You know those movies where a new kid moves to town and has to go to a new high school, like Mean Girls ? On his first day of school, the new kid meets a friendly nerd who takes him to the cafeteria and introduces him to all the cliques that make up his new social existence: "And here we have the jocks. And here are the math geeks…" Well, in The Canterbury Tales , you're the new kid, and Chaucer is your friendly nerd, serving as your guide to the jocks, cheerleaders, and math geeks of medieval society. Like your friendly nerd, he's witty and sarcastic, revealing all of the posing and preening that's going on in this cafeteria while at the same time desperately longing to be a part of it.
Of course, the same thing always happens in the course of those movies: the new kid ends up wanting to date outside of, or socialize beyond, the clique into which he's immediately cast because of his "new kid" status. Angst ensues, but, at the end of the day, everybody figures out that the cheerleader really isn't shallow after all, the jock has a heart of gold, and the math geek a beautiful soul. Everybody is hiding something interesting. Nobody is exactly what they first appeared to be. Well, in The Canterbury Tales , the same thing is true: appearances can be deceiving.
Or can they? The Canterbury Tales are written in a society that, to some extent, believed you could judge a book by its cover – that the physical characteristics, or the mere category of a person, might reveal something about what was on the inside. In some ways, the pilgrims' portraits in The Canterbury Tales confirm the common stereotypes: the lower-class person is extremely physical, the consummate wife is lustful. But, as the Tales progress, these people have the chance to speak for themselves. What happens then isn't exactly a contradiction of the stereotypes about them, but it isn't exactly a confirmation of them, either. As so often happens when you really get to know someone, what you find out in The Canterbury Tales is that people, even the ones we think we have figured out, are never one-dimensional and always worth getting to know better.