(An interlinear translation of The Parson's Prologue is available for students reading this text for the first time.)
When Harry Bailey calls on the Parson for a final tale to fulfill "al myn ordinaunce, he demands "a fable anon, for cokkes bones." The Parson refuses to tell any fable (fiction); instead, he says:
I wol yow telle a myrie tale in prose
To knytte up al this feeste and make an ende.
The tale he tells is in prose (he scorns verse) and is not a fable, a tale, but rather a treatise on penance,
To shewe yow the wey, in this viage,
Of thilke parfit glorious pilgrymage
That highte Jerusalem celestial.
The Parson begins in a sermon-like manner, stating his text (from Jeremiah 6:16):
"Stondeth upon the weyes, and seeth and axeth of olde pathes (that is to seyn, of olde sentences) which is the goode wey, and walketh in that wey, and ye shal fynde refresshynge for youre soules, etc." (ParsT X.77-8)
This is what Chaucer's pilgrims have been doing upon their "weyes," debating a variety of paths of life. Repentance, the Parson says, is the true way.
He begins with a definition of penance and part I of his tale (X.75-X.386) is a discussion of the various sorts of contrition and the distinction between venial and deadly sins, which leads to Part II, a discussion of the seven deadly sins and their remedies: Pride (remedied by humility), Envy (love of one's neighbors), Anger (meekness), Sloth (strength), Avarice (pity, mercy), Gluttony (abstinence), Lechery (chastity).
Part II itself is divided in three parts, the first of which is the section of the Seven Deadly Sins described above. Part II (beginning at line 958) is on confession, Part III (beginning at line 1029) is on Satisfaction, and the tale ends with a call for those who seek "the endelees blisse of hevene" to repent and make satisfaction for their sins:
This blisful regne may men purchace by poverte espiritueel, and the glorie by lowenesse, the plentee of joye by hunger and thurst, and the reste by travaille, and the lyf by deeth and mortificacion of synne. (ParsT X.1080)
Chaucer appears to have taken this advice, because what follows next is Chaucer's Retraction, in which he repents his "guilts" in writing of "worldly vanities" and prays that he have grace to bewail his sins.
The Parson's Tale is surely the least read of the Canterbury Tales, not surprisingly, for it is not a literary work. It is a straightforward treatise on repentance and sin. And it ends with Chaucer's renunciation of the very works for which we admire him. Nevertheless, even beginning students should at least scan a translation of the Tale; it is not one of Chaucer's great works but it deserves more attention than it has received. For such students a modern English translation is provided.
Some earlier critics were convinced that Chaucer could not have written the Parson's Tale and Retraction, but there is no basis for that belief (see Sigfried Wenzel's discussion in The Riverside Chaucer (pp. 956ff.) or The Canterbury Tales, pp. 473-74).
The work is a translation from a variety of sources drawn from the rich tradition of penitential treatises in Latin and French (again see Wenzel, who is the discoverer of a number sources that Chaucer drew upon.) Like the Melibee, it is in prose, and though Chaucer's prose is not much admired, it is clear and workmanlike, and sometimes even lively (e.g., 857-58).
The account of the Seven Deadly Sins has something of the air of an "Estates Satire," of the sort apparent in John Gower's Confessio Amantis, which is structured as an account of the Seven Deadly Sins (sins against the god of Love, at least in the beginning). As such, it provides a new view of some of the characters in the General Prologue: the Squire's fashionable clothing, which seemed suitable to an elegant young courtier are here seen as evidence of Pride, and the Franklin's concern with good food and piquant sauces is here the work of Gluttony.
This provided the basis for Frederick Tupper's argument (in PMLA 22) , 1914, 93-128; see also his Types of Society, 1926) that the description of the Vices and Virtues in The Parson's Tale provides the organizing principle to the preceding tales, which are exempla of the sins and their remedies. That argument was completely refuted by John Livingston Lowes (PMLA 23), 1915, 237-71), but the idea that the Parson's Tale is a suitable conclusion to the Tales was revived by Ralph Baldwin (The Unity of the Canterbury Tales, 1955), and is accepted in one form or another by most of those critics who regard the Tales as a unified whole.
For a bibliography of critical and scholarly works on the Parson's Tale (and the Retraction) click here.