The Frame Narrative

    "This is the poynt, to speken short and pleyn,
     That ech of yow, to shorte with oure weye,
     In this viage shal telle tales tweye
     To Caunterbury-ward, I mene it so,
     And homward he shal tellen othere two,
     Of aventures that whilom han bifalle.
     And which of yow that bereth hym best of alle --
     That is to seyn, that telleth in this caas
     Tales of best sentence and moost solaas --
     Shal have a soper at oure aller cost
     Heere in this place, sittynge by this post,
     GP I.788-800

The narrative frame of the Canterbury Tales -- the account of the pilgrims and their squabbles as they move along the Road to Canterbury toward the end of their journey -- was once the most admired part of Chaucer's work. G.C. Coulton (writing in 1908) nicely expresses the admiration his generation of critics felt for the framing narrative:

"Even more delightful than any of the tales told by Chaucer's pilgrims is the tale which he tells us about them all: the story of their journey to Canterbury. Nowhere within so brief a compass can we realize either the life of the fourteenth century on one hand, or on the other the dramatic power in which Chaucer stands second only to Shakespeare among English poets. Forget for a while the separate tales of the pilgrims - - many of which were patched up by fits and starts during such broken leisure as this man of the world could afford for indulging his poetical fancies; while many others (like the Monk's and the Parson's) are tedious to modern readers in strict proportion to their dramatic propriety at the moment -- forget for once all but the Prologue and the end-links, and read these through at one sitting, from the first stirrup-cup at Southwark Tabard to that final crest of Harbledown where the weary look down at last upon the sacred city of their pilgrimage. There is no such story as this in all medieval literature; no such gallery of finished portraits, nor any drama so true both to life and to perfect art. The dramatis personae of the Decameron are mere puppets in comparison; their occasional talk seems to us insipid to the last degree of old-world fashion. 

"Boccaccio wrote for a society that was in many ways over-refined already; it is fortunate for us that Chaucer's public was not yet at that point of literary development at which art is too often tempted into artifice. He took the living men day by day, each in his simplest and most striking characteristics; and from these motley figures, under the artist's hand, grew a mosaic in which each stands out with all the glow of his own native colour, and all the added glory of the jewelled hues around him." (G.G. Coulton, Chaucer and his England, 1908, p. 126.)

The connecting links that compose the framing narrative of the Canterbury Tales are open to the same sort of objections that Coulton raises against the tales -- patched up by bits and starts -- and they show more clearly than the individual tales the unrevised state in which Chaucer left his great work.  Nevertheless Coulton's advice is worth taking, especially today when -- perhaps because courses in Chaucer so often concentrate on a selection of Tales, or perhaps because so many critics today have completely rejected the old critical approaches to the "roadside drama" -- the framing narrative that delighted Coulton and his contemporaries is often left unread.

A Summary of the Framing Narrative

For critical and scholarly works on the "frame narrative" click here (LINK) for the "General" category of Derek Pearsall's bibliography.