Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400)
Chaucer planned to write a long series of stories in verse, so as to describe his native country, its people and their way of life, and to express the experiences of the native people in the native language, thereby developing a national literature.
Before Chaucer, there was the deadening influence of French language and literature (after the conquest of 1066) on the native English language and literature. Chaucer lifted the ‘vulgar’ (common) vernacular into a literary language, its expressive power and dignity, and sowed the seeds of modern English poetry (and literary standard in general). Besides the Latin, Greek, French and even Italian ‘prestige’ languages, native English language also began to become the medium of poetic expression after Chaucer this is why Chaucer is often called the father of English poetry.
Chaucer planned to write about 120 stories by making each of the 30 pilgrims tell 2 stories each on the way to Canterbury and 2 more each on their way back (as the leader of the party tells in the prologue). But Chaucer could write only 22 stories. Today The Canterbury Tales is significant not only as the first great piece of English literature but also a realistic piece of literature that brings (illustrates) the 14th century England more vividly than the most laborious history. The very description of the team of pilgrims in its introduction (The General Prologue) is a “virtual art gallery” that gives a complete picture of the 14th century English society including the entire range of people from all classes, ranks, profession, both sexes, the good and the bad… and in such a realistic manner that makes Chaucer one of the greatest realists in the history of English literature. The prologue and the tales together both tell and show us the people’s way of life, their food, dress, interests, and habits, beliefs and attitudes, superstitions, religious life, rituals, social etiquette, table manners, hypocrisies, and many other details that create a vivid picture of the society.
Chaucer’s characters are types as well as individual characters; each of the individuals represents his/ her class, profession, age, gender or some sort of type, but at the same time each one of them is described with such personal details about facial features, build, dress, individual traits, likes and dislikes, and so on, in order to make us feel that he/she is a real individual human being of the time. For instance, the Knight is a typical medieval crusader, faithful servant of the British royalty, a knight who loved chivalry, honesty, truth and courtesy, and like all ideal knights, a respected and reputed man all over the country. In this way, he represents a class of human beings, the knights of the fourteenth century England. But at the same time, he has his own very individual qualities: he is “as meek as a maid,” and he has his own favorites in dress and food and so on.
There are balances of several kinds in the characterization of the characters. Like the balance between the individual and typical qualities in the description of each character, Chaucer has kept a balance between the positive and negative traits of each class and individual characters. Not all the civil servants are ideal like the knight; there is a tax-evading Reeve who was richer than his lords by means of fraud and fright! Thus he balances between the good and bad people in each class (nobility, clergy and laity), each gender, each profession, and so on. For instance, there is a ‘hunting’ mock who had practically renounced and even denounced his religious duties and codes of conduct, but he is praised for his being a practical man and a good rider! All knights might not be necessarily so virtuous.
Another striking technique is the characterization with the variety of details and the way the narrator shifts from one type of detail to another. The narrator notices features as specific as the color of a woman’s lips, the mole on the nose-tip about a man, the red face and rolling red eyes of a monk. But he also mentions features as general as the craze for aristocratic etiquette of a nun, the love roasted swan in the monk, the golden thumb of the miller, or the practice of virtue before preaching it by a ‘good man’ parson. The narrator shifts from specific and individual details to general ones. But at times he shifts abruptly from any type of detail to any other type, giving us the impression that these data are actually being gathered on the ‘field’ itself.
The narrator includes every aspect of each character; their facial features including moles and scars. Their dress and the horse they are riding, their voice and temperament, their passions and foibles, their affectations and degradations, their virtues and ideals, their profession and abilities, their past lives and present status, their behavior and humors. This variety and natural shift in the inclusion of the details also reinforces the impression of reality in the characterization.
Chaucer barely holds the mirror up to the society of his time. Even when we read only the prologue to The Canterbury Tales, we meet all the kinds of people of his time, leaving probably only the topmost, the king, and the very bottom, the beggar. He has included all the three estates, the nobility, the clergy and the commoners. To make the picture more representatives, he has selected the virtuous and the corrupted as well as the mixed “human” types from all the three estates. As we read the description of his characters, we are given the impression that Chaucer’s age was a time of transition from the medieval world to that of the Renaissance. Unlike the other writers who were lost in dreams and allegories, Chaucer has presented real life and people with their activities, tendencies, weaknesses, greatnesses, individual and professional behaviors, their passions and their absurdities. From their descriptions, we understand the social and economic as well as the religious and moral aspects of the society of fourteenth century England. The characters are types representing their respective professions, gender, religious traditions and social statues: the details of a character can be generalized as representing their class, profession, gender etc. But, there are personal features like description of facial and dress details, emotions and tendencies in the description of each character. This makes the prologue even more realistic.
Sharma, Kedar N. "The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer: Synopsis." BachelorandMaster, 13 Nov. 2009, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/the-canterbury-tales.html.