Analyze characters in Canterbury Tales


BUS 3920

First Paper Assignment

Due on March 15 by 11:59pm

Choose one of the following prompts. Your paper should be a minimum of 800 words and a

maximum of 1800 (these are approximate limits, 50 words more or less is not a problem).

1. Analyze two of Chaucer’s women characters to examine how he shows women competing

with men for power and influence. Don’t forget that there are only two women described in

the General Prologue. This already tells you that the pilgrimage and the tale-telling

competition are dominated by men precisely because far fewer women had either the

freedom or the resources for such kinds of travel. Given the disadvantages women faced in

the Middle Ages (very little access to education or jobs, frequently prevented from owning

or inheriting property, not having a choice in whom they marry), how do Chaucer’s female

characters manage to get ahead in the world? How do they use techniques that can be

associated with successful business practices even if their modes of competing with men

are not the norm today? Why do you think Chaucer does not condemn his women

characters even when they are unscrupulous? Be sure to quote specific passages from two

tales to support your ideas (this can include the Wife of Bath’s Prologue). The Wife of Bath

can be part of your essay, but keep in mind you need to distinguish between her role as a

pilgrim and the roles of women in the stories many of the pilgrims tell. It’s also helpful to

think about class status. The Wife of Bath, Griselda, and May are all commoners. Their

lower class status seems to contribute to their lack of “mastery” in their relationships, and

they do not truly choose their husbands though they agree to marry them (the Wife of Bath

is an exception here). Similarly, the merchant’s wife in the Shipman’s Tale, may not be

aristocratic, but notice how important it is for her to dress in a way that emphasizes her

husband’s wealth and status as a successful merchant. Whichever characters you choose to

focus on, be sure to pay close attention to details and use quotations to back up your ideas

about them.

2. According to any moral standard of judgment, the Pardoner is hypocritical, corrupt, and

totally sleazy. However, Chaucer’s depiction of him does not explicitly ask us to condemn

him. His sermon and tale are among the best-told stories on the pilgrimage and he is clearly

very good at what he does, namely, cheat people out of their money by making them fear

damnation for greed and other assorted sins. In this respect, the Pardoner portrays himself

as a successful businessman with an almost foolproof pitch based on provoking guilt and

shame in his audience which then moves them to give him money in order to avoid

damnation. Yet the Pardoner also acknowledges two things: first, that greed is his own

personal sin and second, that some people actually feel true repentance for their sins when

they hear him preach. Yet, the Pardoner is also religious. As he finishes his story he tells

the pilgrims “And this, my fellow pilgrims, is how I preach./ And Jesus Christ, who has our

souls in keeping,/ I trust will offer the pardon your souls are seeking,/ For that would be

best, and I mean no more deceiving” (451-454). For a moment here the Pardoner

acknowledges the possibility of true forgiveness and redemption. He gestures to an ethical

universe ruled by Christ and from which he himself seems to be excluded because he

remains committed to his own sin of greed. Following these lines, the Pardoner then asks

the pilgrims to give him money in exchange for pardons. He even picks the Host as the one

who should go first “for he, of us all, is most enveloped in sin” (478). Yet since the

Pardoner has already exposed his own corruption and greed to the pilgrims, he can hardly

expect them to give him money now. If he isn’t expecting money, then what is he really

asking for? Analyze this ending scene (starting at line 451 “And this, my fellow pilgrims is

how I preach.”) and explain how it functions to connect the Pardoner’s own dishonest

practices with a larger social world that allows such dishonesty to thrive and multiply not

only in the Pardoner but in other pilgrims and even the institution of the medieval Church.

Another way to put this would be to look at how this last section story is the place where

the Pardoner’s monetizing of salvation forces us to consider how he is part of a larger

world in the Canterbury Tales where everything seems for sale. How much should we

blame him for trying to sell salvation? How much does Chaucer blame him? Again, your

points should be linked to detailed analysis of the Pardoner’s language—this means you

should plan to quote from him frequently and then to explain what those quotations add to

your ideas about him. You may also want to consult his portrait in the General Prologue as

part of your analysis.

