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Free Study Guide-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free BookNotes
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SHORT PLOT SUMMARY (Synopsis)

The Canterbury Tales consists of the stories related by the 29 pilgrims on their way to Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. Harry Bailey, the Host, had proposed a scheme in the General Prologue whereby each pilgrim was to narrate two tales on the way to Canterbury and two more while returning. In the course of the journey the Canon and his Yeoman join the pilgrims. However The Canterbury Tales are incomplete. There should have been a hundred and twenty tales in all according to the original plan but Chaucer only completed twenty-three tales. Out of these, the Cook’s and the Squire’s tales are unfinished. Two tales are imperfectly attributed to the teller: the Sea captain’s tale begins as though a woman were telling it and was actually earlier meant for the Wife of Bath, while the Second Nun refers to herself as an "unworthy son of Eve". The Knight tells the first tale.

The Knight’s Tale describes how two kinsmen Arcite and Palamon fall in love with the same woman named Emily whom they first see out of their prison window. Emily is the niece of King Theseus. Arcite gains his freedom but is banished from Athens. He comes back in a disguise since he cannot bear to live away from Emily. In the meanwhile Palamon breaks out of prison and coincidentally meets Arcite in a forest grove. Here Theseus discovers them fighting a bloody duel. Theseus puts an end to their fight and organizes a contest to resolve their quarrel about Emily. Before the contest Arcite prays to Mars for victory while Palamon prays to Venus for the sole possession of Emily. This creates uproar in heaven and finally both the wishes are granted. Arcite emerges victorious in the joust but falls from his horse and dies and eventually Palamon marries Emily.


The Miller’s Tale relates how Old John, an Oxford carpenter, was deceived by a clerk named Nicholas. That is, he had an affair with the carpenter’s wife. Nicholas deceives the carpenter into believing that Noah’s flood is about to recur and makes him hang three tubs from the ceiling to escape the deluge. The carpenter sleeps fitfully in one tub while his wife Alison spends the night with Nicholas. The young parish clerk Absolon who is also trying to woo Alison arrives beneath her bedroom window only to be humiliated. When Absolon desperately begs Alison for a kiss she thrusts her posterior out of the window. He is angry and returns to take revenge. But now Nicholas extends his backside out of the window and Absolon brands him with a red- hot iron. Nicholas’s screams wakes the carpenter who cuts the cord and plunges down breaking his arm.

The Reeve’s Tale continues in the bawdy vein and repays the Miller for his sarcastic depiction of a carpenter. It describes how two clerks named John and Alan, whose flour had been stolen, cheat a flour miller. While Alan sleeps with the miller’s daughter, John moves the baby’s cot near his bed so that the miller’s wife gets into it mistaking it for her husband’s. At dawn Alan goes to the miller’s bed and thinking that John is in it boasts about how he has had the miller’s daughter that night. The miller is furious to hear this and starts cursing. The miller’s wife, thinking that she is in bed with her husband strikes the miller mistaking him for one of the clerks. The clerks then escape with their flour that has been baked into a cake.

The Cook’s Tale is an unfinished fragment and deals with the story of an apprentice cook named Perkin who loses his job because of his loose habits. The dismissal however has no effect on Perkin and he moves in with a like-minded friend whose wife is a prostitute.

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