Narrative - the way the story is told

Plot vs. narrative

It is important to think about the difference between plot and narrative. A plot is a sequence of related events. The word ‘narrative' is used in literary studies to describe the way in which the plot is presented. Narrative devices (ways of presenting the plot) may include:

  • Time-shifting (e.g. parts of the beginning of the plot may not be introduced until late in the story)
  • Dialogue
  • Description
  • Narrators
  • Imagery
  • Characterisation
  • Use of a particular style, form or genre.

The narrator

Chaucer' creates a narrator who is a fellow pilgrim in the ‘compaignye' (company). In The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, this narrator introduces more than twenty fictional ‘sondry folk' who gather together in London to make a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury. (For information on medieval pilgrimage and Thomas Becket, see Religious / philosophical context > Pilgrims and pilgrimage.) 

The series of portraits of Chaucer's pilgrims is a picture of the range of types and occupations of people in Chaucer's England. The focus on people of different jobs, status and wealth indicates how far the scope of Chaucer's poem will be concerned with human society, even though the reason for the people to be assembled as a group is for a pilgrimage. Interestingly, there is no description of the first-person narrator of the whole of The Canterbury Tales, a figure, never named and never given an occupation, who is sometimes labelled for convenience by critics as ‘Chaucer the Pilgrim'.

The idea of a series of tales

The General Prologue introduces the idea of a series of tales, told by the different pilgrims as they ride. The plan is put into the Host's mouth and he offers to go with the company and judge at the end of the pilgrimage who has told the best tale. In creating this structure, Chaucer is using a narrative device already well known in the works of the Italian, Boccaccio, and classical poet, Ovid.

More on Boccaccio and Ovid?

In The General Prologue, the Host declares that the stories will be mixed: some serious and some entertaining. Whilst much of the Wife's account is entertaining, she undoubtedly believed that she was making some serious points about the way in which medieval women should be treated. Ultimately not all of the characters described in The General Prologue eventually tell a tale. Chaucer's initial project was not completed.

The narrative function of the Host

Chaucer uses his figure of the Host to play some games with our expectations about the author: games which have major effects on the kind of experience reading Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is.

Representations of the author figure

The following characters represent the author's role:

  • The unnamed character (‘I'), who is sometimes labelled ‘Chaucer the Pilgrim'
  • The Host, Harry Bailly
  • The Knight (the most upper-class member of the pilgrim group). Like the Host, he often arranges what happens next. Usually the Host takes the lead in directing matters, but at times the Knight steps in if things get out of hand
  • The pilgrims, or groups of them, also try to sway the way in which the story-telling goes. 

So Chaucer fragments the way in which the author's power is presented in the fiction by apparently dispersing it to several different figures. The people this device actually empowers are his audience / the readers.

The interjections of the Host

Chaucer's Host is depicted as a dominant character:

  • He is not intimidated by anyone, though he is usually respectful to the upper classes and the more virtuous of the clerical characters (such as the Prioress)
  • He is concerned to make the story telling competition a successful enterprise
  • He is bold and can be rude and aggressive. 

For more on the character of the Host, see Characterisation > The role of the Host

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