Analysis of Characters of Chaucer and Austen
In contrast, during the Hanoverian period during which Austen lived, society was based on the material possessions of an individual (or their future inheritance), family connections, and marriage. Chaucer outlines his time period through his characters: the church body through the Friar, and the working class through the Plowman. Likewise, Austen uses her protagonist, Mrs. Bennet, to mock how people of her own social class behaved during her era. Chaucer uses the Friar to demonstrate the immoral nature of the church during his time.
One of the groups of people that Chaucer satirizes is the clergy. Amongst them, he attacks the character of the Friar as corrupt and dishonest. Historical evidence shows that friars were more often than not very corrupt and schemed to obtain worldly goods such as money. Many friars “came under wider criticism for worldliness and immorality” (Christianity…). They acted as if they had no money, but were in actuality living a fairly luxurious life. Chaucer compares the coat of Hubert, the Friar, to that of “a lord or like a pope.
Of double worsted was his semi-cope” (Chaucer 8). Hubert was also “rounded like a bell”, indicating that he had enough food to eat, and did not necessarily have to beg for sustenance (8). Once at the house of a crippled man, the Friar asks for food. “Now, dame,” said he then, “je vous dis, sans doute, Had I of a fat capon but the liver, And of your soft white bread naught but a sliver, And after that a pig’s head well roasted (Save that I would no beast for me were dead), Then had I with you plain sufficiency. I am a man of little gluttony.
My spirit has its nourishment in the Bible”. (313) This statement by the Friar epitomizes the relationship of the common people to those of the church at this time: while pretending to not have or need a lot, the clergy will steal from the lower class. “[The Friar] uses his position in the church to get money” (The Frior…). The middle class however, does not mistrust the church body as shown by the Plowman. In contrast to the corrupt church, Chaucer demonstrates the honesty and piousness of the middle class through the Plowman during the Post-Classical period*.
Even though the church was trying to extract money and goods from his class, the Plowman “paid his taxes, fully, fairly, well, / Both by his own toil and by stuff he’d sell”, meaning that he trusted the church and was honest (Chaucer 15). “Chaucer here negates the commonly held perception of the peasant’s supposed hatred of the church” (FREE study…). Chaucer writes that the Plowman was a good Christian follower as he uses the two greatest commandments to describe the Plowman: “He loved God most, and that with his whole heart/ … / And next, his neighbor, even as himself (Chaucer 15).
The Plowman also “[lived] in peace and perfect charity”, another allusion to the teachings of Jesus Christ as written in the Bible. Another example of his piousness is shown when Chaucer writes that “[he’d] thresh and dig, with never thought of pelf, / For Christ’s own sake, for every poor wight, / All without pay, if it lay in his might” (15). The fact that the Plowman did not think of pelf, or money gained in a dishonest way, shows how he was not materialistic like the clergy.
Chaucer also states that the Plowman would work (without thinking of gaining money) for the sakes of Jesus Christ and those poor, and less fortunate without receiving money. Although people of this period could live while not thinking about money for the sake of charity, money was one of the main focuses for people, especially women, in Jane Austen’s time. Austen demonstrates through her character, Mrs. Bennet, the narrow-mindedness of women of this era. Jane Austen was born into a family of the landed gentry: a social rank consisting of landowners who did not have to work, and could live solely off the rent income.
Austen’s novel, Pride and Prejudice, was written about those in this social class, and their interaction with others in society. Mrs. Bennet directly personifies the women of her time as “she [had] five daughters, and finding them husbands [was] ‘the business of her life’” (Reef 88). “[Marriage] was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune… ” (Austen 106). As Mrs. Bennet was very much occupied with seeing her daughters married, she “seemed incapable of fatigue while enumerating the advantages of the match” (124).
This match refers to her eldest daughter possibly getting married to a man who has recently rented a house near Mrs. Bennet’s own and was “so rich” (124). From today’s standpoint, this point of view and way of living seems very materialistic, it is actually a very practical way to think for this time period. As property at this time was only passed down to male heirs, it is very understandable that Mrs. Bennet was so focused on marrying her daughters off to rich men because she and her husband (Mr. Bennet) had five daughters and no sons.
This meant that the family property and money would go to a male cousin once Mr. Bennet died, and the females of the family would be turned out onto the streets. Another example of the time being reflected by Mrs. Bennet is the fact that she took her daughters to balls. Balls were common social events and a place where many women went for entertainment and in hope that they might find a husband. Because they learned from their mother, Mrs. Bennet’s daughters “[talked] of nothing but soldiers and balls” (Reef 90).
Popular culture was also reflected through Austen’s character. Both Austen’s character (Mrs. Bennet) and Chaucer’s characters (the Friar, Hubert, and the Plowman) use traits of how different people acted in different times to show an in-depth picture of society at that time. It is through writing that readers and historians alike can catch a glimpse of what the social order looked like at the time. This thought provokes the following question: Which author(s) will the future generations read and what will they tell us about our society?
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