Essay Writing Samples

Essay on Geoffrey Chaucer

English literature has a rich and elegant history, and English writers rank as some of the world’s most famous authors. This sample literature essay explores Geoffry Chaucer’s classic works and how they delve into the meaning of power in society.

Impersonation, irony, morality and religious contexts

Old English literature has played a powerful role in shaping how people learn lessons and think about every-day things in society. For instance, The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer was an influential work written during the fourteenth century which gave the public an opportunity to experience societal lessons through brief and insightful anecdotes. Both The Friar’s Tale and The Summoner’s Tale highlighted how everyday behavior can come back to bite us, especially in positions of power.

Both tales involved individuals that were misusing their position or power in order to gain some form of material wealth. However, Chaucer did a really great job of wrapping together ironic twists that showed how morality would not go unpunished. Indeed, both works involved very different ways of teaching lessons to people through the eyes of comedy and entertainment. While both of the above-mentioned tales depicted corruption for material wealth that resulted in a moral lesson, the role and context of religion differentiated the tales dramatically.

Overview of The Friar’s Tale

The Friar’s Tale was mainly a story of a summoner who met a man that pretended to be a bailiff. The summoner also pretended to be a bailiff in order to mask his true nature and means of making a living. However, after the summoner comes clean with his profession, the gentleman admits that he is a demon from hell. After the two exchange words, the summoner goes into detail about how he makes his living from doing injustice towards others.

Chaucer makes his first connection to religion in poetry after a scene featuring a brief meeting with a man damning his horses, the summoner felt very comfortable around the demon, thinking that they had a similar nature and penchant for evil. Then, the summoner attempted to extort funds from an elderly woman while the demon went along with him. As the old woman cursed the summoner for his charges, the demon took him to hell. Essentially, the summoner’s wrong-doing and blatant disregard for the demon’s power ended up being his undoing.

Overview of The Summoner’s Tale

The Summoner’s Tale was loosely centered on a Friar who was extremely corrupt in the same manner. However, rather than directly extorting money from people, the Friar made his way by using guilt in order to collect donations. When the Friar came upon a regular village man, Thomas, he begged for money in the form of a donation. While Thomas’ family had recently suffered from a child’s death and other illnesses, the Friar did not care and pushed his own agenda. The Friar became furious that the donations that Thomas gave were not exclusively to him.

To retort, the Friar made a strong point that the funds did not go to him and he was closer to God because he also experienced serious poverty. Thomas then promised to give the Friar a donation if his back was groped the right way. Jokingly, the man farted and the Friar went to a Squire in order to find a way to deal with this anger. The squire responded with a joke that the twelve Friar’s should simply sit on a cartwheel so that the smell of the fart could be divided by twelve. The jovial nature of this tale highlighted how using positions of power to exploit people does not yield favorable response and exemplifies clerical corruption.

Similarities between Chaucer’s works

The works both shared the same themes of morality, impersonation and irony. In The Friar’s Tale and The Summoner’s Tale, themes of Descartes’ philosophy of morality and ethics are present. Chaucer utilizes very indirect and creative means of blending all of these together by wrapping it around an entertaining story. As some characters were not immoral in the story, the reader has a clear understanding that “good morality seems all mixed with bad” (Howard 47).

Both of the stories showed honest, hard-working people that were merely being taken advantage of while the culprits prayed on them using their varied forms of power, whether clerical or administrative. Chaucer delved the same theme of morality by truly exemplifying the irony in both tales (Howard). Ultimately, both tales ended up with the reader feeling as though the characters merely received what they deserved.

Common themes in The Friar’s Tale

In this tale, the summoner deserved to be taken to hell by trying to extort funds from a widow who was not at fault for anything. For no reason, the summoner went to the old woman and sought to take her money as a means of gaining material wealth (Chaucer).

The real irony stems from the fact that as the old woman damned the summoner, he was taken to hell: “[the story] “comes to a climax when the poor widow gives the summoner to the demon and means it…” (Harwood 346).

The old woman truly felt as though she was being robbed and the summoner was merely getting what he deserved. It is no wonder that the demon felt no remorse or problem with tricking the man into committing the sin right in front of him. Chaucer brought out reader’s fears of real monsters with his portrayal of the demon.

In the latter portion of the tale, the demon remarked that “Thow shalt with me to helle yet to-nyght, Where thou shalt knowen of oure privetee” (Chaucer 93).

Clearly, it is ironic that the summoner would go out of his way to outline his evil ways while the demon took him to hell. The summoner’s hubris was his downfall. The Friar’s Tale also had lots of examples of impersonation. Impersonation was commonly used by both of the main characters in order to set up the plot for action. In the beginning, the summoner told the demon that he was a bailiff so that he could hide his true nature.

The demon did the same thing initially so that both of them could share a confession of who they really were.

As Marshall Leicester pointed out, “all such formulations involve finding or creating two speakers in a narrative situation where it would be simpler to deal with one” (Leicester 215).

In this case, having the demon claim that “Thou art a bailly, and I am another” was a convenient way for the man to open up to his true nature (Chaucer 90). Clearly, this tale utilized impersonation in order to get the plot moving in the direction towards a moral lesson and ironic conclusion. Unfortunately for the summoner, he not only learned a lesson but was sent to hell for it.

Recurring themes in The Summoner’s Tale

The experience of the Friar also exemplified how irony and morality were common themes. For instance, it was clearly immoral for the Friar to beg for money from a man that recently lost a child and had given plenty. In this case, Chaucer used the antagonist to teach the audience that using trickery and a strong clerical position of power is not appropriate for exporting funds, just like the summoner in the previous tale.

