Chaucer introduces quite the motley crew of pilgrims in his Canterbury Tales. And while his stories are often humorous, grotesque, and entertaining, they offer a great deal of commentary on social constructs as well as what drives the participants in a given society to act the way they do. The complexities of sex, honor, and vanity pervade the majority of the tales, but there is undoubtedly a method and a purpose behind Chaucer’s eccentric characters and their adventures.
The Miller’s Tale ultimately deals with a classic dilemma found in our society and our culture today, as it always has been. John, the carpenter marries a woman much younger than himself. The inherent tension and potential friction present in their circumstance alone provides material for a story even before the threat of a devastating “flood” and other men enter. After the initial sexual attraction and lust, trickery, and cruelty are through, the end of the story is clear: the carpenter is made a cuckold. But more importantly than this, he is made a cuckold publically. He is made out to be a fool by his young bride and her lover. This is the ultimate dishonor, disgrace, and embarrassment for the carpenter. His private life, his problems-his “dirty laundry”-is not simply exposed to him, but to all. The role of society and its impact on public life is pretty obvious, but it is important to recognize the role of society on private life as well because it certainly affects it. Society, or the members which constitute this given society, come into the private life of a man and partake in his embarrassment. The carpenter is shamed by Alison and Nicholas, but he is also shamed by his fellow citizens. His plight provides the material for their laughter and their pity (3849). And while one may be inclined to feel bad for the old man, it must not be forgotten that he inadvertently asks for this. He invites this dishonor upon himself when he marries a teenage girl and expects her to be satisfied with an old man. It seems that all the characters involved are at fault here, even the pathetic Absolon who goes after another man’s wife. All their actions, society will tell us, are wrong. The tale is an old one, but the story holds up through time because this situation is relatable to our world today. And no matter the time period, no good can ever really come from such a situation.
Chaucer attempts to put forth a more endearing story with The Franklin’s Tale. The tale leads to acts of “kindness.” Initially tainted motives turn awry and eventually dissolve. Arveragus’s attempt at “honor” by succumbing to his wife’s promise ultimately influences and inspires the others to drop their respective claims over one another. But where is the honor in allowing your wife to be taken by a man she does not want because of a promise she made so that you may come home safely? By following an invisible code of conduct, by submitting to a verbal promise, Arveragus thinks that he is acting properly and honorably according to society. Chaucer wants his readers to think that this is a happy ending and that the individuals involved are virtuous and kind, but this is merely on the surface because the Franklin poses an important question at the close of his tale: “Which was the mooste fre, as thynketh yow? (1623). This is not an innocent question. Which of these individuals was most honorable in the end? This question should remind the reader that there was really no honor in these acts because they were founded in dishonorable and ridiculous circumstances. The attempted picture of chivalrous, courtly valor, of self-sacrifice does not work here. The quick ending is laughable- everything magically resolves itself and all is well. Even if the characters deem their resolution honorable or even note worthy, the reader recognizes its absurdity as well as the pride of the individuals involved.Vanity, like pride, is a concept often attributed to society. There is a standard by which everyone holds themselves as well as each other up to. But in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, vanity nearly results in the violent death of a cock. Chauntecleer’s aesthetic value is indicated in the tale. References to his beautiful “coomb…byle…legges…toon…nayles…colour” (2859) are made, pointing out his exterior beauty. It is precisely this which gains him “sevene hennes” (2866). Flattery successfully lures Chauntecleer away from the safety of his home into danger. He is taken with himself, with his own good looks, and almost loses them all because of it. Society is likely a direct influence on how Chauntecleer sees himself. It is how he knows to judge himself, whether he should or not. Just as society invades the private lives of lovers, it also plants semi-deluded notions of honor and nobility in our minds. It tells us how we should see ourselves and each other. Everyone is very much aware of society and societal influences, but regardless of this knowledge, society is extremely influential and works on us both consciously as well as subconsciously. Chaucer knew this and he is able to play with what society is capable of doing.