The Canterbury Tales By Geoffrey Chaucer Summary and Analysis The Parson's Prologue and Tale

Summary

When the Host turns to the Parson and bids him tell his story, the stern old man says that the pilgrims will get no "fables and swich wreccheddnesse" from him, nor will they get poetry; he is no rhymester, nor would he have a story that would amuse and entertain. He says he has a sermon designed for those who wish to make the final mortal pilgrimage to the Heavenly Jerusalem.


The Parson's Tale is a solemn and formal sermon, long and tedious, on the renunciation of the world. The Parson speaks of all life as a pilgrimage from this base, mundane world to the next celestial world, where all grief ends. God does not desire any man to perish, and there are many spiritual ways to the Celestial City or the Heavenly Jerusalem. The noble ways include penitence, contrition, confession, and satisfaction (giving alms, doing penance, fasting, and experiencing "bodily pain"). The Parson then spells out the sins of commission — the Seven Deadly Sins — that man must avoid: pride, envy, anger, sloth, avarice, gluttony, and lechery.

Analysis

The Parson's Tale is one of the longest of all the tales, and it seems even longer because of the tedious litany on abstract virtues and vices. Certainly, the Parson preaches with all the force that the medieval pulpit afforded him, and he ends with the compelling image of the goal of man's pilgrimage, that is, heaven and immortality.

The theology of the Middle Ages viewed this life as something of a cesspool that man was supposed to struggle through, committing as few sins as possible. This world was to be endured (never enjoyed) in order to achieve glory in the afterlife. Consequently, as the Parson says in his prologue, he would not tell a story simply to amuse or entertain, so instead, he offers a sermon. The intent of the sermon was didactic, to teach a lesson or give instructions on achieving immortality. For the medieval person, especially the rigorous theologians of the time, didactic intent is infinitely more important than artistic achievement. Thus, Chaucer ends the tales with this sermon, which is appropriately followed by his retraction of all of his earthly (worldly) works.

It is rather obvious from some of the tales told by the pilgrims, and particularly tales told by some of those connected with the ecclesiastical organization, that the church of Chaucer's time had fallen upon evil days. It is fitting, therefore, that the tales should end on the high moral tone of the Parson's sermon. This sermon can also function as a proper preparation for the visit to the Shrine of St. Thomas à Beckett, and finally, it seems to lead naturally to Chaucer's Retraction.

Glossary

Rum-Ram-Ruf an alliterative phrase meant to make fun of the popular use of alliteration in contemporary compositions such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or Piers Plowman.

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