Approaches in the last thirty years

A number of new ways of approaching literary texts have emerged in the last thirty years and have affected criticism of The Canterbury Tales no less than they have any other literary work.

The significance of the text vs. the author

The idea of ‘intentional fallacy'

The term ‘intentional fallacy' serves as a reminder that students can probably never know the ‘author's intentions':

  • Writers often say they don't know their own intentions in writing
  • Language and literature always contain meanings that go beyond (sometimes contradict) conscious or stated intentions. 

The central focus of literary study must be the text rather than the author — or his/her intentions. The most useful questions are:

  • ‘How is this text working?'
  • ‘How is this writing affecting me as a reader?'
  • Not ‘What did the author intend?'.

The focus needs to be on what Chaucer is doing through a particular adjective/structure/omission etc. In this way, we can examine how the text is working, how the language is creating meanings - not any intentions Chaucer may or may not have had.

The ‘death of the author'

This phrase was coined by Roland Barthes (in an essay which appears in his Image, Text, Music, 1977) and develops the idea that the ‘author' cannot be known by a reader. According to Barthes:

  • Once someone writes — whatever sort of writing it is (letter, poem, song lyric, scientific essay, business report…) - they always adopt a mode of writing
  • In that sense, every text has a built-in narrator — neither identical with the real-life author, outside the text, nor any fictional narrator (‘I') that the text may include
  • In other words, the text, not the author, writes the ‘meanings'
  • Readers enter into the structures and networks of the language: that is what creates meaning
  • It's the text that means, not the author.

Texts also ‘construct' their readers

Just as any text ‘constructs' a narrator, texts also construct us as their readers. While reading we are led to focus on particular things, even adopt certain perspectives; we are made curious, baffled, angry, disgusted, fascinated and many other things, as we go through a narrative or a poem. Critical study therefore partly involves our analysing what happens to ourselves as we read.

Formalist criticism

Formalist criticism focuses on how structures and styles create meaning.

Formal feature I: direct speech, multiple voices

We might, for example, analyse the multiple voices in the Link, Prologue and Tale. The formal feature we are concentrating on is the text's use of direct speech and also of direct speech from multiple speakers. What effects arise from Chaucer's creation of a number of different narrators and figures who seem to have authority over the text we read?

A simple way of seeing that structure might be like this:

Outside the text:

Chaucer writes

Inside the fiction:

[The narrator, ‘Chaucer the pilgrim' narrates

  [Host introduces

[Pardoner addresses current pilgrims

                 [Pardoner preaches to previous congregations


                 [Pardoner ends his sermon to previous congregations

[Pardoner addresses current pilgrims

  [Host responds

[The narrator, ‘Chaucer the pilgrim' concludes narrative

Questions to ask of the narrative

Having perceived those voices in the text, the following questions are helpful:

  • What is achieved by couching some information as direct speech, for example, hints about what the Old Man represents, which we might detect in his speech?
  • How does speech at a particular point differ from simply narrating the event?
  • How is our experience of reading about the Pardoner's deception different because we hear it as if his own voice is telling us?
  • How does a judgement differ when it is voiced by a character rather than stated by the text? 
  • What about the gentils proposing that the Pardoner's tale will be a moral one, not ribauldry?
  • Would the effect be different if the pilgrim-narrator announced that the next tale was a moral one?

To explore this interpretation further, see:

On Chaucer's narrators and the critical issues they raise, see David Lawton, Chaucer's Narrators (Cambridge, 1985).

Formal feature II: first person writing

Another formal feature of the text is the prevalence of first-person writing (statements couched in terms of I, me, my / mine). In The Prologue, this can lead to two types of critical reading:

  • To read for ‘character'. Chaucer seems to invite readers to approach the text with expectations of finding a personality there, the illusion of an individual with a past, with wishes and idiosyncrasies. Chaucer's text, moreover, gives us an 'I' (the Pardoner) describing himself: a portrait of self-aware wickedness
  • To examine how far the first-person statements add up, rather, to a sense of ‘performance', of conscious awareness of behaviour as an art and of its effects on audiences
  • This impression of performance might relate to other approaches to the text: ethical issues, sexual issues
  • Is the overall effect of this writing to make us aware of how much ‘identity' itself might be a performance?

Formal feature III: structure

This guide suggests ways of seeing The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale as a design made up of sections:

However, there are multiple (perhaps endless) ways of seeing the structures in a text. How anyone sees a structure in a text is central to their reading of it.

Investigating the structure of The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale

  • Try to do a diagram, or a list of the main sections, as you see them
  • What critical questions are you asking yourself as you decide what you see as the ‘building blocks' of Chaucer's text(s)?
  • What new critical answers seemed to emerge from your diagram or list?
  • What patterns or links do you notice now for the first time?

