What’s in a tale? The Canterbury Tales and The Handmaid’s Tale

Consider the definition of a tale, from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary:

Definition of tale

  1. a:  a usually imaginative narrative of an event :story

    b:  an intentionally untrue report :falsehoodalways preferred the tale to the truth — Sir Winston Churchill

  2. a:  a series of events or facts told or presented :account

    b(1):  a report of a private or confidential matter dead men tell no tales

    (2):  a libelous report or piece of gossip

What is Atwood alerting us to in her use of the word?

Consider now, the most famous set of tales in the western canon: The Canterbury Tales

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The Canterbury Tales is one of the best loved works in the history of English literature. Written in Middle English, the story follows a group of pilgrims who are travelling the long journey from London to Canterbury Cathedral. Setting off from a London inn, the innkeeper suggests that during the journey each pilgrim should tell two tales to help pass the time. The best storyteller, he says, will be rewarded with a free supper on his return.

Chaucer introduces us to a vivid cast of characters, including a carpenter, a cook, a knight, a monk, a prioress, a haberdasher, a dyer, a clerk, a merchant and a very bawdy miller. These characters come from all corners of 14th century society, and give Chaucer the chance to speak in many different voices. Some of the characters’ tales are humorous, rude and naughty, while others are moral and reflective. (Source)


Watch this animation of The Wife of Bath’s Tale and look for the parallels in themes between it and The Handmaid’s Tale.

The Wife of Bath’s Tale Analysis (source: Sparknotes)

“Wommen desiren to have sovereyntee
As wel over hir housbond as hir love,
And for to been in maistrie hym above.”
The tale the Wife of Bath tells about the transformation of an old hag into a beautiful maid was quite well known in folk legend and poetry. One of Chaucer’s contemporaries, the poet John Gower, wrote a version of the same tale that was very popular in Chaucer’s time. But whereas the moral of the folk tale of the loathsome hag is that true beauty lies within, the Wife of Bath arrives at such a conclusion only incidentally. Her message is that, ugly or fair, women should be obeyed in all things by their husbands.

The old hag might be intended to represent the Wife of Bath herself, at least as she would like others to see her. Though the hag has aged, she is capable of displaying all of the vigor and inner beauty of her youth if the right man comes along, just as the Wife did with her fifth and favorite husband, the youthful Jankyn. Although the old hag becomes a beautiful young woman in response to the young knight’s well-timed response, it is unclear whether he truly had enough respect for the old woman that he allowed her to choose for herself, or whether he had simply learned how to supply her with the correct answer.

If we agree with the former, we may see the Wife as an idealistic character who believes that bad men can change. If we choose the latter, the Wife becomes a much more cynical character, inclined to mistrust all men. In the second interpretation, both transformations—the knight’s shallow change in behavior (but not in soul) and the hag’s transformation into the physical object of desires—are only skin deep. Perhaps she is giving him exactly what he deserves: superficiality.

The Wife begins her tale by depicting the golden age of King Arthur as one that was both more perilous and more full of opportunity for women. Every time a woman traveled alone, the Wife suggests, she was in danger of encountering an incubus, or an evil spirit who would seduce women (880). But the society is also highly matriarchal. After the knight commits a rape, the king hands him over to Arthur’s queen, who decides to send him on an educational quest. His education comes through women, and the queen’s challenge puts him in a situation where what is traditionally thought of as a shortcoming—a woman’s inability to keep a secret—is the only thing that can save him. The Wife’s digression about King Midas may also be slightly subversive. Instead of finishing the story, she directs the reader to Ovid. In Ovid’s version of the story, the only person who knows about Midas’s ass’s ears is not his wife but his barber. The wife could, therefore, be slyly trying to point out that men, too, are gossips.


The Canterbury Tales  by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Read The Canterbury Tales on Laura Gibbs’ website.

 Read The Canterbury Tales on Wikipedia  or here.


The transcript of the Tales in Chaucer’s language is here (scroll down).

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Other tales:

Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque by Edgar Allan Poe 

Link to large collection of tales (mythology and folklore)


Theme Tracking: Points and Threads


Looking at the play and the novel through a particular theme will uncover some interesting points of comparison and contrast between the two texts.  Follow the thread you have chosen (or been assigned) and see how far it takes you.

  • Consider what characters embody the ideas of your theme;
  • Consider which symbols and motifs are used by the writers to explore an idea;
  • Remember that you will need to explain the nature of ideas at play in the texts;
  • Challenge yourself as you interpret the text;  ask: what does this suggest?
  • Consider what Atwood or Miller is suggesting about what it means to be human.


