Analysis of Characters in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

The Pilgrims in Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales introduces us to a group of twenty-nine (29) pilgrims who embark on a significant journey from London to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket in Canterbury. Over the course of a four-day expedition, these pilgrims share captivating stories that cleverly reflect Chaucer's own life experiences while offering a profound depiction of the society of that time. Within these tales, fragments of Chaucer's personal history are interwoven, adding depth and authenticity to the narratives. Moreover, the stories provide a captivating glimpse into the fabric of fourteenth-century England, as perceived through the discerning eyes of Chaucer, a keen and realistic observer.

The Narrator

Chaucer himself assumes the role of the narrator in the Canterbury Tales, portraying himself as a character within his own literary work. Initially presented as an amiable, innocent, and unassuming figure, the narrator gradually reveals a more complex persona. The Host, a fellow pilgrim, accuses him of being surly and antisocial, and indeed, there are instances where the narrator displays a tendency to impose his subjective opinions and selective memory upon the portrayal of other characters. This introduces an intriguing element of unreality to the narrator's perspectives, ideas, and judgments.

Chaucer's Host

Harry Bailly, the host at the Tabard Inn where the pilgrims gather, possesses an outspoken yet amiable personality, maintaining polite and civil relationships with the other characters. Chaucer presents him as a commoner of lower social status, known for his occasional bouts of short temper. However, Chaucer himself holds a favorable view of the Host, appreciating his intervention whenever disputes arise and acknowledging his pivotal role in facilitating the flow of the tales.

The Knight

Notably, Chaucer commences the account of the diverse pilgrims with the Knight in the General Prologue, highlighting his distinguished stature among the company. The Knight's portrayal is idealized, emphasizing his unwavering commitment to truth, chivalry, liberality, honor, and courtesy. Additionally, he is depicted as a devout man, having valiantly fought in nearly fifteen monumental wars against both Christian and heathen forces. Chaucer's Knight serves as the embodiment of the virtues and ethical standards highly esteemed in medieval knighthood, a figure who exemplifies both the romanticized ideals and the human imperfections of his time.

The Squire

Chaucer skillfully paints a captivating portrait of the Squire, who is the Knight's son and an accomplished soldier in his own right. The Squire is a young and handsome man, his attire exuding vivacity and vibrancy reminiscent of a blooming meadow in the month of May. Adorned with intricate embroidery of red and white flowers, his short coat boasts long, wide sleeves. A skilled equestrian, the Squire possesses the prowess to compose songs, excel in tournaments, dance gracefully, and exhibit talent in drawing and writing. He is driven by ardent passions, courting with fervor that rivals the sleepless nights of a nightingale. Yet, despite his talents and pursuits, he remains courteous, humble, and ever ready to assist others, even taking up the role of carving meat at the dining table.

The Yeoman

Sporting the appearance of a seasoned forester, the Yeoman serves as a loyal attendant to both the Knight and the Squire, as was customary during that era to maintain dignity and display social status. Adorned with a meticulously arranged quiver, plumed with resplendent peacock feathers, the Yeoman expertly carries his bright and keen arrows secured at his side. His proficient handling of his equipment mirrors the finesse expected of a yeoman. Notably, his arrows eschew the drooping presence of inferior plumage, for feathers of such kind are said to impede the arrow's flight, causing it to fall short of its mark. Holding a formidable bow in his grip, his cropped hair and sun-kissed complexion bespeak a deep understanding of woodland craftsmanship.

The Nun

Among the esteemed pilgrims of Canterbury, the Prioress, known as the Nun, holds a prominent position. As the head of a modest nunnery, she exudes an aura of serenity and simplicity. With a melodious nasal intonation, she skillfully chants the divine service, displaying her proficiency in French, which she articulates with elegance. Her dining etiquette is impeccable, as she partakes in meals without a single morsel escaping her lips, delicately refraining from dipping her fingers too deeply into the sauce. Her graceful and fastidious manners at the table leave no room for clumsiness. Compassion emanates from her being, motivating her to extend aid to those in need.