An historical approach

The idea is that a work must be seen in the context of the world which produced it if it is going to be understood. But, more deeply, it is also true that writing styles, structures and imagery — all the artistry itself — is itself a product of historical forces.

Reading with awareness of historical dimensions – vital!

Some aspects of historical study of texts are really straightforward. One of the basic aims of this website is to encourage greater knowledge of the social, literary and historical background against which Chaucer wrote. For example, it could be argued that Chaucer's way of seeing people and their actions must include some knowledge of the beliefs, practices and assumptions of medieval Catholicism

Questions raised by this approach might include:

  • How sympathetically is Chaucer presenting the criticisms of the Church reformers (Wyclif and his followers were opposing the great wealth of the Church and what they saw as superstitious reverence for relics)?
  • Was Chaucer's use of a multiplicity of voices (see Formalist criticism) a ploy to present criticism without explicitly supporting the reformers' controversial views?

To explore this interpretation further, see:

Seeing writing as a social, historically-situated act

There is a more sophisticated approach to reading literature historically:

  • The writing is no longer just seen as an object set amidst historical ‘background'
  • Instead, the historical context is seen as entering into the language, structures and styles of the text.
More on The Pardoner's Tale as a product of its time:

Stephen Knight is an excellent example of a critic who uses in co-operation with each other careful reading of the style with awareness of economic and social history. 

  • Knight shows how the writing conveys the impression of a personality driven by lust for money and also a preoccupation with the force of desires for sensuous pleasures (like rich food)
  • This is related to historical changes in the late fourteenth century: shifts towards a more commercial type of economy, where individuals pursue profit without concern about larger social bonds and effects
  • Individualism becomes not just a simple effect of the text, the creation of an illusion of ‘character', but Chaucer's imaginative grasp of the way in which English society was moving towards Capitalist attitudes.

See Stephen Knight, Geoffrey Chaucer (Brighton, 1986).

A Marxist approach

A Marxist approach looks at how socio-economic change and social class are represented through the text. But it also examines how mindsets are themselves the product of economic and historical situations and experiences. It assesses whether a literary work has an egalitarian tendency, if its social content or literary form endorses or rejects the status quo.

In The Pardoner's Tale a Marxist critic might ask:

  • Does Chaucer's dispersal of narrative authority to a variety of voices represent a desire to reject authorial authority?
  • Is the presentation of the Pardoner negative because he is a representative of oppressive church authority? i.e. is the text attacking a powerful institution or conversely is it defending that institution by attacking one ‘bad apple'?
  • Is the division of authority for organising the tales, between the Host and the Knight, an expression of recognition of the growing power of urban elites (such as rich merchants and inn-keepers) beginning to rival the nobility in wealth and power?
  • Does the Host's reaction to The Tale demonstrate a challenge to the educated elite the Pardoner represents, on behalf of the ‘lewed peple'?
  • The Knight may be bringing about a Christian moral reconciliation at the end, but how far does Chaucer present his contribution as one that expresses a conservative, conformist view of society, one whose order depends on deference to those who inherit gentil status?
  • What signs strike you in this text as illustrating ways in which the fourteenth century was a period with far more rigidly hierarchical classes than today?

To explore this interpretation further, see:

More on a Marxist approach:

Stephen Knight highlights how Chaucer's writing captures socio-economic change, here from a ‘feudal' to a commercial economy:

  • The Pardoner's highly individualistic presentation thus links into ideas about changes in social attitudes:
    • Traditional medieval models of society saw people and classes working together for mutual ‘common profit'
    • Commerce increasingly sets individuals against each other in isolated competition for money.
  • The passage that makes fashionable food seem disgusting to the reader can also be seen as capturing another developing feature of a commercialized society:
    • ‘the new gospel of conspicuous consumption and personal physical enjoyment' (126-7).

Stephen Knight, Geoffrey Chaucer (Brighton, 1986).

Reader / audience expectations

A difference of perspective

A twenty-first-century reader is likely to see the Pardoner's sermon in a very different way to that of a fourteenth-century century listener, who hears sermons more or less weekly and understands those sermons in a fourteenth century way. For example:

  • A modern reader, acculturated to reading novels and watching TV that uses realist techniques, may instinctively see the Pardoner's sermon as part of Chaucer's depiction of his character and be less likely to pick up the actual persuasive power — changing listeners' moral attitudes - that sermons are intended to have
  • Chaucer's original audience would recognise explicit character traits that the narrative foregrounds, but was more attuned to the sermon as a means of getting closer to God.
  • Medieval listeners would be far more sophisticated in appreciating the patterned rhetoric of the text and picking up the highly persuasive way in which passages and larger sections are structured.

The two viewpoints suggest a completely different view of what literature is.

