Chaucer’s Art of Characterization in The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

Chaucer is the first great painter of character in English literature. Next to Shakespeare, he is the greatest in the field of characterization. In The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales the thirty characters portrayed by Chaucer give us an excellent idea of the society at that time. His characters represent English society, morally and socially, in the natural and recognizable types.

There are three different classes of pilgrims in Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer is the first great painter of character in English literature. Next to Shakespeare, he is the greatest in the field of characterization. In The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales the thirty characters portrayed by Chaucer give us an excellent idea of the society at that time. His characters represent English society, morally and socially, in the natural and recognizable types.

Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales has three different classes of pilgrims.

  1. Clergy class
  2. Merchant class
  3. Military class

Clergy class

In The Canterbury Tales, the clergy members were the Nun, Second Nun, Nun’s Priest, Monk, Friar, Parson, Pardoner, Summoner, Canon, and Clerk. These characters were born into the other two Estates and chose to commit their lives to the Church. They would have been expected to behave in a pious or religious way without too much attachment to material goods. But, we can see in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales that most of these classes of people are hypocritical and preserves a materialistic outlook. But all the ecclesiastical characters are not flawed, materialistic, or dishonest. The clerk and the parson are honest and devotional-minded for the betterment of mankind.

Merchant class

The mercantile class included merchants who lived in the cities and represented a new middle class in England. Characters such as The Cook, Merchant, Reeve, Shipman, and Wife of Bath would have been part of this new emerging class. The Merchant has all the vanity which comes from the growth of wealth.

Military class

Two represent the military, the knight and his son, the young squire. Chaucer’s knight is a man of courage, honor, and devotion, a soldier of the Crusades who has lived up to the ideals of chivalry:

There was a Knight, a most distinguished man,

Who from the day on which he first began

To ride abroad had followed chivalry,

Although the knight, by tradition, is a member of the aristocracy, he has no vanity. He is wise and modest. He is strong and agile, rides well, and performs with courage when tested in battle.

The squire does possess the potential to become a true, chivalrous knight. He is strong and agile, rides well, and performs with courage when tested in battle. The Squire is just the typical man of any day,

“He was as fresshe as is the monthe of May”

Through the knight and the squire, Chaucer presents two views of the military class, the tried-and-true devoted soldier/knight and the youthful but promising next generation.

Having all the pros and cons of the above discussion, we can say in the concluding remarks that Chaucer’s art of characterization is much like a novelist, a dramatist, and a humorist like Fielding and Shakespeare. There is no doubt that he is rightly considered as the supreme narrative poet of his country and his Prologue to The Canterbury Tales is an outstanding and excellent monument of his genius as a narrator of characters. His great art of character narration uplifts him from all the other writers of his age.

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