The Monk

The portrayal of the Monk carries an unmistakable sense of irony. Unabashedly devoted to the pursuit of hunting, he pays little heed to religious injunctions that strictly require a monk to remain confined within the cloistered walls. Embracing a lifestyle that defies convention, the Monk effortlessly combines the pursuits of both the ecclesiastical and the avid huntsman, fashioning a life of comfort and convenience. A true embodiment of an equestrian enthusiast, he adorns himself in luxurious furs and sturdy hunting boots. Accompanied by agile greyhounds that rival the swiftness of birds in flight, his greatest pleasures lie in relentless gallops and the chase of hares, sparing no expense to indulge in his preferred pastime.

The Friar

Chaucer masterfully crafts a vivid and realistic portrayal of the Friar. Possessing an air of authority, he holds the power to hear confessions, executing this task with utmost courtesy. The absolutions he grants are delivered with a pleasing disposition. Ever the opportunist, he eagerly pursues matrimonial alliances with young women, driven by the allure of their dowries. When it comes to assigning penance, his leniency knows no bounds, particularly when he anticipates a generous stipend in return. He boldly asserts that generous alms given to the impoverished Friar serve as an unmistakable sign of true repentance, absolving the giver of all sins. Thus, instead of shedding tears and offering prayers, men may bestow silver upon the destitute friars as a tangible expression of contrition.

The Merchant

The Merchant, bedecked in opulent attire, leads a life of affluence and splendor. Skillfully concealing his true financial woes, he presents an image of dignity that deceives onlookers regarding his actual circumstances. Few are aware of his crippling debts. Astute in the management of his affairs, he engages in trade with an air of refinement, specializing in the commerce of luxurious furs. His shrewd practice of usury, wherein exorbitant interest rates are exacted, showcases his cunning business acumen. Such duplicity places him on par with many of the other pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales, each harboring their own brand of hypocrisy.

The Oxford Clerk

Chaucer's Clerk stands as a paragon of virtue, offering a stark contrast to the corrupt, hypocritical personages from the religious orders who preceded him. Devoted solely to the pursuit of knowledge, this studious scholar has sacrificed his well-being and personal appearance in its relentless pursuit. He values twenty volumes of philosophy far more than the acquisition of sumptuous garments, distinguishing himself from the Monk and the Friar, who hold a penchant for fine attire. The Clerk exhibits unwavering dedication to his studies, viewing money as inconsequential except insofar as it aids him in amassing more books. His words are always weighty and morally grave, bearing an unwavering sense of purpose.

The Sergeant at the Law

The Sergeant at the Law represents a man of resounding material success, garnering recognition even from the esteemed King himself. Though deliberate exaggeration colors the apparent praise surrounding his ability to recall every case and judgment since the time of William the Conqueror, this serves as a means for the Man of Law to impress his fellow pilgrims and engender the perception that he possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of legal matters. Self-importance radiates from his character, epitomized by his ostentatious display of busyness, cleverly employed to impress clients and extract greater remuneration in the form of robes and fees.

The Franklin

An elderly gentleman unburdened by the constraints of societal norms, the Franklin revels in his wealth, his snow-white beard serving as a testament to his years. A connoisseur of fine cuisine and wine, his table perpetually overflows with delectable provisions and the finest vintages known to man. The Franklin distinguishes himself as an honest soul amidst a sea of deceitful pilgrims, his purity of heart enabling him to embrace life's pleasures without reservation.

The Haberdasher, Dyer, Carpenter, Weaver, and Carpet-maker (Guildsmen)

Chaucer bestows minimal attention upon these five individuals, all belonging to distinct professions and varying echelons of society. United by their common trades, they journey together as a close-knit community, providing mutual assistance in times of need. Clad in resplendent attire embellished with glistening silver ornaments, they exude an air of self-importance, reflecting their collective stature within their respective crafts.

The Cook

Aside from a festering sore upon his leg, the Cook's characterization remains relatively scant in the General Prologue. As a servant to the five Guildsmen, he garners acclaim for his culinary prowess, renowned for crafting the most delectable feasts.

