

Despite the dreary backdrop of the Plague, The Canterbury Tales is full of sly humor, witty repartee, and comic relief. Some of the tales are downright bawdy and vulgar. Focusing in on one or two of the funnier tales, what can be learned about medieval society through its humor? How is humor used, and how does it serve the larger narrative, especially when compared to some of the more sober and serious tales? Consider how the listeners react to the variety of tales. Does humor appear to be a more effective narrative device than moralizing?

Thesis Statement/Essay Topic #5: The Motif of the Journey in Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”

The reason that the tellers of tales are together, the reason why they begin sharing stories, and motivation to keep the stories going once they’ve begun is their common journey. Explain the motif of the journey in The Canterbury Tales. How do the storytellers view their journey? Do their views change as they become more invested in their storytelling? What is the meaning of the journey to the overall frame of the narrative in “The Canterbury Tales”?


This list of important quotations from “The Canterbury Tales” by Chaucer will help you work with the essay topics and thesis statements above by allowing you to support your claims. All of the important quotes from “Canterbury Tales” listed here correspond, at least in some way, to the paper topics above and by themselves can give you great ideas for an essay by offering quotes about other themes, symbols, imagery, and motifs in “The Canterbury Tales” other than those already mentioned.

“Befell that, in that season on a day,/In Southwark at the Tabard as I lay,/Ready to wenden on my pilgrimage/To Canterbury with devout corage,/At night was come into that hostelry/Well nine and twenty in a company/Of sundry folk, by aventure y-fall/who had by chance fallen In fellowship*, and pilgrims were they all,/into company. That toward Canterbury woulde ride./The chamber, and the stables were wide,/

And well we weren eased at the best./We were well provided And shortly, when the sunne was to rest,/So had I spoken with them every one.,That I was of their fellowship anon/, And made forword early for to rise/, To take our way there as I you devise." (The Prologue)

“Now have I told you shortly in a clause/Th’ estate, th’ array, the number, and eke the cause/Why that assembled was this company/In Southwark at this gentle hostelry,/That highte the Tabard, fast by the Bell./But now is time to you for to tell/How that we baren us that ilke night,/When we were in that hostelry alight./And after will I tell of our voyage,/And all the remnant of our pilgrimage." (The Prologue)

“This is the point, to speak it plat* and plain./That each of you, to shorten with your way/In this voyage, shall tellen tales tway/To Canterbury-ward, I mean it so,/And homeward he shall tellen other two,/Of aventures that whilom have befall." (The Prologue)

“There be full goode wives many one./Why art thou angry with my tale now?/I have a wife, pardie, as well as thou,/Yet n’old I, for the oxen in my plough,/Taken upon me more than enough,To deemen of myself that I am one;/I will believe well that I am none./An husband should not be inquisitive Of Godde’s privity, nor of his wife." (The Miller’s Tale, The Prologue)

“When folk had laughed all at this nice case/Of Absolon and Hendy Nicholas,/Diverse folk diversely they said,/But for the more part they laugh’d and play’d;/And at this tale I saw no man him grieve…." (The Reeve’s Tale, The Prologue)

“When that our Host had heard this sermoning,/He gan to speak as lordly as a king,/And said; “To what amounteth all this wit?/What? shall we speak all day of holy writ?/The devil made a Reeve for to preach,/As of a souter a shipman, or a leach./Say forth thy tale, and tarry not the time…." (The Reeve’s Tale, The Prologue)

“Eke well I wot, he said, that mine husband/Should leave father and mother, and take to me;/But of no number mention made he,/Of bigamy or of octogamy;/Why then should men speak of it villainy?" The Wife of Bath’s Tale, The Prologue)

“In wifehood I will use mine instrument/As freely as my Maker hath it sent./If I be dangerous* God give me sorrow/;Mine husband shall it have, both eve and morrow…." (The Wife of Bath’s Tale, The Prologue)