The influence of experience

Twenty-first century readers bring to Chaucer's medieval text their experience of realist novels and, on a historical plane, their knowledge of, and personal attitudes towards, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century:

  • Whether modern readers are modern Catholics, modern Protestants, have other faiths or are agnostic or atheist, many are likely to perceive such medieval practices as revering saints' bones or paying for pardons as superstitious—even when no scams like the Pardoners' were involved
  • They may be reading for meanings never envisaged by Chaucer. 

So another question posed by this approach might be:

  • Should / can we try to read like fourteenth-century people?
  • How does our own experience of literature and our own set of beliefs affect our reading of The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale which was written before - and outside - those expectations?
  • If a modern reader's attitude towards homophobia differs from the physical ridicule present in The General Prologue portrait, how does that affect our ability to read what Chaucer wrote?
  • Does the reader have to become homophobic while reading?

A presupposition of faith

The Pardoner's attitude seems completely cynical towards central Christian beliefs (confession, grace, the next world, morality, honesty, charity, etc.). While manipulating his (medieval) audience's own Christian beliefs, he seems an atheist himself. 

The text presents true belief as good, atheism as bad and therefore constructs its readers as believers who think the Pardoner's atheism is shocking.

  • But what happens if you — a real-life reader — are an atheist? 
  • Or if you consider a humanist creed to be a noble, honest and intellectually profound one? 
  • What will your ‘take' on the Pardoner's attitude be?

To explore this interpretation further, see:

‘Reader-response' criticism

‘Reader-response' criticism foregrounds the reader's role in creating the meaning and experience of a literary work:

  • Arguably the text does not exist in any real sense if no reader is reading it
  • What we analyse in critical study is therefore primarily our own reading. That needs to be enriched, widened and informed, of course, by as much knowledge and lively critical thinking as we can manage, but it will still, inevitably, be the object of our study: our own reading experience of the text.

This approach might address issues such as:

  • How Chaucer's language awakens the reader's sense of needing to interpret what is shown actively, rather than just passively to absorb a story.
  • The effect of the built-in audience, in the form of the pilgrims and their reactions, on the real-life reader's interpretations

Psychoanalytical criticism

This involves the reading of the surface text to grasp an understanding of the underlying latent thoughts or goals of the author or a major character. It could be argued that it is only applicable to realist literature rather than to a work like The Canterbury Tales.

A psychoanalytical approach would raise issues such as:

  • The influence of Chaucer's background in motivating his presentation of people such as the Pardoner, the Host, the Old Man and the youths
  • How far the Host's reaction to the Pardoner is a response to his ambiguous sexuality
  • What underlying need is driving the Pardoner's lifestyle
  • Why the Pardoner is so overt about his ‘technique'.
More on a psychoanalytical approach to The Pardoner's Tale:

More on a psychoanalytical approach to The Pardoner's Tale: Stephen Knight also uses a psychoanalytical approach to The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale:

  • He sees the text as fully focused on ‘the world of private drives'
  • In medieval culture, that was seen as being inimical to social, moral and spiritual good (p. 128).

    Cultural theories too have argued that ‘identity' is not something fixed, with a core ‘self', but a fluctuating co-existence of behaviours and self-images;
  • Knight sees the Pardoner as ‘false seeming', a set of façades and performances. 

These critical arguments about the inadequacy of the idea of stable identity link with Gender criticism.

An excellent example of psychological investigation of The Pardoner's Tale appears in Lee Patterson's Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison, Wisconsin, 1991), pp. 367-423. 

To explore this interpretation further, see:

Gender criticism

This has been a fertile critical approach during the last twenty years. Gender criticism has increasingly examined how masculine identity is constructed in literary texts. In The Canterbury Tales, for example, the Host seems to be a study in hyper-masculine self-identity: domineering, tending to talk about sex a lot and over-anxious about a threat from homosexuality.

To explore this interpretation further, see:

Gender criticism would also explore whether the Pardoner is presented as homosexual — even if not in a full modern sense of that term:

  • The Host seems to feel antagonised by the Pardoner's perceived sexuality
  • The General Prologue seems to imply a bond between the Summoner and Pardoner
  • The General Prologue portrait speculates whether the Pardoner is a gelding or a mare: that seems to suggest that he cannot or does not desire to have heterosexual, reproductive sex:
  • That reading would seem to fit well with the extended exploration of what ‘death' means in the Tale
  • Being infertile, like being absorbed in the material world, or money, or murderous hatred, all seem to be examples of spiritual and moral ‘death', in an era which believed that God had designed sex specifically in order to replenish the world, given that humans die.
More on masculinities and social or literary order: The Host's anger, his (apparently) homophobic threat to cut off the Pardoner's testicles, seem momentarily also a threat to the harmony of the pilgrims' story-telling. His scatological outburst is an interesting reversal of his usual role in The Tales of promoting and organising the series of tales. A gender critical reading of this might say that, having introduced homosexual identity into The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer in his writing here is alert to the fact that acknowledgement of such experience is always likely to dislodge what seems to be the stable social order.
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