Chaucer uses the framework of a springtime pilgrimage to the sacred shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury for his most popular work The Canterbury Tales.
In the General Prologue a group of around thirty odd pilgrims come together in a fellowship and genially agree with the Host’s suggestion of a story - telling contest whereby each of them shall tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two tales on the way back. There is an additional condition that the tales must either be entertaining or instructive in character. The winner shall be treated to a grand dinner by the rest of the pilgrims. This ingenious device enables Chaucer to combine numerous narratives of diverse literary styles and genres ranging from courtly romance, Breton Lay, fabliaux, saint’s legend, tragedy, exemplum, and sermon to a beast fable into a holistic work of art. The pilgrimage device also provides Chaucer with a vast range of characters. From the Knight who is a zealous crusader for the Church to the Monk who loves hunting and the good life, from the Wife of Bath who is an expert on marital troubles to the Pardoner whose bag is stuffed with sermons hot from Rome. In fact Chaucer presents the microcosm of medieval society through these thirty odd pilgrims.
All the three basic traditional strata of medieval society have ample representation: the Knighthood represented by the Knight and the Squire, the spiritual clergy idealized in the figure of the Parson and the Clerk, and the agricultural represented by the Plowman. These were the three pillars of medieval society. The Plowmen were honest laborers who worked hard with their hands to provide sustenance for all; the clergy protected everybody’s souls; and the Knight upheld justice and protected civilian life and property. Further Chaucer also represents the genteel nobility through the Prioress and the Monk, the medieval manor through the Miller and the Reeve, and the rapidly rising middle classes through the London Merchant, Harry Bailey the innkeeper, the Manciple, the Cook, and the guildsmen. Provincial England too finds its representative in the Wife of Bath and the Sea captain. The frame of the Prologue is very essential to the structural design of the whole poem. Chaucer captures the reader’s interest from the opening lines and also introduces the themes that are later explored in detail through the individual Tales. The General Prologue describes portraits that proceed to become life-like vibrant characters.
While The Canterbury Tales contains a huge cast of characters sufficient for a novel of epic proportions, it has been often noted that it lacks plot, in the sense that it lacks a continuous linear story line. But one could reasonably argue that the sequence of the stories narrated by the different pilgrims, resembles the events of a regular plot. Also the characters are so stimulated as to make their actions i.e. their tales appear credible. The stories comprising are short, diverse and exceedingly humorous. Chaucer skillfully provides connecting links between the different tales. The quarrel between some of the characters like the Miller and the Reeve, and the Friar and the Summoner leads to tales in retaliation. The roguish churls tell bawdy tales. These links often transcend their primary function of providing connection between the tales and become dramatic. Also the characters of the pilgrims develop during these links as they talk, criticize and quarrel amongst themselves. The outer framework of the ‘General Prologue" thus contains the inner form of the tales.
The Knight tells the first tale that is admirably suited to his character. Romantic in nature it focuses on the conflicting love of two young men named Arcite and Palamon for the same lady. Both the young wooers revere the lady. Their love is honorable and its ultimate aim is marriage. A dramatic tournament decides the fate of the lovers. All the pilgrims appreciate the Knight’s Tale and everybody concedes that it is a noble story. In the meanwhile the Miller has become drunk and he insists on telling his story. Chaucer warns the readers that the tale might be bawdy and apologizes to the reader while reminding the reader that it is his duty to record everything. He also innocently advises the reader that he may skip the tale altogether and go ahead to the moralistic stories. The Miller’s Tale provides a stark contrast to The Knight’s Tale and angers the Reeve because of its unjust portrayal of a carpenter. This leads him to retaliate with a bawdy tale about a Miller. The narrative links impose some kind of sequential order to the tales. The essential source of drama and action thus comes from the inter linking and inter play of stories and from the interaction between characters.
The book does not mention a return journey. It seems as if the story-telling game has been lost and no prize will be awarded to the winner. There is no concrete model for structure. Each tale grows into the other and modifies our perception about the earlier tale. The ideas that one has after reading the Knight’s Tale appear in an altogether different perspective after reading the Miller’s Tale. Similarly the Parson’s Tale modifies our experience of the entire book. This change in our perception may reasonably be regarded as the promised return journey. Seen in this light the book does not appear to be open-ended and unfinished but a holistic work of art.