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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THEMES

NOAH AND THE FLOOD

In the Bible, Noah saves the best left on earth when God sends the flood to destroy the world for its corruption. Typically Noah was seen in the Middle Ages as the precursor to Christ, who also saves. By referring to the Noah story, Chaucer uses the idea of man following God's plan, even though he doesn't know what the plan is.

DESTINY AND IDEAS OF ORDER

There's a right way and a wrong way to do things, as we learned in the Knight's Tale, to which this tale is an answer and a parallel. The earlier tale deals with destiny that men can't change or know about; here it takes the form of everyone getting his or her just deserts. All the individual plans backfire and God's proper order is reestablished.

Also, we're meant to see, even in this humorous tale, that some things belong to a natural order: men should marry women their own age, young people will be attracted to each other and let their sexual instinct override their sense.

VOCATIONS

Everyone's profession has an ironic meaning in this tale. Carpentry, John's profession, is put in to annoy the Reeve, but look at it also in a larger sense. Carpentry was Christ's profession. Also, the carpenter's guild in Chaucer's day put on the mystery (religious) play of Noah. Astrology is what allows Nicholas to pull one over on John. But it also was seen by some in the Middle Ages as a "wrong" science, since man's "privetee" and providence aren't supposed to replace God's, and astrology is a way to try to do so. Like Arcite he is the Knight's Tale, Nicholas is set apart from society; he is set apart by his dabbling in the occult.


PROMISES

As in the Knight's Tale, vows are made and broken, but the humor here is that half the time the people who make the promises don't intend to keep them. Alison is not the faithful wife. Nicholas promises a flood that never comes. The only promises that are kept are the wrongly intentioned ones, such as Alison and Nicholas' vow to cuckold John, Nicholas' promise to John that he will "save" his wife, and Alison's promise that she'll let Absalom kiss her.

THE SACRED AND PROFANE

We've already seen the interplay between the bawdy and the religious, but how are we to take it? Does the profanity cast doubt on the seriousness of the spiritual? Does the idea of a hidden moral mean we can't take the tale's raucousness at face value? You can accept either version, or make a case that Chaucer meant to fuse the two, with the lovers' longings and the love of God represented. After all, you can argue in this tale that both sex and religion are ways to reach outside of oneself, and both come in for their fair share of ridicule.

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