Part 1: Individual Investigation – make a set of notes of your observations across both texts as a starting point.  (DUE: Friday 25 August)

Stage 2: Paired Sharing – combine your work with your partner and add to your notes.  Challenge yourselves to investigate further; interrogate the text. (DUE: Friday 1 September)

Stage 3: Group Sharing  – you will be placed in a group of 6-8 (a mix of themes) to share your ideas and add even more detail to your notes.  You will have to come up with some essay topics to help students grapple with the complexity of both texts. (DUE: TBA)

Stage 4: Class Sharing – expect to have to present (Powerpoint Karaoke style) your understanding of the text at any given time. (DUE: TBA)

Check the following table to note your partner.  It would be most useful if you could sit together in class so that you may share as you make observations.

Sex and Sexuality
Theocracy and Social Hierarchy Maharshi, Yasith
Love and Connection Huy, Jimmy
Truth and Confession  Jeremy, Corey, Anton
Fear and Hatred John, Charlie
Freedom and Oppression Hrishikesh, Eddie
Community versus the Individual Finley, Meth
Self-Interest and Self-Sacrifice Nathan, Josiah
Identity and Reputation Bill, Wayne
Authority and Control Shiv, Liang
Religion and Ritual Vadim, Mark
Courage and Resistance Ian, Aditya
Morality and Conscience Zi Li, James






The history of sexuality: An introduction, volume 1 – Foucault

The history of sexuality: An introduction, volume 1 – Michel Foucault (Sparknotes)

Foucault argues that we generally read the history of sexuality since the 18th century in terms of what Foucault calls the “repressive hypothesis.” The repressive hypothesis supposes that since the rise of the bourgeoisie, any expenditure of energy on purely pleasurable activities has been frowned upon. As a result, sex has been treated as a private, practical affair that only properly takes place between a husband and a wife. Sex outside these confines is not simply prohibited, but repressed. That is, there is not simply an effort to prevent extra-marital sex, but also an effort to make it unspeakable and unthinkable. Discourse on sexuality is confined to marriage.

Read more here.




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Confession: Truth and Lies

The Innocence Project in the US works on cases of alleged wrongful conviction and imprisonment.  They point out how easily confessions can be contaminated.

The following information comes from their website:

Astonishingly, more than 1 out of 4 people wrongfully convicted but later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement.

Why do innocent people confess?

The reasons that people falsely confess are complex and varied, but what they tend to have in common is a belief that complying with the police by saying that they committed the crime in question will be more beneficial than continuing to maintain their innocence.

The factors that can contribute to a false confession during a police interrogation include:

  • duress
  • coercion
  • intoxication
  • diminished capacity
  • mental impairment
  • ignorance of the law
  • fear of violence
  • the actual infliction of harm
  • the threat of a harsh sentence
  • misunderstanding the situation

Confessions obtained from juveniles are often unreliable — children can be easy to manipulate and are not always fully aware of their situation.

People with mental disabilities have often falsely confessed because they are tempted to accommodate and agree with authority figures. Further, many law enforcement interrogators are not given any special training on questioning suspects with mental disabilities. An impaired mental state due to mental illness, drugs or alcohol may also elicit false admissions of guilt.

Mentally capable adults also give false confessions due to a variety of factors like the length of interrogation, exhaustion or a belief that they can be released after confessing and prove their innocence later.

From threats to torture

Sometimes law enforcement use harsh interrogation tactics with uncooperative suspects. But some police officers, convinced of a suspect’s guilt, occasionally use tactics so persuasive that an innocent person feels compelled to confess. For instance, it is perfectly legal for law enforcement to employ deception or trickery in the interrogation room. Some suspects are untruthfully told that there is already evidence pointing to their guilt, such as a forensic test that links the suspect to the crime. Some suspects have confessed to avoid physical harm or discomfort. Others are told they will be convicted with or without a confession and that their sentence will be more lenient if they confess. Some are told a confession is the only way to avoid the death penalty. These tactics can be persuasive in eliciting a false confession.



Exorcisms Today

So you want to keep up with the times?  Or would you prefer to return to ‘traditional times’?  Either way, it appears exorcisms hold a lasting appeal for some.


Read Peter Munro’s article ‘Defeating the Devil: Why Exorcism in Australia is on the Rise’ for a fascinating look at exorcism in Australia.  What parallels can you see between this article – the claims of those who believe in exorcism and the views held by the Salem community in ‘The Crucible’?

Only last week national newspapers in the UK pointed out the alarming rise in exorcisms.