Essay on “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”: An Analysis

Essay on “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”: An Analysis

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The “General Prologue” provides us with no evidence as to the character of the Nun’s Priest. Only in the prologue to his tale do we finally get a glimpse of who he might be, albeit rather obtusely. As Harry Bailey rather disparagingly remarks: “Telle us swich thyng as may oure hertes glade./Be blithe, though thou ryde upon a jade” (p.235, ll2811-2812). I say this cautiously because much criticism has surrounded the supposed character of the Nun’s Priest, his role in the tale, and his relationship to the Canterbury Tales as a whole. One example, in my opinion, of an unsatisfactory reading is exemplified by Arthur Broes’s 1963 article “Chaucer’s Disgruntled Cleric: The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” Broes argues that the Nun’s Priest is an “erudite clergyman” (Broes 162) who attacks his ecclesiastical superiors, most notably the Prioress, for their supposed spiritual failings. Although one can clearly find allusions to the Prioress (line 2835 would be a most poignant example, “No deyntee morsel passed thurgh hir throte”) in the tale, nevertheless I think that Broes’s reading is very much one-sided. Indeed, Derek Pearsall would seem to agree. Pearsall’s 1984 Variorum is an invaluable source of information on the sources and analogues of the tale, as well as a fairly thorough summary of critical approaches to the tale. Regarding the Nun’s Priest’s character, and the question of a so-called ‘dramatic’ reading of the text, Pearsall finds there to be two main critical camps: those who maintain that the Nun’s Priest’s character can be ascertained from textual evidence thus affecting any reading of the tale, whilst others, typified perhaps by Robert Kilburn Root hold the following position: “Neither in the General Prologue nor in the links which ...


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...well spoke of the concept of containment, or entombment, in history and in literary texts. This act, whether consciously created or not, involves a sense of the need for reflection, an island of contemplation, yet simultaneously this containment threatens the inevitable need for progress. In both the “Knight’s Tale” and the “Nun’s Priest’s Tale” we are faced with insular worlds whose workings are a mystery, and in fact whilst we may witness their workings, we remain as outsiders to the cultural codes entombed within the enclosure. Chaucer seems to have been aware of this. The Knight leads us forth, yet always looks back. The Nun’s Priest reminds us that we must always look forward, beyond our enclosure. In the final analysis, Chaucer has left us with a tale, to borrow Stephen Greenblatt’s term, of ‘resonance and wonder’ that reverberates through space and time.


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Essay on “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”: An Analysis

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