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Analysis of Dramatic Irony in "The Canterbury Tales"


In literature, dramatic irony refers to an instance when the reader knows more than one or more characters in a narrative. Based on what the reader knows, a character’s behavior may seem inappropriate or he may expect outcomes that are opposite of what the reader foresees. In the book “A Reading of Canterbury Tales,” Bernard Felix Hupp writes that Chaucer, as the author, reports the dramatic irony. This irony begins with the pairing of the book’s pilgrims according to previously established relationships.

Life Isn’t Always Fair

The Knight is the first of all the pilgrims to share his tale. In his story, inmates Arcite and Palamon love Emelye, but hate each other. Dramatic irony occurs after Arcite’s prison release, when he works in disguise for Emelye’s family. Then Palamon escapes the jail and finds Arcite on Emelye’s property. The two men pray to Greek gods for Emelye’s love and hand in marriage, but Emelye secretly prays to stay single until she finds true love. The dramatic irony used in the Knight’s tale is Chaucer’s way of pointing out that life is unpredictable, isn’t fair and comes with joys and sorrows.

Hypocrisy of a Greedy Man

In the prologue to the “The Pardoner’s Tale,” the Pardoner tells the pilgrims that his story illustrates the biblical teaching of greed being the root of evil. In the story, three men set out to kill Death. They forget about Death when they find bags of gold by a tree. This is an example of dramatic irony because the reader knows that the tale is about the wickedness of greed. As the youngest of the three men fetches food and wine, the two older men secretly plot against him. As the young man fetches the goods, both parties conspire against each other, and only the reader knows about the plans. While the Pardoner warns against the evils of greed in his tale, he confesses in his prologue that he is dishonest and immoral. Chaucer uses the instances of dramatic irony as satirical references to the Catholic Church and its administration, blatant hypocrisies and economic practices.

Flattery Doesn’t Always Win

"The Nun’s Priest’s Tale" is a fable that relates to the story that the Monk told. In the story, Chanticleer, a rooster, has a nightmare about a fox. The next day, Chanticleer’s dream becomes a reality as the fox stalks the rooster and his hens. Dramatic irony occurs, as Chanticleer is oblivious to the danger and doesn’t know that the fox tricked and killed his parents. When Chanticleer sees the fox, the fox tricks him and takes him from the barnyard. As the owner of the farm and her daughters chase the fox, Chanticleer tricks the fox into letting him go. The way the priest tells the story resembles an epic poem, so the reader knows that Chanticleer will survive the fox’s cunning ways. Chaucer uses the dramatic irony in the story to warn about making hasty decisions and trusting flatterers.

Naïve Narrator

Chaucer, as the author, describes the pilgrims differently than Chaucer the Pilgrim and narrator, according to Pace University. This dramatic irony serves as Chaucer’s way of telling readers to not always trust narrators because they may lack information or be naïve. Dramatic irony exists throughout the story because the narrator doesn’t have as much information as the reader. For example, Madame Eglantine is a prioress, or nun, whom the narrator holds in high esteem in the prologue of her tale. In reality, she’s more concerned with acting like a lady of a noble court than keeping her vows to the church. Similarly, the narrator describes the Monk and Friar differently at the beginning of their tales than author does in the “General Prologue.” As in the Pardoner’s prologue and tale, Chaucer uses dramatic irony in these instances to point out the church’s faults.

About the Author

Flora Richards-Gustafson has been writing professionally since 2003. She creates copy for websites, marketing materials and printed publications. Richards-Gustafson specializes in SEO and writing about small-business strategies, health and beauty, interior design, emergency preparedness and education. Richards-Gustafson received a Bachelor of Arts from George Fox University in 2003 and was recognized by Cambridge's "Who's Who" in 2009 as a leading woman entrepreneur.

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