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Return to Articles about Essays

Chaucer's The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

by: Samir K. Dash

Criticism of the portraits in Chaucer's General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales has taken various directions : some critics have praised the portraits especially for their realism, sharp individuality, adroit psychology and vividness of felt life; others, working in the genetic direction have pointed out actual historical persons who might have sat for portraits; others appealing to the light of medieval sciences, have shown the portraits to be filled with the lore of Chaucer's days and to have some typical identities like case histories.

Resemblance to the Tales of Decameron

According to W.H.Clowson, The Canterbury Tales resembles to Boccacio's Decameron in 4 ways:

  • The tales are told in succession by the members of an organized group.
  • This group is brought together by special external circumstances.
  • There is narrative and conversational links between the tales.
  • There is a preciding officer.

‘The general tone of the framing narrative and the general topics of its tales are very similar to those of Chaucer's. […] and in Boccaccio's apology for the impropriety of some of his stories he makes the same defence as that offered by Chaucer for the same fault --- that he must tell what happened, that the reader may skip any tale he wishes, and that such stories are purely for entertainment and are not to be taken too seriously.'

But the majority of the scholars of Chaucer believed that this link is not established properly. More over there is no evidence that Chaucer met Bocaccio in 1373 --- during his brief vist to Florence.

Unity in diversion in Prologue

Chaucer in his Prologue, tried to present portraits of all the ‘strata' of life, but this variety is only the interior frame work which functions with the exterior circle which gives unity to all the characters. Such a unity, it may be argued, is fulfilled only due to the reason ( in A.W. Hoffman's words) that ‘ all the portraits are portraits of pilgrims': “and pilgrimes were they alle”

Treatment of ‘Love” in Prologue

Love has been treated in the prologue from the beginning as a character, a matter of the body and spirit.

The note of love that is sounded in different keys ball through the portraits, such as :

The Knight : “… he loved chivalrie…”

The prioress : “… Amor vincit omnia …”

Wife of Bath : “… of remedies of love she knew perchance, For she koude of that art the olde daunce”

The Pardoner : “… com hider, love, to me!”

The pilgrims were represented as affected by a variety of destructive and restorative kinds of love. Their characters and movements can be described by the mixture of love that drives them and love that calls and summons.

Character sketches in Prologue

According to William J. Long, ‘In the famous “ Prologue” the poet makes us acquainted with the various characters of his drama. Until Chaucer's day popular literature had been busy chiefly with the gods and heroes of a golden age: it had been essentially romantic, and so had never attempted to study men and women as they are, or to describe them so that the reader recognizes them, not as ideal heroes, but as his own neighbors. Chaucer not only attempted this new realistic task, but accomplished it so well that his characters were instantly recognized as true to life'

Throwing light to another aspect of Chaucer's characterization A. Compton Rickett writes: ‘[…] His people always on the move. Never do they become shadowy or lifeless. They shout and swear, and laugh and weep, interrupt the story teller, pass compliments, and in general behave themselves as we might expect them to in the dramatic circumstances of the narrative. It is never possible to confuse the story teller: each is distinct and inimitable, whether it be the sermonizing Pardoner, the hot-tempered Miller, or the exuberantly vivacious Wife of Bath, who has had five husbands, but experience teaching her that husbands are transient blessings, she has fixed her mind on a sixth!'

Prologue copies the exact life: Ambiguity and Double view of pilgrimage

The prologue begins by presenting a double view of Canterbury pilgrimage ----- one tiny manifestation of a huge tide of life.

This is not so as only because Chaucer sketched the varieties of different species from the human society, but also because of the presence of the Double View of pilgrimage in his portrait, which is also a miniature of the real social life and this one is enhanced and extended by the portraits where it appears, in one aspect, as a range of motivation. This range of motive spreads from the sacred to the secular and on to the profane. All the pilgrims are in fact granted a sacred motive ---- all of them are seeking the shrine. But when we move to actual motivation among the portraits and we find the difference. The Knight and the Parson are at the opposite end of the spectrum. Same is the case of Summoner and the Pardoner.

