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The Canterbury Tales has several overlapping Themes, which not only enrich the book’s texture but also lend it some kind of coherence and unity. Most of these Themes are abstract and cannot be stated as singular propositions. Nearly all the subjects of Chaucer’s most serious contemplation can be found in his magnificent epic. The major Themes are: critique of the church, the problem of predestination and foreknowledge, Themes of the inherent corruptness of human nature and decline of moral values, the problem of the position of women and marriage relationships, Themes of honor and truth, and Themes of Christian virtue and chivalry.
The prevailing mood of The Canterbury Tales is obviously that
of comedy. The most prominent aspect of the book is the amazing magnitude
of the range of its representation of medieval society. The poem aims
at wholeness and presents an amalgam of all the Themes and conventions
of contemporary medieval literature.
The "General Prologue" serves as a kind of sample of what will follow. The serious ideals of chivalry, religion, and agricultural labor which operate in the portraits of the Knight, Parson and Plowman, provide a sober and solemn tone, while the comic, ironic and satiric portraits of the Prioress, Monk, Merchant, and others provide the predominant comic tone. There are frequent abrupt shifts of mood and tone from the ludicrous to the sublime, from a note of sincere appraisal to outright mockery, from scathing criticism of social corruption and moral depravity to light- hearted gibes at a certain innocuous inanity. This contributes to the charm and humor of the work. The main body of the tales also operates on a similar principle. Serious, grave and sober tales are offset by comic ones.