"The Canterbury Tales" is a complex work with several overlapping thematic concerns. The poem represents the English society of the fourteenth century All the three fundamental strata of medieval society-the Knighthood, the spiritual clergy and the toiling agricultural classes - have ample representation in the portraits of the Knight, Parson and Plowman. The well - born gentility is represented through the Prioress and the Monk. The medieval manor is depicted through the Miller and the Reeve. The Merchant, the innkeeper Host, the Manciple, the Cook, and the five guildsmen represent the middle classes. The professional class is depicted through the Sergeant at Law and the Physician. Provincial England is also represented through the Wife of Bath and the Sea captain from Dartmouth.
Another prominent theme is Chaucer’s critique of the church of medieval England. The Canterbury Tales provides the reader with a picture of a disorganized Christian society in a state of decline and obsolescence. Chaucer is aware of the corruption of the clergy and draws an ironic portrait of the Prioress and presents satiric portraitures of the Monk, the Friar, the Summoner, and the Pardoner. The ideal portrait of the Parson counterbalances the moral depravity and corruptness of the other ecclesiastics and represents what should be. Chaucer’s ironic praise of the Prioress’s affectations, classical beauty, and attachment to worldly concerns only serves to highlight her inappropriateness as the head of a religious convent. Her achievements would have been more suitable for a fashionable lady of the society. Similarly Chaucer’s approbation of the Monk’s delight in the finer things of life and passion for hunting is aimed at eliciting the reader’s disapproval as they go against his monastic vow of poverty. His frequent hunting expeditions contravene the monastic vow of leading a cloistered life and devoting oneself to studies.
The irony is intensified when Chaucer commends the Monk’s refusal to follow the rules laid down by St. Benedict and reminds the reader that, "And I seyde his opinion was good." The Friar is first praised for his humility, courtesy, virtuousness, and ability to extract money from the poor. Chaucer approvingly says that the worthy Friar had arranged the marriage of many young women at his own cost. The readers only realize a moment later the Friar’s motive for doing so and are filled with derision at his lechery. Similarly Chaucer praises the Friar’s knowledge of the taverns and bars in town and agrees that it is unprofitable to associate with the poor. Thus in the portraits of the ecclesiastics Chaucer praises those qualities which are diametrically opposed to their profession. There is a sort of ascending scale of moral depravity and corruption from the indulgent portrait of the worldly Prioress to the portrait of the dissolute Friar. But Chaucer reserves his maximum acrimony for the Summoner and the Pardoner. The Summoner’s main function was to summon sinners before the ecclesiastical courts for justice. It is extremely ironic for a corrupt Summoner who is himself guilty of committing sins, to bring sinners to justice. His repulsive physical appearance is an indicator of his diseased soul. Chaucer strongly condemns the Summoner’s acceptance of bribes and the philosophy that the purse is the archdeacon’s hell, which implies that the only punishment is to the purse of the sinner. The ‘gentil’ Pardoner is the representation of evil. He sells indulgences and dupes naïve people by selling them false relics. Moreover the hypocritical crook always preaches against avarice even while he himself is guilty of the same sin. The Canterbury Tales thus constitutes a passionate attack on the decadence and corruption of the medieval church. Chaucer exposes the evils attacking the very root of Christianity. Chaucer’s portrait of the ideal Parson, indicates his desire for reform and revitalize Christianity.
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 Cato, St. Kenelm, Daniel and Joseph from the Old Testament, Andromache and Hector.
Chaucer uses several stylistic devices to liven his portraits of the tellers of the tales. One such device was the use of what the Medieval people termed "the colors of rhetoric". This merely meant the devices by which an artist varied and elaborated his usage of words. Chaucer followed the rhetorical principles laid down by Gaufred de Vinsauf in his "Nova Poetria". These include the description whereby a character is described from the top to the bottom right down to the toe - nail. An example is Chaucer’s description of the magnificent cock Chaunticleer in the Nun's Priest’s Tale. The second principle is exclamation whereby the emotional importance of the situation is highlighted. This is Chaucer’s favorite device. The third device is digression, which involves digressions to develop a point of view within the story. There are numerous examples of such digressions. Chaunticleer in the Nun's Priest Tale for instance cites classical authorities to support his argument that dreams are forewarnings of the future.
Another device is collation or the introduction of comparisons of moderate length. Chaucer frequently adds color to his tales through the use of comparisons. Yet another device is interpretation which enlarges and reinterprets an already stated opinion. The circumlocution amplifies a simple idea by a long - winded description. The opposito is another device whereby a fact is stated by denying its opposite. For instance the Parson’s character is established in the General Prologue by stressing what he does not have in common with the average parish priests who let out their benefices on hire and run off to London in search of money by singing masses for the dead. Yet another device is occupation which is a method of cutting a tale short. For instance the Knight does not describe Duke Theseus’s heroic battles by saying that it will make the tale too long and cumbersome. There are many other principles of rhetoric but these are the main ones used by Chaucer to add vibrancy and life to his magnificent book, The Canterbury Tales.