In A.W. Hoffman's words : ‘And the pilgrims who move, pushed by the impulse and drawn by vows, none merely impel and non perfectly committed . and this reflect the common human ambiguity in real life'

William Blake's Observation : Characters of all time

William Blake says : ‘[…]The characters of Chaucer's Pilgrims are the characters which compose all ages and nations: as one age falls another rises […] [,but] we see the same characters repeated again and again […]. Names alter, things never alter' and this is the special characteristics of Chaucer's portraits.

And moreover what is interesting , according to Blake is : ‘[…] As Newton numbered stars […] Chaucer numbered the classes of men'.

Pattern of description of the characters in Prologue: from high to low ranks

The military estate is followed by the clerical estates; the clerics by the laity; an upper middle class by a lower one; with the rascals at the end.

Further Chaucer had used the arrangement in apparently causal order of descending importance of merit. Even there is an arrangement that has moral patterns.

Personality of Chaucer

E.Talbot Donaldson proposed [in his essay ‘Chaucer the Pilgrim', PMLA, LXIX (1954)] that Chaucer the pilgrim was a fictional creation of Chaucer the poet, with a distinct personality of his own which was very unlike that of his creator. This pilgrim is an amiable, exceedingly nave bourgeois who admires success of every kind, but especially material success, who uncritically accepts the values of the upper class, as these are embodied in the Knight, the Prioress, the Monk and the Friar; and who recognizes virtue and and wickedness only when they are thoroughly obvious.

But Jhon M. Major [ in his essay ‘The Personality of Chaucer the Pilgrim', PMLA, LXXV 9June 1960)] says that there are still many things which fall out of this theory and for which ‘we are forced to construct a different kind of narrator from the one Professor Donaldson has represented'. ‘Granted that Chaucer does employ a persona in the Canterbury Tales; still, he does not employ him very consistently.[…] we think narrator as a kind of alter ego of the poet himself, with just so many shades of difference as allow for ironic play, no difficulty is raised by the alternating points of view. This narrator reveals himself to be, like his creator, perceptive, witty, sophisticated, playful, tolerant, detached, and, above all, ironic. Such a man is very well aware of the significance of what he observes, though he may show his awareness by subtle means.[…]That real persona, who is far from being a fool, understands what he sees ought to be clear from a number of indications. Not that he is given to moralizing; Chaucer the pilgrim, like his companion the Parson, has a wide tolerance of human weakness, and he can warm up to almost all of his fellow pilgrims, especially if they are convivial. Most of what he observes, both the good and the bad, he reports with a straight face with a deliberate irony.'

Some important characters of The Prologue to Canterbury Tales :

The Knight and the Squire:

The Knight and Squire with the Squire's Yeoman lead the procession, as Chaucer has placed them in the first position.

William Blake says that : ‘ the Knight is a true hero, a good great and wise man; his whole length of portrait on horse back, as written by Chaucer can not be surpassed.' He is ‘that species of character which in every age stands as the guardian of man against oppressor.'

The portraits of the Knight and the Squire have a particular interest. The relationship between these two are governed by natural one that of a father and son. Again there is a dramatic relationship between these two as each one of portrait is enhanced and defined in presence of another. For instance the long roll of Knight's campaigns and Squire's little opportunity; a series of past tenses, a history for the Knight and for the Squire breaking forth in active participles. Even appearances and dress of both are compared.

Knight's pilgrimage is more nearly a response to the voice of saint.

The Knight is defined in terms of his virtues (lines 45-6) and actions to defend the faith far more than by his words. Knight's fighting in battle field had a religious cause. He is the antique pattern of the chivalry of Edward- III's time.

The Nun ( Prioress)

Prioress is described as of the first rank, rich and honored. She had certain peculiarities and little delicate affections. She was accompanied by what is truly grand, polite and elegance.

Chaucer has portrayed this character with such care and tenderness that it is often remarked that Chaucer really liked the prioress very much, even though he satires her so gently ---- very gently. But E.T Donaldson believes that this is just an understatement and Chaucer may not be said to be have liked her, rather he was only charmed by her beauty.

