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Genre—Poetry, Narrative, and Satire
Genre refers to the specific category in a general topic. Jazz and heavy metal are genres of
music, for example. In literature, genres include poetry, fiction, tall tales, nonfiction, and
The Canterbury Tales is a poem consisting of approximately 17,000 lines. The poems are
arranged in stanzas of varying lengths, bear a rhythm, and follow one rhyme scheme per
poem. For the most part, Chaucer uses couplets, predominantly heroic couplets (two
rhymed lines in iambic pentameter), for his tales. Iambic pentameter consists of lines with
10 syllables in an unstressed/stressed pattern. Additionally, each pair of lines contains an
end rhyme.
Take a look at the following example. The rhyming words have been underlined, and the
rhyme scheme has been completed following the pattern “a, a, b, b.”
When in April the sweet showers fall
And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all
The veins are bathed in liquor of the power,
And brings out engendering of the flower
At times, Chaucer switches his format, although he rarely surrenders the poetic form entirely.
In the following passage from the Man of Law’s Tale, Chaucer breaks from the heroic couplet
and moves to a rhyme scheme of ababbcc. He changes the early part of the stanza but
maintains the couplet at the end. The same pattern is used for the Prioress’s Tale.
Oh hateful grief to suffer indulgence
By hunger, thirst and cold to be confounded
To feel heart’s shame at asking a few pence
Or, asking none, to know yourself surrounded
By such necessity your need is sounded
In every ear and you are left to creep
About and borrow, beg or steal your keep
In addition to being a poem, The Canterbury Tales is also a narrative. Narratives tell a
story or convey the experiences of one or more characters in the story. In this case, each
pilgrim tells a story about the experiences of a person or of a group of people, while the
collection of tales tells the story of the pilgrims and their trip to the shrine of St. Thomas à
Becket in Canterbury. Each individual tale is a narrative and the overarching tale of the
group’s voyage is a also a narrative of their collective experiences on the road. In this way,
The Canterbury Tales is a narrative within a narrative using a structure called framing.
Narratives can be found in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.
Satire refers to a body of work that focuses on a specific person, thing, or event to ridicule or
poke fun at it. In modern times, satire can be found in movies and television programs as
well as literature. Because The Canterbury Tales pokes fun at the pilgrims within the story,
the poem falls under the category of satire. Chaucer paints the Friar as a man of God but
also mentions that he sells what is supposed to be God’s forgiveness for money (9). Thus,
Chaucer holds the Friar up for scrutiny and ridicule because of the contradiction between
what friars should do and what this Friar does. In addition, Chaucer holds the merchant up
for ridicule by stating he talks about how to save and use money properly but is secretly in
debt (10). There are other examples throughout poem.
©2011 Secondary Solutions
The Canterbury Tales Literature Guide
Estate Satire
The term estate satire refers to a specific type of satire. In this case the word estate refers to
the social classes and the hierarchy. During the time in which Chaucer wrote, the hierarchy
started with the monarchy and nobility and worked its way down to the poor people who
worked for the landowners. Because Chaucer specifically includes characters that represent
every facet of society except for the monarchy, The Canterbury Tales is an example of estate
The Knight, Squire, and members of the religious section of society including the Prioress
and Monk represent the upper end of the social class structure. Representing other aspects
of the social hierarchy are the Man of Law, the Merchant, the Parson, and the Plowman,
among others. While he is careful not to ridicule the monarchy, Chaucer openly satirizes
members of the remaining social classes throughout The Canterbury Tales.
©2011 Secondary Solutions
The Canterbury Tales Literature Guide