Essay, Research Paper: Canterbury Tales

Literature: Geoffrey Chaucer

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Though the characters in the Canterbury Tales are described vividly and often
comically, it is not necessarily true that these characters are therefore
stereotypes of The Middle ages. The intricate visual descriptions and the tales
the characters tell help to direct the reader in finding a more accurate and
realistic picture of the pilgrims, bringing into question the theory that
Chaucer was just collating stereotypes from his time. The fact that there is one
representative for each of the chief classes (under the higher nobility) would
suggest that this work is an attempt to provide a catalogue of characters from
the middle ages, and it can be assumed from this that this denotes a collection
of stereotypes, although this is not necessarily true. The format of The
Canterbury Tales suggests a simplistic approach, a prologue and epilogue and in
between a collection of tales, The Miler's Tale, The Clerk's Tale and so on[1].
This simplicity in structure may also suggest a simplicity in content and thus,
convincing and challenging characters are unlikely to be expected in a work of
seemingly simple design. But, when looked at in more detail, the tales are found
to hold many details that contradict the bland stereotype expected, and when the
structure of the work is looked at in its context of 14th century literature,
the Canterbury Tales is found to be a work pioneering the form of the epic poem.
The style in which Chaucer writes may also initially seem to suggest that his
characters are under-developed stereotypes, he uses the language of his time
vividly, although this does not therefore mean that his characters are two
dimensional, almost 'cartoon' characters. J.R. Hulbert in his essay Chaucer's
Pilgrims explains, "In many instances there are exuberant lines which
sharpen the effect desired." The Canterbury Tales may, at first seem to be
obtuse and unfocused through the use of lucid imagery and language, although
this language, when studied gives a more detailed and more deeply layered
portrayal of the pilgrims as well as giving them colourful characteristics.
Chaucer's description of the knight is a good example of his subversion of the
classic Arthurian image that existed in popular literature of the time[2]. In
the General Prologue, Chaucer relays his description of the knight: " A
Knight ther was, and that a worthy man, That fro the time that he first bigan To
riden out, he loved chivalrye, Trouthe, and honour, freedom and curteisye."
This excerpt, the beginning of the description of the knight holds true to the
classic representation of the knight of valour and honour, but Chaucer goes on
to pervert and pollute the fairytale image that he has created: " And of
his port as meeke as is a maide" and, " His hors were goode, but he
was nat gay. Of fustian he wered a gopoun, Al bismothered with his haubergeoun."
In these few lines, Chaucer has destroyed the traditional stereotype of the
knight and created a new and almost comical figure. Our knight is not one 'in
shining armour', but rather a 'knight in a rusted chain-mail'. The knight does
not even have a hyper-masculine representation here either. Chaucer feminises
the knight comparing him to a maid. At the end of the description of the knight
in the general prologue the only part of the knight that lives up to the readers
expectations is his horse, which apparently was in good condition. Although we
have only been given a visual representation of the knight, the reader can
gather many things from this description, perhaps the knight is effeminate or
weak, and he shys away from battle, getting so little battlefield 'action' that
his chainmail has begun to rust. It is a device used by Chaucer to convey the
character of his pilgrims using their appearance. Thus when the Wife of Bath is
described as being "gat-toothed", the reader can assume that she is
lusty as it was believed in the Middle ages that this particular physical
attribute denoted that characteristic. In medieval times, certain elements of a
person's appearance intrinsically suggested something, if not everything of
their character. Indeed, this practice of identifying outward appearance with
inward attitudes and traits became an area of study known as 'physiognomy' and
manuals on this subject were produced[3]. In more recent times, critics have
tried to unravel and understand the many tiny clues hidden in the character
descriptions to gain a sharper picture of these characters. In 1919 Water Clyde
Curry claimed to have discovered the pardoner's "secret" [that he was
a eunuchus ex nativitate] using these manuals, and this discovery, after it's
initial acceptance has been questioned for it's reliance on the physiognomy
texts that are vague and overlapping anyway. Although we may not be able to
assess the details of the characters in as much detail as Walter Clyde Curry
attempted, we can still glean further insight into the pilgrims characters from
their appearance. Chaucer describes the miller in a similar way to the knight,
in that he creates a picture of the archetypal stereotype and then obliterates
it with a parody of the traditional model. The miller is described as "braun",
"brood", "short-shuldred" and "eek of bones", this
is a regular picture of a stocky, well-built, practical man. Chaucer then
describes how this man who seems fit and strong and therefore, presumably young,
is actually old and is not as worldly wise as his age and his profession as a
carpenter would suggest. The carpenter who is physically strong is,
unfortunately for him, mentally weak. He is not suspecting of his young wife's
plot to have sex with Nicholas and he is completely taken in by the clerk's
claims of a flood on the scale of that of Noah's time. Although the reader might
presume the miller to be worldly wise, having a hard labour-intensive job
bringing him into contact with other people and forcing him to travel far and
wide, his worldly wisdom is mocked by the cunning and shrewd clerk and his own
young wife, just as the hairy wart on his nose mocks his face and muscular
complexion. In the prologue to the miler's tale the narrator warns, "An
housbonde shal nought been inquisitif Of Goddes privetee, nor of his wif."
