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Free Study Guide-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free BookNotes
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THEMES ANALYSIS (continued)

The problem of the position of women and the issue of marriage relationships constitutes yet another strand of thematic concern. Critics have labeled the Fragments 3,4, and 5 (or Groups D, E, and F) as the ‘Marriage Group’. They hold the tales told by the Wife of Bath, Clerk, Merchant, and Franklin. These consist of a serious debate on what constitutes the ideal marital relationship. The Wife of Bath presents a strong case for the emancipation of women. In the Middle Ages marriage was considered as inferior as celibacy was highly prized. The sexual act was considered dishonorable even within marriage. The Wife of Bath argues in favor of marriage and points out that virginity was only for those who wanted to lead a perfect life. Moreover she argues that the sexual organs were made for both procreation as well as pleasure. She argues through her Prologue and Tale that women desire sovereignty in marriage. In the Middle Ages women were expected to be subservient and were expected to love, honor and obey their husbands. The Wife of Bath’s assertion that women should have sovereignty in marriage thus amounts to a heresy.

The Clerk’s Tale is an indirect response to the Wife of Bath’s argument. The Clerk puts forth a diametrically opposite view and draws the sketch of a totally submissive woman in the character of Griselda. The Merchant in distinct contrast to the Clerk’s ideal depiction of the submissive Griselda, opines that marriage is basically an undesirable state. The Merchant puts forth the view that happiness in marriage can only be achieved by self-imposed blindness. When old January’s sight is restored, he allows himself to be blinded to the true facts and lets himself believe that his wife is faithful to him. The Franklin takes the middle path between the Clerk’s insistence on patience and submissiveness and the Wife of Bath’s demand of sovereignty. The Second Nun’s Tale is the final tale dealing with the Themes of love and marriage. Cecilia submits to marriage but attains sovereignty by her husband’s consent. Cecilia’s marriage is on a higher plane of existence and upholds saintliness in love. Neither she nor her husband achieves sovereignty over each other. Rather both subjugate themselves to the divine will.

The Canterbury Tales may be allegorically interpreted as a book about the way or life of man in the world. The book metaphorically represents human life as a one way journey on earth, to the heavenly city of Jerusalem, through the device of the pilgrimage. The pilgrimage is thus not merely a physical journey to an actual place but also a metaphor or symbol of an inner journey of the soul towards God. This interpretation is supported by the Parson’s Prologue where he expresses a desire to lead the pilgrims to the celestial city of Jerusalem: "And Jhesu, for his grace, wit me sende / To shewe you the way, in this viage, / Of thilke parfit glorious pilgrimage / That highte Jerusalem celestial". Thus the journey from one city to another may be seen as the journey from the worldly city to the city of God.


The Canterbury Tales also uphold the highest ideals of conduct - ‘trouthe’ and honor in duty, constancy, faith and patience in times of adversity, purity and saintliness in love. These Themes recur in several tales told by the noble characters. For instance the thematic concern of the Knight’s Tale is the chivalric code of conduct. The tale praises courage and valor in war and also courtesy, truth and honor. It represents Arcite and Palamon’s idealized love for Emily. Their love is pure and untainted by any unchaste thoughts. The only possible end for their love is marriage. Arcite and Palamon fight a joust to retain their honor and seek a solution for their conflicting love for Emily. The theme of honor and truth in relationships is continued in the Franklin’s Tale. Here Arveragus leaves Dorigen for an extended period to acquire skills required in warfare. This is the traditional conception of honor being gained through fighting battles. But in the Franklin’s Tale ‘honor’ is not accorded so much importance as ‘trouthe’. Arveragus is ready to give his wife to Aurelius for the sake of truth. He tells Dorigen to honor her promise even though adultry was the most dishonorable thing in the Middle Ages. The Sergeant at Law’s Tale takes up the thematic concern of the Christian virtue of constancy and patience in times of adversity. The Sergeant at Law tells the tale of Constance who retains faith in the goodness of the Blessed Virgin even in the most excruciating circumstances of her life. This theme is continued in the Clerk’s Tale of the exemplary patience of Griselda. During the Middle Ages saintliness and purity in love was emphasized. The Second Nun’s Tale of St. Cecilia takes saintliness in love as its thematic concern. Cecilia converts her husband to Christianity and both surrender themselves to the will of God.

The problem of predestination and foreknowledge had always intrigued Chaucer. He treats this serious subject in the most frivolous manner in the Nun's Priest’s Tale by making a cock and hen discuss this metaphysical issue. Chaucer believed that dreams were visions and forewarnings of future events and thus had metaphysical importance. This view established that God determines the future in some way. The cock Chaunticleer holds that his dream is prophetic and supports his argument with weighty references to

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