- How do we pin down how Chaucer really feels about things? Can we do so?
- Where are the tensions in the stories, or among the characters?
- What do we make of one of the central tales, the Wife of Bath’s? Is Chaucer forward-thinking?
Having spent some time discussing the stories, what now jumps out at me is the contrast between how people are “supposed” to behave and how they actually do. This happens on the textual level (the Miller’s tale immediately following the Knight’s chivalrous tale, or the fact that they’re telling these bawdy stories on a literal pilgrimage) but also on a personal level: the pardoner being a swindler, the Friar losing his temper, and so on. There’s an extent to which the characters of The Canterbury Tales are smaller-than-life. Is it a cynicism?
The book feels particularly modern in a way that a lot of the other books I’ve read for this project have not. You can easily imagine the petty squabbles and the oneupmanship happening in a bar someplace. To the extent that The Canterbury Tales has cemented its place as one of “the Great Books,” it’s worth asking: what accounts for its enduring popularity?
My initial thought is that it provides a sort of relief to the epic tales by Homer. It feels quotidian and relatable in a way that The Iliad doesn’t. A lot about the characters feels familiar: what are we doing, but trying to close the gap between how we ought to behave versus what we actually do.