Chaucer, "General Prologue"
The Canterbury Tales is an incomplete work: we have only 24 of the 120 tales originally projected. Most critics agree that the pilgrims get to Canterbury but that they do not return. The inconsistency between Chaucer's plan and his actual achievement suggests that the Prologue was written before the tales. The work is unfinished probably because of illness. Still, the Retraction mixes the voices of author and narrator in order to bring the book to an appropriate close.
The tales' framework is historical, chronological, and geographical. Historical: The date of composition of the Prologue is 1387. Between 1384 and 1388 the chief port was Middleburgh, not Callais as it had been. Our text doesn't say Middleburgh, but page 140 in the Oxford text clearly mentions it. The Merchant would not have been interested in keeping the sea lanes to Middleburgh free from pirates at any other time. Also, the existence of a real Harry Bailey of Southwark, an innkeeper, has been established (he was a member of Parliament in 1376 and 1378). A Madame Argentyne has been found in the records of St. Leonard's, Bromley, adjoining Stratford-Bow, a 14th century convent (possibly a model for Madame Eglentyne, the Prioress). The nuns of Stratford ran a brothel, the Unicorn, in Southwark. The Prioress is from this convent. (This is why "nunnery" came to mean a place of erotic passion or of religious dedication.) The Reeve has been traced to the Pembroke estates in Norfolk. And Thomas Pynchbek had signed a warrant for Chaucer's arrest (see the pun on Pynchbek at line 336). Chronological: The tales we have are spaced out over a period of four days. Geographical: there are references to places along the way (e.g., "Lo! Rochester!").
Although there is no convincing theory about their order, we can suggest three principles of organization: there is a marriage group (Wife's Prologue through the Franklin's Tale); the Seven Deadly Sins may help organize the tales; and pilgrimage itself is a unifying and framing principle.
The pairing of tale and teller works in three ways: sometimes a pilgrim tells a tale that is appropriate to his nature (Miller's Tale); some tales are externally motivated (e.g., the Miller's tale angers the Reeve, who tells a nasty tale about a miller to get even); and others are internally motivated by a need or desire for self-revelation, a kind of confession of which the teller is not fully aware (e.g., the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner).
Three levels of understanding are at work in The Canterbury Tales. (1) Chaucer, the poet, is an ironist. (2) Chaucer, the pilgrim, is a genial but not very intelligent observer who praises things too easily and does not distinguish properly between appearance and reality. We get the Prologue and all of the tales as the pilgrim Chaucer's narration. (3) We as readers sense a tension between poet and pilgrim; we know that something is not quite right about some of the descriptions. Example: The pilgrim Chaucer greatly admires the Prioress, the Monk, and the Friar; but the poet Chaucer knows that they distort the ideals they are supposed to uphold. One reason the pilgrim's view is distorted is that he mixes up character ("condition") and appearance: viewing a character's splendid appearance, he overlooks the person's spiritual penury.
The pilgrims represent a wide range of 14th-century society. Most of the ranks, vocations, trades and professions are represented; but they fall into two broad categories: secular and ecclesiastical. Excepted: the high aristocracy, some trades, lower class laborers. Put another way, the Prologue includes characters from the "three estates" of English society: court, cleric, and commons (the bourgeoisie). Each pilgrim is not only a representative of a social class--an ideal or quintessential type--but also an individual.
The portraits fall into two groups: lines 1-555, and 556-734. The portraits are ordered as follows. Group One: the knight (the highest ranking secular figure) and his men; ecclesiastical figures (Prioress outranks Monk, who outranks Friar); the Franklin (a public official of sorts); gildsmen (so successful that they can now hold public office); solid citizens (Cook, Captain, Physician, Wife of Bath, Parson, Plowman). Group Two: Miller, Manciple, Reeve, pilgrim Chaucer (whose mention of himself with these rogues is a joke); Summoner and Pardoner.
Parson and Plowman foil Summoner and Pardoner. Chaucer, the poet, puts the Parson and Plowman last in the first section, and the Summoner and Pardoner last in the final section, in order to call attention to them. Parson and Plowman, genuinely good people, contrast with all the rest of the pilgrims, whether worldly or ecclesiastical. (The narrator apologizes at line 763-65 in case he has neglected what is due to order and degree.) Moreover, the length of a portrait suggests its importance to Chaucer, pilgrim/poet: 320 lines are devoted to the seven religious figures (Friar, Parson, Pardoner, Summoner, Monk, Prioress, Clerk; maybe also a second nun and three priests), but only 349 lines to the other nineteen characters.
Four satirical techniques are used in the Prologue: conglomerate detail; exaggeration (e.g., the Knight's travels); focus on a single quality (e.g., Monk, venery; Pardoner, avarice; Friar, "wantonnesse"; Knight, "worthynesse"; Squire, youth; Parson, priestliness); and the sudden thrust or quick glance at the inner man (Man of Law, lines 331-32; Physician, lines 453-54; Pardoner, line 711). The author's attention ranges widely from an ideal character (Knight), to a wholly individual character (Wife of Bath), to kindly satire (Squire, Prioress), to serious satire (Monk), and to moral disapproval (Summoner, Pardoner). The result of techniques is either to build up the character as an exemplar or to stress his common humanity.