Major Themes in The Canterbury Tales

Major Themes in The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales is a novel with rich tales that highlight the behavior of different characters. These tales portray various themes that help reinforce the understanding of how the society is full of people with diverse characteristics. This essay discusses the major themes displayed by Geoffrey Chaucer's presentation.

Social Satire

This theme is an essential part of Chaucer’s work. The setting of the medieval society was in three parts; the workers (peasants), those who prayed (the Church), and the fighters (the Nobility). The prorogue of the tales is a depiction of a social satire whereby the stories depict all the medieval society's segments, such as evil hearts and immorality. There is a description of each of the pilgrim’s functions and specialty. The novel also presents the pilgrims' social lives and the characters mentioned in their tales. For instance, the stories show how the Church fails to exercise honesty while performing their duties. The Nun’s Priest’s Tale explains the standard of self-respect.    

Sexual Desire and Courtly Love

According to the beliefs of the medieval society, courtly love is achievable spiritually and not physically. Chaucer’s presentation of the Knight's Tale is an excellent example of this theme. As per the story, two knights engage in a duel to win a lady's hand, and in the process, the two forget their dutiful service provision requirements. The Squire’s Tale is also an essential description of courtly love. A young knight has all the features of courtly love, plays flute, sings, and maintains his physical stature, ensuring his passion remains intact. The Prioress believes about the strength of love when she sees a badge written "Love Conquers All." Besides, the Miller’s Tale and the Wife of Bath’s Tale explain how there is prevalence in sexual desire in Canterbury Tales.  


This theme is visible through the behavior of the pilgrims as well as in the stories they present. As Chaucer presents it, the Canterbury Tales shows how the pilgrims compete in storytelling. Some of them are impatient and go to the extent of skipping their turns in telling their stories. For instance, Miller describes his story after the Knight before waiting for his turn. Also, the Friar and the Summoner compete on tarnishing each other's names where there is an extortion of money. There is competition in the Knight's Tale, where two knights fight for love. The two knights fall in love with Emelye, and it is through fighting that the king engages them in a duel where the winner marries the woman. There are also competing ideas among the gods. For instance, Mars, Venus, and Diana conflict with each other as they all want to fulfill the needs of the two knights and the woman. In the end, one of the knights dies, and the other takes the fair woman and marries her.  

Company and Friendship

This theme is strong as it reflects the social lives of the medieval society. The pilgrims have the company of each while they head to Canterbury to see Thomas Becket’s relics. The pilgrims belong to different places of origin and where they perform different functions in the society. Some of them are merchants belonging to a specific trade, while others are from the church. Despite coming from different social backgrounds and groups, they form a company making new friends as they head to Canterbury with a common purpose. In the Knight’s Tale, there is the friendship between the knights, Arcite and Palamon, that guides them in achieving the required code of conduct. The two have to choose between their loyal friendship and rivalry of their mutual love for one woman.

Additionally, the Canterbury Tales shows how the pilgrims wish the rest of the company well as they conclude their stories. For instance, both the Knight and the Reeve pray that God saves the rest of the members in their company. Although they all come from different social parts of medieval society and have diverse professions such as sewing, entertainment, and tilling the land, they form a company that has a common goal and with no one belonging to the nobility.

Corruption in Church

The framing of the Canterbury Tales is from a religious perspective. All the pilgrims are heading to Canterbury on a pilgrimage to visit the remains of Thomas Becket. In medieval society, the Catholic Church was the prominent force, and the pious people were to become pilgrims. Chaucer’s work presents the same concept where some pilgrims come together for a common course of visiting the costly relics. The tales display how the pilgrims are not that pure in their activities and perform contrary to what society requires of them. 

Although most of the storytellers show bias in their presentation, they try to depict the deviate behavior of the people the society perceives as the role models of other members. The monk and the Pardoner give accounts of themselves while at the same time trying to mock others who do not act as dutiful as they should be. The Pardoner’s Tale presents an account of corrupt deeds. It talks about a preacher tasked with the duty of collecting money used for religious purposes. He, however, collects money from the people in town for his selfish gains.  


The setting of Canterbury Tale provides a religious background whereby the pilgrims are heading on a holy pilgrimage. Also, various storytellers represent religious figures such as the Friar, the Nun, the Parson, the Monk. These storytellers also provide an understanding of the Christian setting of the medieval society. In this case, some of the members worship Christ truly while others enrich themselves through corrupt means. Such figures, like the Pardoner spoil the true Christian spirit instead of being the custodians of Christianity.

Geoffrey Chaucer relates the tales with the true behavior of the religious leaders in the society. The themes help highlight such characters who try as much as possible to continue enriching themselves through the churches. Also, the themes present the parts of the medieval society that people have regardless of their religious backgrounds.

Published on: 25 May 2020

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