The Canterbury Tales Summary and Analysis

The Parson's Tale and Chaucer's Retraction

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The Parson’s Prologue

By the time the Manciple’s tale had finished, the sun had set low in the sky. The Host, pronouncing his initial degree fulfilled, turns to the Parson to “knytte up wel a greet mateere” (conclude a huge matter) and tell the final tale. The Parson answered that he would tell no fable – for Paul, writing to Timothy, reproved people who turned aside from the truth and told fables and other such wretchedness.

What the Parson promises is morality and virtuous matters - and jokes that he does not know of the alliterative poetry tradition of the South. He leaves his tale, he says, to clerks, for he himself is not “textueel”. Everyone agreed that it was the best way to end the project, and asked the Host to give the Parson the instruction to tell the final tale. The Host did so, hasting the Parson to tell his tale before the sun went down.

The Parson’s Tale

The Parson’s tale is not actually a tale as such, but a lengthy medieval sermon on the subject of penitence. The first part of his sermon defines the three parts of penitence – contrition, confession and satisfaction, and expounds at length (with several biblical examples) the causes of the contrition.

The second part of the sermon considers confession, which is the truthful revelation of the sinner’s sin to the priest. Sin is then explained as the eventual product of a struggle between the body and soul for dominance of a person – and therefore there are two types of sin: venial (minor, smaller sins) and deadly (serious sins).

The third part of the sermon considers each of the seven deadly sins as branches of a tree of which Pride is the trunk. Pride is the worst of the sins, because the other sins (Ire, Envy, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony and Lechery) all stem from Pride. Each sin’s description is followed by its spiritual remedy – and the Parson states the rules for oral confession.

There are a number of conditions to penitence, including the intensity of the sin committed, the haste to contrition and the number of times the sin was committed. The fruit of this penitence is goodness and redemption in Christ. Following this short return to the subjects of penitence (and satisfaction), the final lines seem to suggest, by way of images of the sun and the morning, a vision of Paradise: bodies which were foul and dark become brighter than the sun, the body, formerly sick and feeble, becomes immortal and whole, and in a place where no-one feels hunger, thirst or cold, but is replenished by the perfect knowledge of God. This paradise, the final lines of the tale conclude, is only attainable through spiritual poverty and by avoiding sin.

Retraction: “Heere taketh the makere of this book his leve”

The narrator, speaking in the first person, prays to everyone that reads this “litel tretys” (little treatise – probably the Parson’s tale) that, if they like anything they read in it, they thank Jesus Christ. If they find anything that displeases them, moreover, they are to put it down to the narrator’s ignorance, and not to his will – he would have written better, if only he had the cunning.

The narrator then asks the reader to pray for him that Christ has mercy on his sins and forgives him in his trespasses, and particularly of his translations of worldly vanities: the book of Troilus, the book of Fame, the book of the twenty-five ladies, the book of the Duchess, the book of the Parliament of Birds, and the tales of Canterbury – those that “sownen into synne” (tend toward sin).

However, the narrator thanks Christ for his translation of the Boece and other books of saint’s legends and homilies, hoping that Christ will grant him grace of penitence, confession and satisfaction, through the benign grace of the King of Kings, so that he may be “oon of hem at the day of doom that shulle be saved” (one of them at the day of doom who shall be saved).

The book ends with a short Latin prayer and Amen, before announcing that the book “of the tales of Caunterbury, compiled by Geffrey Chaucer” has ended, adding “of whos soule Jhesu Crist have mercy”.

Analysis

One of the biggest questions about the Tales as a whole is precisely how they end. Throughout his works, and even within the Tales (look, for example, at the interruptions of Sir Thopas and the Monk’s tales) Chaucer proves that he knows how to create a false ending, a trick ending, which ends by not ending, by not concluding. The Canterbury Tales ends on a decidedly pious and religious note, first with the Parson’s lengthy sermon, and then with a retraction written as “Chaucer”. The Parson’s sermon, a translation from a medieval work designed to advise clergy in the salvation of souls, would be a plausible medieval sermon – there seems nothing in it that is ironic: it is a perfect example of its genre.

Yet can the Parson’s sermon seem anything other than just another genre? In a work which has anthologized genres – we have already read beast fables, saint’s lives, fabliaux, Breton lays, and all manner of other stories – and problematised them, drawing attention to their speaker’s voice as something (as the Pardoner points out) ventriloquized, can we really be expected to take the Parson’s voice seriously?

Critics disagree wildly about the answer to this question. The same problem applies to Chaucer’s retraction – which, as in the Man of Law’s prologue, blurs the line between the Chaucer writing the Tales (who has also written the Book of the Duchess, Troilus and Criseyde, and so on) and the fictional Chaucer who is a character within the pilgrimage. Is the Chaucer who writes these tales just another constructed voice?

Or, perhaps, is the Retraction of the tales a genuine one? Chaucer, in this theory, genuinely was dying and was unable to finish the work – or for some reason, felt the need to immediately retract it, as he genuinely believed that it did come too close to sin. Thus, before the Host’s plan was complete, he concluded the tale with a pious sermon and then a Retraction: no-one could therefore accuse the Tales of being unchristian. Is it a death-bed confession?

A Retraction is a fairly usual way for a medieval work to end, and perhaps that points us to the aforementioned effect: its very normality is perhaps a clue that Chaucer’s intention is not pure and simple. For it could be read simply as another “funny voice” – the voice of the Chaucer who told Sir Thopas: could be read as comedy rather than penance. Moreover, as E.T. Donaldson has firmly stated, the use of the Parson’s Tale as an interpretative key to unlock the whole of the Tales is problematic, particularly when you consider the deliberate religious provocation of tales like the Miller’s, the Wife of Bath’s and the Merchant’s. The tales by no means seem to be written to a purely Christian agenda - though Christianity is undoubtedly a key theme.

End-points in Chaucer are difficult to definitively interpret, and perhaps this dichotomy was intended by Chaucer himself. Perhaps this ending is simply one way of closing down the Tales – the Manciple’s tale, of course, has been only the most recent in a line of tales which reiterate the advice of these final fragments to hold one’s peace, and know when to fall silent. Is this Chaucer, on an imaginary, real or literary deathbed, punningly, holding his peace, but also being “at peace”? One thing is for sure: understanding the ending of the Tales seems a fitting encapsulation of the complex problem of interpreting the work as a whole.