Are The Characters In The Canterbury Tales

Stereot Essay, Research Paper

Are the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales stereotypes, or fully developed characters?Discuss with reference to at least two tales. Though the characters in the Canterbury Tales are described vividly and often comically, it is notnecessarily true that these characters are therefore stereotypes of The Middle ages. The intricate visualdescriptions and the tales the characters tell help to direct the reader in finding a more accurate andrealistic picture of the pilgrims, bringing into question the theory that Chaucer was just collatingstereotypes 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 notnecessarily true. The format of The Canterbury Tales suggests a simplistic approach, a prologue andepilogue and in between a collection of tales, The Miler’s Tale, The Clerk’s Tale and so on[1]. Thissimplicity in structure may also suggest a simplicity in content and thus, convincing and challengingcharacters are unlikely to be expected in a work of seemingly simple design. But, when looked at inmore detail, the tales are found to hold many details that contradict the bland stereotype expected, andwhen the structure of the work is looked at in its context of 14th century literature, the CanterburyTales is found to be a work pioneering the form of the epic poem. The style in which Chaucer writesmay also initially seem to suggest that his characters are under-developed stereotypes, he uses thelanguage of his time vividly, although this does not therefore mean that his characters are twodimensional, almost ‘cartoon’ characters. J.R. Hulbert in his essay Chaucer’s Pilgrims explains, “Inmany instances there are exuberant lines which sharpen the effect desired.” The Canterbury Talesmay, 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 thepilgrims as well as giving them colourful characteristics. Chaucer’s description of the knight is a good example of his subversion of the classic Arthurianimage that existed in popular literature of the time[2]. In the General Prologue, Chaucer relays hisdescription 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 representationof the knight of valour and honour, but Chaucer goes on to pervert and pollute the fairytale image thathe 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 newand almost comical figure. Our knight is not one ‘in shining armour’, but rather a ‘knight in a rustedchain-mail’. The knight does not even have a hyper-masculine representation here either. Chaucerfeminises the knight comparing him to a maid. At the end of the description of the knight in thegeneral 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 ofthe knight, the reader can gather many things from this description, perhaps the knight is effeminateor weak, and he shys away from battle, getting so little battlefield ‘action’ that his chainmail has begunto rust. It is a device used by Chaucer to convey the character of his pilgrims using their appearance. Thuswhen the Wife of Bath is described as being “gat-toothed”, the reader can assume that she is lusty as itwas believed in the Middle ages that this particular physical attribute denoted that characteristic. Inmedieval times, certain elements of a person’s appearance intrinsically suggested something, if noteverything of their character. Indeed, this practice of identifying outward appearance with inwardattitudes and traits became an area of study known as ‘physiognomy’ and manuals on this subject wereproduced[3]. In more recent times, critics have tried to unravel and understand the many tiny clueshidden in the character descriptions to gain a sharper picture of these characters. In 1919 Water ClydeCurry claimed to have discovered the pardoner’s “secret” [that he was a eunuchus ex nativitate] usingthese manuals, and this discovery, after it’s initial acceptance has been questioned for it’s reliance onthe physiognomy texts that are vague and overlapping anyway. Although we may not be able to assessthe details of the characters in as much detail as Walter Clyde Curry attempted, we can still gleanfurther 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 thearchetypal stereotype and then obliterates it with a parody of the traditional model. The miller isdescribed as “braun”, “brood”, “short-shuldred” and “eek of bones”, this is a regular picture of astocky, well-built, practical man. Chaucer then describes how this man who seems fit and strong andtherefore, presumably young, is actually old and is not as worldly wise as his age and his profession asa carpenter would suggest. The carpenter who is physically strong is, unfortunately for him, mentallyweak. He is not suspecting of his young wife’s plot to have sex with Nicholas and he is completelytaken in by the clerk’s claims of a flood on the scale of that of Noah’s time. Although the reader mightpresume the miller to be worldly wise, having a hard labour-intensive job bringing him into contactwith other people and forcing him to travel far and wide, his worldly wisdom is mocked by thecunning and shrewd clerk and his own young wife, just as the hairy wart on his nose mocks his faceand 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 theflood and trusting his wife so much as to leave her alone and independent while he travels on hisbusiness. This blind acceptance of ‘Goddes’ mysteries and his wife’s deceit leads to his metaphoric andliteral downfall when the tale comes to it’s climax, as the miller falls from the roof, and again, literallyand 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 creatinga 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. Thisdescription seems like the stereotypical virginal newly-wed until the plot thickens and Alison becomesless and less innocent. One instance when Alison’s loyalty and morality are tested is when Nicholasaccosts her, grabbing her “by the queinte”(168). Alison’s initial reaction is that of any loving wife, toprotest and try and escape, but she does not take much persuading to go to bed with the clerk. Chaucerexplains this by saying that he made such vigorous advances that she could not resist, but this sceneseems more like rape than a lover wooing his true love. Alison is instantly exposed to have the samebase 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 descriptionin the general prologue tells of his trickery in using false relics and his use of his position as absolverto make money. The pardoner himself, also openly admits his hypocritical practices to the otherpilgrims. 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 notrepresented 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 ofthe pardoner holds many quirky traits that take the pardoner from being a stereotype to being abelievable individual. The pardoner’s sexuality is a complex issue that has had critics such as DonaldHoward, G. L. Kiterridge and Paul Ruggiers debating. The pardoner is clearly not an open and shutstereotype. What is unique about the pardoner is that he recognises his own hypocrisy. He admits thathe is guilty of the “avarice” that he preaches against but separates himself from those who hecondemns,”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 purelyhypocritical clergyman and makes his character more complex and interesting. The pardonerrecognises his own sins and fails to see this as a problem, creating a psychological profile that is muchtoo 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 thatthe reader can relate to and, quoting a stereotype initially (and then subsequently deconstructing it) ashe does with a number of the pilgrims such as Alison and the Knight, allows a lot of information to bepassed from the author to the reader with minimum communication. Quoting a stereotype savesChaucer having to explain what the character is like. Chaucer takes advantage of this fact, but doesnot allow this to confine the scope his work has for realism. His genius in describing the pilgrims isthat he will use a stereotype and then add individual features (that more often than not contradict theinitial 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 notbroad, generalising stereotypes, rather he gives a detailed insight into the psyche of the pilgrims weencounter. I believe that the pilgrims are believable and fully developed characters, that Chaucer has createdusing typical stereotypes from the time and the people he saw around himself. He has combined thiswith individual quirks and details that give further insight into the characters. Chaucer has not createdstereotypes, but has used stereotypes (and manipulated them) in order to create intricate and realisticcharacters. This twinning of the typical and the atypical gives The Canterbury Tales a definite sense ofrealism that reaches far beyond stereotypes. 2031 words Footnotes 1. J.R. Hulbert, Chaucer’s Pilgrims p23 (from Essays in Modern Criticism-seebibliography) 2. The Black book of Carmarthen (c. latter 14th century, author unknown) Preidaeu Annun from The Book of Taliesin, poem 30 (c. 14th century authorunknown) 3. C. D. Benson, “Chaucer’s Pardoner: His sexuality and modern critics” (fromLuminarium 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 1Norton 1993 copyright 1998 alistair colling


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