The Friar even tried to mask his nature by claiming that he was not looking for money: “Thomas, noght of youre tresor I desire” (Chaucer 96).

However, Thomas knew what the Friar was up to and tricked him into believing that he was going to get something, not knowing that it was going to be a fart.

In traditional Chaucer fashion, “he had found a way to make lustrous theatricality serve moral concerns” (Howard 50).

The same embarrassment and punishment that the Friar faced was a commonality with that of the summoner in the previous tale, albeit the Friar did not go to hell for it. This tale also showed how impersonation was used. For example, the Friar made it a point to impersonate the poor lifestyle of working for the clergy. He constantly made references to being poor only as a means of achieving a holy lifestyle (Chaucer).

Even in the face of dealing with a man that had lost his son and faced hardship, the Friar pretended to be understanding of his disposition and related to his hardship. In the Friar’s arrogance, he simply thought of his own self-interest and claimed that he needed the money. While this case is slightly different from the summoner who extorted the elderly woman, the notion of using impersonation and trickery for material gain was still evident.

Differences between Chaucer’s books

Use of religion in The Friar’s Tale

Themes of death in poetry are hardly a new technique. But Chaucer combined death, hell, and tones of religion like no other author. The use and context of religion was a major difference between the works. Looking at The Friar’s Tale, religion was used as a means of punishment for the summoner, rather than the means by which he committed his crime.

This creative use of religion was indicative of Chaucer’s style of portraying a “moral view which embraced religion, politics, economics and ethics” (Howard 51).

Clearly, the ethics and politics were the cause of the injustice (means for stealing) and the religion was the punishment. For example, while the notion of being with a demon and being potentially taken to hell was not questioned in the earlier portion of the tale, it was certainly an important part of the latter part of the story. The ultimate moral of the story rested on the words that religion will be the end all:

“He may nat tempte yow over youre myght, For crist wol be youre champion and knight” (Chaucer 93). The power and influence of the divine spirit came into full fury when the man was abruptly taken to hell for his actions. In this case, religion and holy power played an integral role in the punishment aspect of the story.”

Different religious tones in The Summoner’s Tale

The Summoner’s Tale skews Christian ethics and portrays clergy in an unholy light. Religion is used not only as a platform for corruption and injustice, but it is also heavily embedded into the plot. For example, Chaucer exemplified the greed of the Friar when it came to begging by pushing Thomas to give the Friar more money as opposed to the other Friars (Harwood). This behavior was justified by the Friar through the use of divine means:

“In charitee, ythanked be oure lord! Now thomas, help, for seinte charitee!” (Chaucer 98).

In this case, religion was used to show how it can corrupt people so easily. In the other tale, religion was only used as a punishment for committing the crime in the first place. Also, punishment had nothing to do with religion in this tale.

As Derek Pearsall argued, the use of theatrics to punish the Friar fit into Chaucer’s style of using it “to dissolve disapproval in laughter, to tease us out of ill temper” (Pearsall xii).

In this case, religion and the realm of the divine played a much different role than in The Friar’s Tale. The corruption of the clerical people was the means for the crime, not the punishment.

Allusions to Biblical principles and stories are present throughout the latter tale also utilized much more biblical imagery. For example, the Friars were heavily correlated to the story of the Apostles and the Pentecost.

Penn Szittya remarked that in this tale, there is a constant “pattern of allusion to the biblical apostles which is both literarily important and historically grounded” (Szittya 20).

Indeed, the constant presence and influence of the Friars and their relationship to higher power is evident. For instance, the Friar mentioned numerous times how normal village people could never experience the unique relationship with God that they had. The same was true of how the Friar treated the village people as being religiously incapable of living his divine life of poverty.

Szittya concluded his argument by outlining how religion was a thoroughly used theme within the core plot: “the donum Dei, Thomas’ fire, the friar’s speechlessness, the first fruits of Pentecost, and the references to Moses and Elijah all reinforce allusively the Pentecostal pattern within the tale and prepare for the joke to come” (Szittya 27).

Such blatant use of religious symbolism and relation to the Apostles shows that this tale had a much richer and more subtle use of religion as opposed to the other tale.


As we have seen, both tales taught a moral lesson through the use of irony by portraying immoral and unethical people in their quest for material wealth. However, the use of religion in different contexts separated the two tales dramatically. The Friar’s Tale heavily relied on impersonation, irony, and trickery in order to show that using a position of power for making money was wrong. The irony was that the demon also had his own means of enacting revenge and fixing the injustice.

Similarly, the Friar in The Summoner’s Tale used his clerical power to subject people into giving him donations. The common theme of impersonating someone else (a poor, but enlightened person) for the benefit of money was used. Finally, the core difference between the two was that religion was used in different means. In The Friar’s Tale, it was used as a form of punishment by the demon while it was used as a way to make money in The Summoner’s Tale. The latter tale also included much more biblical imagery as well.

Works Cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey, and F. N. Robinson. The works of Geoffrey Chaucer. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957. Print.

Harwood, Britton. “Chaucer on “Speche”: “House of Fame, the Friar’s Tale,” and the “Summoner’s Tale”.” The Chaucer Review 26.4 (1992): 343-349. Print.

Howard, Donald. The Idea of the Canterbury Tales. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976. Print.

Leicester, Marshall. “The Art of Impersonation: A General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.” Modern Language Association 95.2 (1980): 213-224. Print.

Pearsall, Derek. The Canterbury Tales. New York: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1985. Print.

Szittya, Penn. “The Friar as False Apostle: Antifraternal Exegesis and the “Summoner’s Tale”.” Studies in Philology 71.1 (1974): 19-46. Print.

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