The Theme of Payback in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey

The Theme of Payback in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey
Chaucer and Divine Comedy by Dante Alighiere

The theme of payback was greatly researched in the world literature. There are different meanings of the notion of payback and different authors shed light to different aspects of this term.
Dante and Chaucer turn to the notion of payback in their works, but they depict completely different aspects of this problem in their works.
Payback in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is used in the meaning of returning back the story. The Canterbury Tales is written in a form of collection of short fictional stories told by twenty-nine pilgrims during their journey to Canterbury. Each story forms a parable as it starts with the narrator, than turns to the story itself and finally returns to the personality of the narrator. In the Prolog of his Tales, Chaucer gives a detailed characteristic of each pilgrim. The description of the pilgrims becomes a perfect opportunity to give an account of the English society of the 14th century. Twenty-nine pilgrims represent practically all levels of the English society except for aristocracy. Royal family isn’t represented either. Each of the pilgrims wants to pay back to his comrades and tell the story of his own. Telling stories in return is not only the matter of politeness. The talks of the pilgrims turn to the tournament of oratory skills, wit and intelligence and each pilgrim does his best to win the competition. Each story told by the pilgrim becomes a quitting to all the rest and they are happy to take this quitting and answer it. In general, “quitting” is a famous technique widely used in medieval literary tradition. In this literary tradition the “quitting” is understood as telling one story in response for another.
Hallissy states that quitting in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales “serves to allow the characters themselves to transcend their own social class, and class-based moral expectations, in order to gain power over people of “higher” social strata.”(Hallissy, 41) In the each prologue of each tale we can see social status of each character and even the order in which they tell their tales tells about their social status. The Knight, who starts the telling cycle has more privileges in comparison to his companions. The Knight is depicted like generous, romantic and courageous man. “The very pattern of a noble Knight,” and “a most distinguished man” as Chaucer himself calls him. The Friar and the Parson become two opposite manifestations of the contemporary clergy. These two people show a contrast between two different ways of approaching their missions. These two characters differ even in their physical characteristics. The Parson becomes an embodiment of holy man dedicated to his service to God and his parishioners. All his deeds prove his right to be a parson in contrast to Friar. This controversy is used by the author in order to underline the separation between honest priests and liars who use their position in order to obtain some profit. The withstanding between two priests reflected Chaucer’s ideas about the necessity of changes inside the Catholic Church, condemned church corruption, and emphasized the necessity of the religious reformation.
All the stories and their narrative taken together create a perfect portrait of the medieval life. The picture created by the author shows different aspects of life as many storytellers give their pieces, which finally constitute the mosaic of different tales into one story.
There are a lot of reasons, which make the Pilgrims to tell their stories. First of all each story is a self-reflection of each character about himself, his times and people who surround him. At the same time each story has its addresses and is told for the audience. Each narrator expects for some feedback from his listeners and wants to hear their reaction. Reactions to each story range from anger to admiration and each story becomes and challenge for the listeners, who now have to payback with some other story. Despite all the stories and different and provide different kinds of reactions there are several things, which unite them. The theme of social life, the place of an individual in the society and different social roles people play become that red threat, which goes through all the stories and unites all the narrators. The theme of moral balance is also an important theme, which becomes the main theme in many stories. The character of the Pardoner seems to be the embodiment of this social and moral balance. In the beginning of the narration the Pardoner becomes an incarnation of perfect moral balance and that unachievable goal all the pilgrims strove for. The Pardoner sells so-called indulgences, which promised the person who bought them the pardon of all his sings. The Pardoner turns to his usual devices and starts his usual sermon when he got the opportunity to talk. The story becomes a challenge for all the listeners as it makes them to think about their own failure and vices, which become even more evident in comparison with the Pardoner’s words. But Chaucer doesn’t let the reader to be fooled by this “servant of God” and uncovers his true thoughts and ambitions and the corruptness of selling the “pardons of God”. The Pardoner uncovers some of the techniques he uses in order to sell as much indulgences as possible. “Avarice is the theme that I employ in all my sermons, to make the people free in giving pennies-especially to me. My mind is fixed on what I stand to win and not at all upon correcting sin.” and “By such hornswoggling I’ve won, year by year, a hundred marks” (Chaucer, 163). The withstand between the Pardoner and the Host is very notable. After finishing his tale, the Pardoner has nothing to answer to the attacks of the Host. “Pardoner did not answer; not a word, he was so angry, could he find to say” (Chaucer, 185). Very soon he finds his usual way to escape the situation ends the story with the words “and now, good men, your sins may God forgive and keep you specially from avarice!” (Chaucer, 164). The Host is able to see the hypocrisy of the Pardoner and make the readers see the hypocrisy of the Church and its servants. His real views on the Church are not uncovered till the end of the story he tells.
The notion of feedback presented in Dante’s Divine Comedy is completely different. It presents the journey of the poet accompanied by Virgil through three realms of the dead. Inferno or Hell is the best known part of the comedy. The Divine Comedy has a lot of levels of interpretation. Political and religious satire presents one layer of meaning, where Dante gave his payback to everybody he disliked. The narration provided by Dante is allegorical and in the beginning of his writing he calls the readers to “note the doctrine hidden under the veil of strange verses.” (Inf. 9.61-3)
Inferno describes all the types of punishments people get for their sins after death. The theme of divine retribution or contrapasso is central to Inferno. Retribution can be positive or negative but in the circles of Hell Dante and Virgil see only punishments people get for their sins.
There are nine circles of Hell described by Dante and the sufferings of the sinners tortured in the hell increase as Dante and Virgil descend the Hell. Dante depicted Hell as a conical recess, formed by Lucifer when he fell down from the Heaven to earth. Dante made a great work developing his own system of punishments and tortures in the attempt to give the classification to the human sins. According to his classification, people who commit sins over society deserve a more severe punishment than those who commit crimes against individuals. “The Inferno seems fair advice from a fourteenth century Florentine: The only way to live life is to be true to one’s own ideals; for betraying one’s morality is betraying one’s self.” (Robertson) Dante borrowed Aristotelian idea of contrapasso. Aristotle expressed a thought that the suffering the soul experiences in Hell contrasts the sins committed on earth in order not to let the sinners forget about crimes they committed. Contrapasso makes the sinner to reexperience the most terrible aspects of their sins in order not to forget it.
So, the hell created by Dante is build on the principle of contrapasso. In this hell each sinner gets a unique punishment appropriate to his sin. So, each soul in Inferno lives in its own hell with own thoughts, fears and desires. This hierarchy gives us an account of the punishments, Dante believed to be appropriate for certain sins. Contrapasso of payback is a central idea expressed by Dante in his Inferno.
So, payback gets different meaning in the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer and Divine Comedy by Dante. Payback described by Chaucer is presented in the form of oral tournament, where people are quitting each other telling different stories. In Dante’s work payback is retribution for the deeds committed during the human life. His payback is derived from Aristotelian philosophical thought and is a synonym for contrapasso.


Geoffrey Chaucer. Twayne’s English Authors Series, Ed. Sylvia Bowman, New York: Twayne Publishers, 1964.
Pearsall, Derek. The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer. Blackwell Critical Biographies. Ed. Claude Rawson. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1992.
Ryan Robertson, On Literary Literacy, New York, 1998
Dante Alighieri, Inferno, New York, 1999. f
Hallissy, Margaret.A Companion to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales(Greenwood, 1995).