Chaucer’s Role of Creating Realistic Characters
Chaucer’s “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales explores the portraits of twenty-eight of the thirty pilgrims, all of whom are taking part in a trip to the shrine of the martyr Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury. The pilgrims described in passing or extended detail include the following: the Knight, Squire, Yeoman, Prioress, Monk, Friar, Merchant, Clerk, Man of Law, Franklin, Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver Dyer, Tapestry-Weaver, Cook Shipman, Physician, Wife, Parson, Plowman, Miller, Manciple, Reeve, Summoner, Pardoner, Host, and the narrator himself. The characters in the General Prologue are fictitious characters, taking part in a fictitious arrangement set up by Chaucer; therefore, it is evident, as qualified by the text, that the narrator is also a fictitious character, someone distinct from the author. The portrait of the narrator is set up differently than the portrait of the other characters. The pilgrim narrator’s portrait is found in the space formed by the separation of the narrator and the author. Nevertheless, this separation is a literary device Chaucer uses to create a separate identity for himself, a theme that is recurrent in the other characters. By separating himself from the narrator, Chaucer allows the narrator’s point of view and voice to mask his own voice. Chaucer comically and purposely creates a flawed and na?ve narrator in order not only to separate himself from the narrator, but also to try to diminish his own presence in the work. The allusion of an absent author seems to transform the work from fiction to nonfiction due to the manipulation of the reader’s perspective.
The separation between the narrator and the author is especially evident in the beginning of the prologue, lines 20-42. In line 25, “Of sondry fol, by aventure yfalle,” the idea is introduced that “chance” has placed the narrator into contact with these other pilgrims whom he later continues to describe; that idea contradicts the notion that the author created this fictitious apparatus to act as an introductory story for the stories to follow. The narrator is sheltered, experiencing a world that exists under the umbrella that is Chaucer, a world where the narrator is a character unaware of the circumstances the author has set up. Ironically, the pilgrim narrator aims “to telle [the reader] al the condicioun,” though all the “conditions” are not revealed to him. Yet, the narrator’s tone is diffident, exposing his innocence and na?vet?. Line 39, “…so as it seemed to me,” and line 82, “…i gesse,” are examples of the narrator’s incertitude and affirmation that what he describes is his own personal opinion. This diffident tone continues throughout the text, specifically in lines 154-157, 183, 193, 284, 288, 385, 389, and 454. The narrator’s tone is a literary device Chaucer uses both entertainingly and strategically to convince the reader of the author’s absence.
<BLOCKQUOTE>Of eech of hem, so as it semed to me, / And whiche they were, and of what degree, / And eek in what array that they were inne. </BLOCKQUOTE>
In lines 40-42, the narrator describes the strategy that he plans to use in his descriptions of the pilgrims. However, once the narrator begins his descriptions of each character, he tends to ignore certain characteristics and include ones that were not necessarily part of the original bullet points he chose to focus on: how each character seemed to him, who they were, what social rank they had, and what clothing they wore. The narrator’s biases continue to create the portrait of the narrator by emphasizing the split between the literary professional, the author, and the pilgrim narrator who is easily swayed by his emotions and perceptions while recollecting his memories. In the illustration of the Prioress, the narrator chooses to focus on the way she eats and her deep adoration of animals instead of her devotion to religion and her regard for human life. The reader is informed that the narrator is describing each character from memory; as a result, the descriptions the narrator chooses to provide or omit are a reflection of the narrator’s biases.
After speaking with each of the pilgrims (line 31) the narrator expresses feeling a unity: “that I was of hir felaweeshipe anoon” (line 32); that line emphasizes the gap between the narrator and author by solidifying the narrator’s alliance with the pilgrims. Additionally, the narrator’s act of speaking to all of the pilgrims enough to describe them in such detail shows his sociable nature.
The text also portrays the narrator as a very positive individual. The pilgrim narrator tends to emphasize each pilgrim’s values, even when their actions are contradictory to said values. The narrator’s misinterpretations and misconceptions of the characters he describes are a result of his overly positive character, which reveals the narrator’s na?vet? to the reader. The merchant’s description leads the reader to believe that the merchant is a very greedy and inconsiderate individual. However, the narrator still considers him to be a good man, a “worthy” man. The narrator uses the word “worthy” to describe some of the other pilgrims, such as the Knight and the Wife. This positive tone insinuates that each pilgrim character is the best of his or her kind. For the narrator, this positive description of each character is an honest and innocent understanding. The narrator even feels the need to add, at the end of his recollections, that if the stories that are to follow contain any vulgar language, he should not be considered to be at fault. This shows the narrator’s concern with others’ perceptions of him, which explains why he is so positive and uncritical of the other pilgrims: he hopes that people will be similarly positive and uncritical about him. Abusively, yet masterfully, Chaucer purposely portrays the narrator as na?ve in order to add to the irony of the poem and to continue to solidify the distinction between the author and the narrator.
Chaucer’s omission of the narrator’s physical characteristics permits the reader to form a portrait for the narrator that is reflective of the author; with no visual information given, the audience takes from background knowledge. For example, nowhere in the text does the narrator specifically indicate his or her sex, but in most cases, the audience assumes that the narrator is a male — either Chaucer himself, or someone very similar to him. However, the narrator’s previously mentioned insecurity provides a youth-like portrait for the narrator. In contrast to his own celebrated genius, Chaucer portrays the narrator as young and unwise, as deduced from the opening of the General Prologue. Although the style of the opening of the General Prologue was very common for the time, the fact that it is a description of spring also adds to the youth-like nature of the poem, a reflection of the narrator’s youth and positivity. The narrator’s innocence allows the reader to regard the narrator’s opinions and views of the characters he describes as inconsequential and honest, therefore permitting the author, Chaucer, to include moments of significant irony without disrupting the flow of the narrative.
In conclusion, though there is no precise description or introduction of the narrator in the Canterbury Tales, the reader is nonetheless able to form a portrait of the narrator by analyzing the text as a whole. The split between the narrator and the author forms this portrait throughout the work. The na?ve, youthful, innocent, positive narrator is a character unlike the literarily sophisticated and ironic author, Chaucer. More importantly, Chaucer emphasizes the separation between author and narrator in order to effect his own invisibility in his work. His apparent absence forces the reader to perceive the work as nonfiction instead of fiction.
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