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A Comparison of Telling in Knight’s Tale and Miller’s Tale of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

The Importance of Telling in Knight’s Tale and Miller’s Tale

In the Canterbury Tales, the Knight begins the tale-telling. Although straws were picked, and the order left to “aventure,” or “cas,” Harry Bailey seems to have pushed fate. The Knight represents the highest caste in the social hierarchy of the fourteenth century, those who rule, those who pray, and those who work. Assuming that the worldly knight would tell the most entertaining and understandable story (that would shorten their pilgrimage to St. Thomas Becket), Harry tells the Knight to begin.

The Knight’s tale of love, loyalty, and battle is placed in the chivalric romance genre. The courtly romance concerns the mythical kingdom of Theseus, wealthy rulers, and pagan (mythical) gods. Throughout the tale, the Knight and the other characters refer to the concept of the “wheel of fortune.” In the beginning of the tale, weeping, broken women plead to Theseus to help them avenge their husbands. Although impoverished, they tell Theseus that they were all at one point wealthy and of high rank. Even though Theseus is glorified and powerful now, the goddess will spin the “wheel of fortune” and he will one day be low. The concept of destiny and the wheel of fortune represents the Knight’s acceptance of an incomprehensible world. His inclusion of the mythical gods, Mars, Venus, Mercury, and Diana furthers this idea. Emily, Arcite, and Palamon each pray to a diety, asking for help and their unattainable wish. In the end, father Saturn decrees Arcite’s death. Thus, paradoxical human emotions and senseless tragedy are safely distanced; they are attributed to the will of the pagan gods. Similarly the love triangle between Arcite, Palamon, and Emily stresses tha…

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…night, the Miller’s characters are not moral or honorable; they simply want to gratify themselves. While the Knight’s story ends with an honorable death and a union between lovers, the Miller’s tale ends with humiliation: the cuckholded husband is branded insane, Absolom suffered and prank, and Nicolas a painful burn. Consequently the Miller mocks the Knight’s prayer. He wishes the company well, but the content of his tale expresses his laughter. In a way he “paid back” the Knight’s tale.

The Miller tells his tale momentarily to amuse and and embarrass (the Reeve and his own cameo appearance), while the Knight tells a story strong on “sentence” or meaning. The two different motives reveal the fundamental differences between the two men: the noble Knight can still believe in a higher beautiful world, while the Miller cannot accept it ever existed.

Crime and Punishment: Raskolnikov’s Room

Dostoevsky’s 1865 novel Crime and Punishment is the story of an expelled university student’s murder of an old pawnbroker and her sister. The idealistic ex-student, Raskolnikov, is ultimately unable to live up to his own nihilistic theory of what makes a “Great Man” and, overcome by fits of morality, betrays himself to the police. Exiled to Siberia, suffering redeems the unfortunate young dreamer. Crime and Punishment is similar in many ways to Balzac’s Pere Goriot, especially in respect to questions of morality. In Balzac, the master-criminal Vautrin lives by an amoral code similar to Raskolnikov’s theory of Great Men–unrestrained by conscience, Vautrin holds that laws are for the weak, and those clever enough to realize this may overstep any boundaries they wish and dominate the rest of mankind. But where Balzac’s characters act on this idea without repercussion, Raskolnikov makes a transgression and then begins immediately to question it. The result is a psychological inner battle between rationality and sentimental moralism which is as much a contest between Empiricism and Romanticism as it is a contest between good and evil, or God and the Devil.

The arena for this ideological contest is Petersburg, full of slums, revolutionary students and petty titular councilors. Scientifically and artificially constructed in the midst of marshland, the city itself is a symbol of the incompatibility of logical planning with humankind’s natural sensibilities. The city did not grow randomly or organically, but entirely by czarist decree. Nonetheless, it is a dank and depressing place to live, at least for those in the vicinity of Haymarket Square, where the story takes place. Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky’s biographer, says of …

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…where it is spent. Raskolnikov’s tiny apartment is exactly such a “square yard of space,” for cramped squalor and psychological tumult aside, life in Raskolnikov’s room is worth living.


Dostoevsky, Feodor. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Jessie Coulson. Ed. George Gibian. New York: Norton, 1989.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Balzac, Honore de. Pere Goriot. Trans. Henry Reed. New York: Penguin Books, 1981.


1 “Rodya” is a nickname for Raskolnikov. It is a diminutive of Rodion, Raskolnikov’s first name.

2 It is interesting to note that only positive characters are stricken by the squalor of Raskolnikov’s room. Characters such as Mr. Luzhin, Svidrigaylov and Porfiry never, to my knowledge, comment on Raskolnikov’s room.


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