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Essay: Irony in the Canterbury tales

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  • Subject area(s): Literature essays
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  • Published: February 15, 2021*
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  • Irony in the Canterbury tales
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Irony is the general name given to literary techniques that involve surprising, interesting, or amusing contradictions. 1 Two stories that serve as excellent demonstrations of irony are “The Pardoners Tale” and “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” both from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.

Although these two stories are very different, they both use irony to teach a lesson.

Of the stories, “The Pardoners Tale” displays the most irony. First and foremost, the entire telling of the story is ironic, considering just who is the teller. The Pardoner uses this story to speak out against many social problems, all of which he himself is guilty of. He preaches about drunkenness, while he is drunk, blasphemy, as he attempts to sell fake religious relics, and greed, when he himself is amazingly greedy. Yet there are also many ironic situations in the story itself. The irony starts when, in the beginning of the story, the three rioters make a pact to “be brothers” and “each defend the others” and “to live and die for one another” in protection from Death, (lines 37-43) and then in going out to fulfil their vow, they end up finding money, and killing each other over it.

Even more ironic, is how they end up killing each other. After finding the money, the men plan to stay with it until it becomes dark and they can safely take it away. To tide themselves over until then, they send the youngest one out to get food and wine, and while he is away they plan to kill for his share of the money. Ironically, the youngest one is planning the same thing so he slips poison into the drinks of his companions. When he returns, he is attacked and stabbed to death by the other men. Then, in probably the most ironic action in the whole story, the murderers, to congratulate themselves, drink from the poisoned cup and die.

“The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is also laden with irony, the most obvious of which is the characters themselves. The story begins by telling of an old woman who owns several farm animals, but while the woman is described as “a poor old widow,” who “led a patient, simple life,” (1 &6) while the animals are described as royalty. For example, the animals had regal names and titles, yet the woman had none at all. The first concrete example of irony, occurs after Chanticleer has told Pertelote of his dream, and she makes fun of him. Chanticleer says “Mulier est hominis confusio,” which he tells her means “Woman is man’s delight and all his bliss,” but in reality means that woman leads to the destruction of man.

Although Chanticleer means to tease her, it becomes ironic when Pertelote’s advice for Chanticleer to ignore his dream ends up leading to his downfall. His downfall occurs when Chanticleer is tricked by the fox into his trap, but what is ironic is the downfall of the fox. When the fox has caught Chanticleer he says to him, that misfortune will come to those who talk when they should be quiet, but this lack of silence from the fox leads to his loss. The fox had captured Chanticleer by flattering him until he did something foolish enabling the fox to capture him.

Later, Chanticleer flatters the fox until he does something foolish, enabling Chanticleer to escape. Both of their foolish acts involved their vanity making them brag and speak when they should have been silent. Also ironic about this whole situation, was the fact that in the fox flattering Chanticleer he mocked his wisdom and reason and in defence Chanticleer acts by displaying neither of these qualities.

Both “The Pardoner’s Tale” and “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” utilize the tool of irony to teach two similar lessons. The moral of “The Pardoner’s Tale” is “Money is the root of all evil”. Similarly, the moral of the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is that vanity will eventually lead to destruction. By teaching this in two very different stories Chaucer makes it very clear that irony is an extremely effective method of teaching a lesson.

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