“Out of the devil’s erse there gan to drive/A twenty thousand friars on a rout/And throughout hell they swarmed all about,/And came again, as fast as they may gon,/And in his erse they creeped every one:/He clapt his tail again, and lay full still." (The Summoner’s Tale, The Prologue)

“In faith, Squier, thou hast thee well acquit,/And gentilly; I praise well thy wit,” (The Franklin’s Tale, The Prologue)

Comprised of two dozen stories along with various prologues and epilogues, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales displays extraordinary diversity in genre, source materials, and themes. Although some critics have argued that the resultant text should be approached as a collection of distinct pieces, most would agree that there are unifying components and that these include certain thematic strands. At the very least, the specific tales told by the pilgrims as they wend their way to Canterbury generally reflect their respective positions within medieval society as well as their personal characteristics. The Knight's Tale, for example, is a high-toned chivalric romance appropriate to his station as a member of the nobility and to his character as a man of "troth and honor, freedom and courtesy" (I, A, l.46). As or more important, Chaucer employs the device of a narrative framework, the story of twenty-nine individuals committed to both a religious pilgrimage and to participation in a story-telling contest. Reinforced by exchanges between the contestants, shared motifs appear in their respective narrations. Of these running themes, relations between men and women (and, more specifically, the topic of marriage) is the most prominent topic, but additional motifs, such as financial duplicity, unite groups of characters and run through several of their tales.

In the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, the poet establishes a shared motivation for the pilgrims as a natural urge for spiritual renewal. He remarks that in England (as in all of European Christendom), when the "sweet showers of April fall . . . people long to go on pilgrimmages" (I, A, ll.1,12). Ostensibly, Chaucer's pilgrims are united by a religious objective, to visit and worship at the shrine of the saint Thomas Beckett in Canterbury. Yet at the same time, the interaction among the pilgrims is animated by the far less serious impulse of playful social intercourse. At the suggestion of the innkeeper Harry Bailey, a story-telling contest is organized among the convivial assembly of wayfarers who stop at his tavern. The essential spirit behind The Canterbury Tales is social and playful. The pilgrims generally interact with each other in a light-hearted way as befits a group of people on a holiday or vacation excursion. Drawn from diverse vocations, each pilgrim has the opportunity to rub shoulders with those who are normally outside their particular sphere and rank. Under these circumstances, they are encouraged to talk freely about their own experiences and they assume considerable license in their choice of stories and the manner in which they are told. Parody flourishes, and Chaucer even introduces an element of self-parody by including a character named "Geffrey" ("Geoffrey the Pilgrim"). He turns out to be both a weak storyteller and an extremely poor judge of character, referring to the Shipman (who is basically a pirate) as "a good fellow" (I, A, l.395).

By contemporaneous standards, the group that gathers at Tabbard's Inn is a motley crew, a full cross-section of the fourteenth-century English middle-class, ranging in rank from the Knight to the Plowman while excluding members of the higher nobility and the lower rungs of the peasantry. People in Chaucer's England were keenly aware of vocation and rank, and viewed them as necessary to social order. They divided their fellows into three broad groups—those who fight, those who pray and those who labor—each of which is represented in Chaucer's cast. Among and within each group, moreover, vertical hierarchies discriminated between those of high and low estate. Individuals were expected to adhere to established roles and standards as expressed in both external behavior and their attitudes and values.

It is in this context that the outward attire of the characters as depicted in the General Prologue takes on significance as an emblematic theme. The clothes that each character wears are indicative of his conformity (or non-conformity) to the late medieval code that each person should dress according to his or her particular station in life. The Knight in his well-worn male, the Clerk of Oxford in his threadbare scholars robes, and the Parson in his simple vestments all display an adherence to regnant social mores. On the other hand, the Prioress and the Monk, who would be expected to wear the plain, conservative garb of their clerical professions adorn themselves with attractive cloaks and fur-trimmed robes, suggesting a certain non-conformity to official standards. Moreover,...

(The entire section is 1876 words.)