Eileen Power's illustration show with what extra-ordinary skill the portrait of the Prioress is packed with abuses of typical 14th century nuns. Though these abuses are petty, it is clear the Prioress is anything but a perfect nun and attempts to white wash her.

It has been argued that Chaucer's appreciation for the Prioress as sort of heroine of courtly romance actually due to Chaucer's sophisticated living, where he cared little whether amiable nuns are good and this sophistication permits itself to babble superlatives.

Anyway Prioress's very presence in the pilgrimage, as many point out, is the very first satiric touch. In the case of Prioress blemish is sufficiently technical to have only faint satiric coloring. But this places her at a spot in the sequence --- at one end --- in which more obviously blemished Monk and friar appear.

In the portrait of the Prioress the double view of pilgrimage appears both in ambiguity in the surface and in an implied inner range of motivation.

In the surface there is a name Eglentyne --- means romance --- and ‘simple and coy' is a romance formula, but she is a nun. There are coral beads and green gauds, --- a religious emblem. What shall be taken as principal? Are her courtly manners or her dedication at divine service explains her? And on the front of motivation, the perfect explanation lies in the lines of A.W.Hoffman : ‘There is such an impure but blameless mixture as Prioress …'. Deficiency of knowledge may be remedied (which caused due to Chaucer's attempt to make more gentle criticism on the Prioress). It is because, as many believe, Chaucer has a sister or a daughter who was a nun.

Prioress is the character who is found to be pre-dominating in some ages. William Blake has observed that ‘The characters of women Chaucer has divided into two classes, the Lady Prioress and Wife of Bath. Are not these leaders of the ages of men? The lady Prioress in some ages predominates; and in some the wife of Bath, in whose character Chaucer has been equally minute and exact because she is a scourge and blight'.

Wife of bath

William Blake has observed that ‘The characters of women Chaucer has divided into two classes, the Lady Prioress and Wife of Bath. Are not these leaders of the ages of men? The lady Prioress in some ages predominates; and in some the wife of Bath, in whose character Chaucer has been equally minute and exact because she is a scourge and blight'.

The main features of her character are common-sense and pre-occupation with sex, and an important element in Prologue is her desire to explain life in terms of her values. For instance: ‘She is willing to admit, for her convention's sake that chastity is the ideal state. But it is not her ideal.

In prologue, she explains her five husbands.

She She was a good woman but unfortunately rather deaf. The deafness is a significant detail --- the result of a blow from her fifth husband.

In medieval theory and law, biblical in origin, the man is the head of the woman, and should be obeyed. The Wife, however, is not receptive to this doctrine, and her deafness is the symbolic of this unwillingness to listen. Physical characteristics in her portrait have a moral import. Other such characteristics in case of Wife of Bath are the following. The Wife is a gate-toothed. Medieval students of physiology held that to have teeth widely spaced was a sign of boldness, falseness, gluttony and lasciviousness. The Wife born under Venus (who was not saint) regards it as confirmation of venereal nature. Her ‘gate-teeth' gave her many opportunities to wander off the road.

The Wife's portrait begins with a standard feature of the dreadful women, whom clerks in the Middle Ages liked the same way as the wives of the Guilds men (lines 376-8). This liking for display is cleverly combined by Chaucer with her profession (cloth-making). Her stockings are scarlet and tight laced, and her shoes are “moiste and newe”. She is thus the scarlet woman, whom preachers against female vanity love to hate. But this is Chaucerian as she is both sexually attractive and at the same time ridiculously over dressed.

The Wife turns out to be the monster of anti feminist comedy --- aggressive, nagging, gossiping, lustful and wasteful. Yet she is not unattractive.

Apart from five husbands and other youthful company we are told that she had passed “many a strange strem”. Then : “Of remedies of love she knew per chance

For she koud of that art the olde daunce”

(lines 475-6)

The ‘remedies' and ‘olde daunce' do not suggest virtue. All in all she is quite contract to the chastity, modesty and refinement of the Prioess.

About The Author

Samir is presently works as a director of an animation firm www.anigraphs.com

You can know more about him at : www.samirshomepage.zzn.com

You can send feedback to him at: samirk_dash@yahoo.com

This article was posted on February 07, 2005



 

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