Irony in The Canterbury Tales

The General Prologue - The Monk 2
"And I said his opinion was right good...."   (The General Prologue - The Monk)

In the beginning of this introduction, the narrator stated that the Monk was a good monk. However, after a description of the Monk's beliefs, he reiterates the statement and follows it with a string of rhetorical questions, each one pointing out the absurdity in the Monk's actions and beliefs. Chaucer's sequencing of lines suggests that this line should be read ironically or sarcastically; the Monk is not progressive but rather defying his calling and vows.

"old and somewhat strict..."   (The General Prologue - The Monk)

Referring to the Rule as old and too strict is ironic since one of the major tenants of being a monk are strictly following ancient scriptures. The positive words in this description suggest that the monk is progressive to throw away these "old" things. However, this irony suggests that the description is actually a biting criticism meant to point out the Monk's hypocrisy.

"gold in physic..."   (The General Prologue - The Physician)

This is an ironic reference to the medieval treatment aurum potabile, which was a liquid medicine made of gold. This remedy was believed to be the best treatment for disease. Here, the narrator uses this reference to gold treatment to suggest that the use of gold is an essential part of being a physician, which suggests that physicians are corrupt.

"true and lawfully wedded wife..."   (The Miller’s Tale)

Alison's claims to "truth" and faithfulness read as dramatic irony because the audience knows that Alison and Nicholas are tricking the carpenter so that they can sleep together. The plot takes on elements of a farce as this plot seems so ridiculous that any man would see through the story. The farce and dramatic irony add to the comedy of the Miller's story.

"Christ forbid it..."   (The Miller’s Tale)

The carpenter promises to keep Nicholas's secret on Christ's blood, a n incredibly serious oath in the Middle Ages. However, the secret that Nicholas asks him to keep is a blasphemous lie. This ironically plays with the sanctity and importance of oaths established in the Knight's tale.

"good wife ..."   (The Miller’s Tale)

This description of Alison is either sarcasm or evidence of the Miller's drunken state. She has agreed to meet Nicholas later to cheat on her husband and thus cannot be a "good wife."

"we women can no thing conceal...."   (The Tale of the Wife of Bath)

Remember that this is a female character constructed by a male author. The testimony of what "we women" generally think and do is still coming from a male perspective, as will the answer that the knight in the story finds to his question of what pleases women most. Thus, this story, while ostensibly containing the voice of a woman who has broken free from her husband, is ironically still confined by a male perspective.

"thrust him through the two sides..."   (The Pardoner’s Tale)

With this euphemism, the first man suggests that he will stab their third companion so that they do not have to share the gold with him. Notice that the men went looking for Death and are now plotting to murder their comrade. They are bringing about the very thing they set out to vanquish. The Pardoner uses this ironic turn to demonstrate the dangers of greed.

" on my word..."   (The Pardoner’s Tale)

The second man promises to keep the first man's secret. However, throughout the story the rioters have not been good about keeping their promises. They abandoned their vow to kill death, claimed gold that was not theirs, and are now conspiring to break their vow to divide the money evenly. In this context, "On my word" becomes a statement of dramatic irony. The audience knows that this man's word means nothing and can guess that his inability to keep his word will cause the men's plans to unravel.