(55-56) and the miller pays heed to this warning, suppressing curiosity of
"Goddes privetee" as regards the flood and trusting his wife so much
as to leave her alone and independent while he travels on his business. This
blind acceptance of 'Goddes' mysteries and his wife's deceit leads to his
metaphoric and literal downfall when the tale comes to it's climax, as the
miller falls from the roof, and again, literally and metaphorically waking up to
find his wife having had sex with another man. The miller's wife Alison is
another character that is represented using this same process of creating a
stereotypical figure and then adding flaws and perversions. Alison is presented
as a pure, innocent, virginal youth in the tale, "Fair was this yonge wif
and therwithal As any wesele hir body gent and smal.... Ful smale ypulled were
hir browes two,..... Hir mouth was sweete as bragot or the meeth," (115-52)
Other youthful descriptions are given of Alison in the passage that runs from
line 115 to 162. This description seems like the stereotypical virginal
newly-wed until the plot thickens and Alison becomes less and less innocent. One
instance when Alison's loyalty and morality are tested is when Nicholas accosts
her, grabbing her "by the queinte"(168). Alison's initial reaction is
that of any loving wife, to protest and try and escape, but she does not take
much persuading to go to bed with the clerk. Chaucer explains this by saying
that he made such vigorous advances that she could not resist, but this scene
seems more like rape than a lover wooing his true love. Alison is instantly
exposed to have the same base and uncurbed desires as Nicholas, parodying the
facade of the virginal young bride. One character who openly reveals the facade
which he hides behind is the pardoner. His description in the general prologue
tells of his trickery in using false relics and his use of his position as
absolver to make money. The pardoner himself, also openly admits his
hypocritical practices to the other pilgrims. He tells them that he is only
concerned with money, and reveals the falsehood of his relics (and even after
this tries to trick them into giving him money for absolution). The pardoner is
not represented as a pious, humble and holy man as you would expect of a
pardoner, but as a conniving, money-grabbing hypocrite. This character itself is
almost a stereotype, though Chaucer's description of the pardoner holds many
quirky traits that take the pardoner from being a stereotype to being a
believable individual. The pardoner's sexuality is a complex issue that has had
critics such as Donald Howard, G. L. Kiterridge and Paul Ruggiers debating. The
pardoner is clearly not an open and shut stereotype. What is unique about the
pardoner is that he recognises his own hypocrisy. He admits that he is guilty of
the "avarice" that he preaches against but separates himself from
those who he condemns, "Thus can I preche that same vice Which that I use,
and that is avarice. But though myself be gilty in that sine, Yit can I make
other folk to twinne"(139-142) This recognition of his own hypocrisy takes
the pardoner one stage further than a purely hypocritical clergyman and makes
his character more complex and interesting. The pardoner recognises his own sins
and fails to see this as a problem, creating a psychological profile that is
much too intricate to be brushed aside as a stereotype. This use of the typical
'types' of people encountered in Chaucer's era helps to give a vividness that
the reader can relate to and, quoting a stereotype initially (and then
subsequently deconstructing it) as he does with a number of the pilgrims such as
Alison and the Knight, allows a lot of information to be passed from the author
to the reader with minimum communication. Quoting a stereotype saves Chaucer
having to explain what the character is like. Chaucer takes advantage of this
fact, but does not allow this to confine the scope his work has for realism. His
genius in describing the pilgrims is that he will use a stereotype and then add
individual features (that more often than not contradict the initial image),
making the characters more intricate and interesting and above all ,more
believable. The eye for detail that Chaucer obviously possesses is put to good
use here, these characters are not broad, generalising stereotypes, rather he
gives a detailed insight into the psyche of the pilgrims we encounter. I believe
that the pilgrims are believable and fully developed characters, that Chaucer
has created using typical stereotypes from the time and the people he saw around
himself. He has combined this with individual quirks and details that give
further insight into the characters. Chaucer has not created stereotypes, but
has used stereotypes (and manipulated them) in order to create intricate and
realistic characters. This twinning of the typical and the atypical gives The
Canterbury Tales a definite sense of realism that reaches far beyond
1. J.R. Hulbert, Chaucer's Pilgrims p23 (from Essays in Modern Criticism-see
bibliography) 2. The Black book of Carmarthen (c. latter 14th century, author
unknown) Preidaeu Annun from The Book of Taliesin, poem 30 (c. 14th century
author unknown) 3. C. D. Benson, "Chaucer's Pardoner: His sexuality and
modern critics" (from Luminarium medieval literature website at Bibliography Chaucer (modern essays in criticism), edited by
E. Wagenknecht, OUP 1974 The Canterbury Tales, D. Pearsall, Unwin Critical
Library 1985 Who's Who in Chaucer, A.F. Scott, Elm Tree1974 The Canterbury Tales
(casebook series), edited by J.J. Anderson, Anchor Press 1974 Chaucer's Women,
P. Martin, Macmillan 1990 Chaucer, a critical appreciation, P.F. Baum, Duke
University Press 1958 Chaucer Langland and the Creative Imagination, D. Aers
Critical Essays on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, edited by M. Andrew Open
University Press 1991 Chaucer, D. Aers, Harvester 1986 Geoffrey Chaucer, edited
by J.A. Burrow, Penguin 1969 Editions of Canterbury Tales used: Penguin Classics
1960 edition Excerpts contained in Norton Anthology of English Literature, Sixth
edition, Volume 1 Norton 1993
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