3. Pick one or two tales which feature the circulation of a non-monetary form of currency.

This can mean a bargain struck between two characters or a vow made by one character

and enforced by a second. Such currency could be in the form of honor, or sex, or status, or

even the act of story-telling and these things are also accompanied by the circulation of

actual money in some tales. You can write about the 100 francs in the Shipman’s Tale since

it is linked to non-monetary forms of exchange. Women also circulate as a kind of currency

in some of the tales and it isn’t always through sex (think of Emilia in the Knight’s Tale

and her role in Theseus’ desire to control Arcite and Palamon, or Griselda as the means

through which Walter demonstrates his absolute power). Explain what we learn from such

forms of circulation. If the circulation of money is the model for these other forms of

currency, what is being bought and sold? What is Chaucer telling us about his own society

if both people and abstract values are exchanged like money? Does he suggest any

remedies for this? These are big questions and please resist the temptation to generalize. A

statement saying that Chaucer’s stories show 14th century English society is totally corrupt,

is both inaccurate and much too vague. Stay focused on the one or two stories you choose

and the specific messages they have about currency and exchange in a non-monetary arena.

And if you write on more than one story, you have to connect them logically. It cannot be

some random choice—you should be developing an idea that applies to both tales. Some

examples that might work for this topic: The 100 francs and the Merchant’s wife

circulating between the Merchant and Don John; The hag's bargain for mastery in the Wife

of Bath's tale in contrast with Griselda's bargain to give up all autonomy. The stolen grain

in the Steward’s Tale could also work in relation to the clerics’ desire to get revenge and

Symkin’s rage at how they have dishonored him (and the Steward’s desire to get back at

the Miller through a story that trashes a miller). Feel free to email me with other possible

combinations that interest you.

4. Look at the Wife of Bath in her prologue and tale. She defines herself as a professional

wife and seems to take pride in how well she is able to shake down her first three husbands.

But by husband #5 she sounds very different on the topic of marriage. This topic asks you

to consider how the Wife moves from a business model based on maximum profits without

regard for the happiness of her “workers” (husbands 1-3) to a different, more ethical

business model based on shared resources along with mutual cooperation and respect. Keep

in mind that husband #5 also needs to learn some lessons in respect for his partner and that

ignoring the Wife’s generosity to him may well be a mistake with financial consequences.

The book he constantly reads to her promotes a view of all women as evil and dangerous,

and he uses this book as a way of controlling her. By doing so, he ignores the fact that she

has given him all her land and money (not perhaps her best business decision). It is only

after their fight over his book that he, too, changes. Once they negotiate an agreement that

allows for mutual respect and autonomy (along with burning his book), all seems different.

Is there an ethical lesson for Business majors in this? Be sure to use frequent quotations in

your essay response to this prompt.

5. A topic that you develop yourself and describe in an email to me. If the prompts above are

not quite what you want to write about, come up with a short paragraph explaining what

pilgrim/tale you want to focus on. You can also adapt some of the ideas I’ve suggested

above to other tales and pilgrims. Or, you could look at how one of the pilgrims projects

their own identity and values into their tale. If you’d like to work on this kind of topic, I

want you to email me with a description of whom you plan to focus on and what your main

point is going to be.


Do not waste time with a general introduction, instead start with your argument or main idea. For

example, you could say something like this: “In this paper I will discuss how the Wife of Bath's

conception of marriage is based on mutual respect.” Then analyze her description of her 5

marriages focusing on details that seem significant for the points you want to make. Keep in

mind that your paper should present an interpretation of a tale or cluster of tales. This means

you'll be making an assertion about a specific tale or character in a tale using the prompt you've

chosen as a guide for arriving at your interpretation. Assertions are statements which present a

hypothesis about the meaning behind a particular tale or character. Because it's a hypothesis

you'll need evidence to back up your assertion. In a paper like this, your data is the story itself so

you'll need to use brief quotations to back up your ideas in every single paragraph you write.

You also want to make sure that parts of the story do not contradict the point you're making.

One strategy that can be useful in dealing with stories that present more than one point of view is

to present an interpretation that seems convincing but turns out not to be on further investigation.

For example, you could say that the Wife of Bath's description of her first 3 marriages leads us to

think that she sees marriage only in terms of fighting with her husbands so that she can squeeze

more money out of them. However, her description of her fifth marriage suggests a very different

idea of marriage. Though it also involves a fight, the Wife's description of her marriage to

Jannkin eventually presents a marriage grounded in compromise, love, and respect. This

philosophy is also backed up by the ending of her actual tale. This idea is your thesis or main

hypothesis and you'll need to look over her prologue and the ending of her tale in order to come

up with evidence for your ideas.

Remember that a thesis cannot be just a description of something that all readers would agree

about. It needs to be a statement that has the potential for debate or disagreement. The key

element here is that you have to be confident that the evidence for your thesis is strong enough to

overcome the disagreement. So it's always a good idea to subject your thesis to some testing. Try

to think of counter-arguments for your idea and look for evidence for them. If you find passages

that contradict your thesis, then it may be time to do some rethinking.

Finally, you should not summarize or retell the tales you are writing about. You can assume your

reader has read these stories. Only summarize when it is necessary for the point you are making.

If you’re feeling confused about any of this, please email me a short description of what you

plan to write on and what your main idea is. I’ll be able to tell you very quickly whether

you have a workable thesis or not and that can save you a lot of trouble!

([email protected])


• Papers should be double-spaced (this means no more than 3 lines per inch), in a readable

font no larger than 12 point, with one-inch margins all around. Keep a copy of the file

just in case Canvas has a glitch and your paper does not appear.

• Include a title at the top of your paper. It should indicate what your paper is about and not

just give the title of the story you’re writing on. Here’s an example: “Ethical Business

Practices and the Pardoner”

• When you’re quoting from Chaucer, give line numbers in paretheses after the quotation

marks. Put the period for the sentence after the parenthesis with the line numbers.

Note the proper order of punctuation marks:

Chaucer describes spring as the time when people like to go on pilgrimages:

“Then people think of holy pilgrimages/ Pilgrims dream of setting foot in far off/ lands, or

worship at distant shrines” (11-13). Note that the period comes after the line numbers here.

Be sure you show line breaks by using a slash at the end of each line as you see above. Or if

you’re quoting more than 3 lines at a time, go ahead and indent your quotation 10 spaces and

type the lines as they appear on the page. It should look like this:

“Good fortune smiles on each one here

To ride with me, a pardoner,

Who can absolve you as we go.

Death strikes us when it will, you know!” (603-606)

• I would prefer you not to use any sources beyond the text of Chaucer and the lectures for

this class. If you do consult webpages on Chaucer, YOU MUST LIST THEM AT THE

END OF YOUR ESSAY. If you quote from any other text or translation, you must list

the source in parentheses or in a footnote or endnote. If your argument draws in any

substantial way on outside material you’ve read, you’ll need to signal this with a footnote

or parenthetical citation. Papers which rely on other sources and do not mention this will

be given an automatic F.

• Papers which have multiples typos, grammatical errors, misspellings, or

punctuation errors will receive lower grades. Computer spell-checkers and thesauruses

may occasionally help you catch a typo or remember a synonym, but should never be

relied on as authoritative: you will need to proofread with your own eyes and consult a

good dictionary.

• Chaucer’s pilgrim storytellers do not have proper names so you should capitalize the

profession of each pilgrim since that functions as their name: the Knight, the Miller, the

Shipman, the Wife of Bath, etc . . . However, if you’re writing about a profession in one

of the tales, then do not capitalize the category. For example, the miller in the Reeve’s

tale is not capitalized (but he does have a name, Symkin). So, too, the Cleric is a

pilgrim/narrator, but there are also a number of stories which feature clerics (written with

a small “c”), and the same goes for the Merchant (pilgrim) and merchants (characters in

stories such as the Shipman’s Tale).

This paper is due to Canvas by 11:59pm on March 15. You may request an extension of 2-3 days

by emailing me no later than March 15. Papers handed in late which have not requested an

extension will be graded down for each day they are late. Papers handed in early will be graded


Remember that writing this paper is requirement for passing the course.