The Skipper

Hailing from the illustrious maritime town of Dartmouth, renowned for its skilled sailors, the Skipper commands his own carthorse. His modest economic circumstances are evident from his woolen garment. Weapons dangle from a cord around his neck, while his sunburnt countenance betrays a life lived amidst the rigors of the sea. Known for his nautical expertise, he enjoys a stellar reputation stretching from England to Carthage in the Mediterranean Sea. Taking advantage of sleeping traders, he slyly indulges in wine pilfered from their supplies, displaying his resourcefulness and cunning in his profession.

The Doctor (Physician)

The Physician, committed to his profession, possesses the ability to cure a wide array of diseases. However, he is notorious for charging substantial fees from his patients. Chaucer employs satire to critique the Physician's avid pursuit of wealth, particularly during the time of the Black Death epidemic. Though well-versed in astronomy in addition to medicine, he utilizes his knowledge of celestial movements to determine treatment approaches. Notably, he rarely consults the Bible, indicating a lack of religious inclination.

The Wife of Bath

The Wife of Bath is an alluring woman known for her history of five husbands and numerous lovers. She dons tight scarlet stockings, new leather shoes, a broad hat, and a flowing skirt adorned with sharp spurs, which symbolizes her preference for riding astride, a departure from the societal norms of her class. Her appearance demands attention, reflecting her pride and desire to showcase her social status. The wearing of spurs and her equestrian prowess reveal her assertiveness and lack of feminine timidity. Overall, she exudes strength, self-assurance, and self-awareness. Although she attends church, her high self-regard manifests even during religious observances.

The Parson

The Parson garners popularity through his kindheartedness and commitment to charity. Despite living in poverty, he consistently extends a helping hand to those in need. He exemplifies true devotion to the church, unlike many others. His sermons focus on the Gospel, and he diligently practices what he preaches, aiming to serve as an exemplary role model for others.

The Plowman

As the brother of the Parson, the Plowman shares his honesty and kindness. He, too, is deeply committed to charity and regularly incorporates it into his daily life. A devout man of unwavering faith, he adheres strictly to moral principles and conducts himself with integrity.

The Miller

A robust and burly figure, the Miller boasts a history of victories in wrestling competitions, displaying his physical prowess. His character provides amusement, characterized by his stocky build, prominent features such as a large, brawny face with sizeable nostrils, and a tuft of hair on his nose. Uninhibited and unabashed, he tells ribald tales meant for mature audiences, often embellishing them with wild imagination. Carrying a sword and shield, he continually tests the patience of the host by disrupting the storytelling sequence.

The Manciple

The Manciple's responsibility lies in procuring food for the lawyers in court, despite lacking formal education. However, he cleverly deceives thirty lawyers by purchasing provisions at discounted prices and pocketing the surplus funds. This ability to outwit educated professionals fills him with a sense of pride, demonstrating that even an illiterate individual can outsmart the learned.

The Reeve

The Reeve oversees the management of land and accounts on behalf of a lord or lady. This particular Reeve possesses keen perception, missing nothing and rendering him impervious to deceit. Both respected and feared by his subordinates, he conducts his responsibilities with remarkable shrewdness. Ironically, however, he embezzles money from his own master, only to lend it back and curry favor. This reveals his cunning and unscrupulous nature. Despite his wealth, he lacks a conscience.

The Summoner

The Summoner fulfills the role of summoning individuals to the church, collecting fines, and admonishing those who violate laws or commit sins. His scarred and blemished face, riddled with sores, presents a terrifying image. His unsavory taste in food mirrors his unpleasant appearance, as he indulges in garlic, onions, and copious amounts of wine. Rather than enforcing the law, he willingly partakes in the sins and transgressions of others. Easily swayed by money and wine, he turns a blind eye to infractions in exchange for bribes. With significant power over the people, he shamelessly exploits them for personal gain.

The Pardoner

The Pardoner is a slender man with greasy, pale hair. His beardless countenance signifies his craftiness, while his appearance reflects his middle-class background. Holding the position of offering indulgences and pardons from the Pope to sinners, he capitalizes on selling absolutions, miraculous relics, and complete forgiveness of sins at exorbitant prices. Engaging in this corrupt profession, he manipulates people's desire for redemption to amass wealth. He eagerly seizes opportunities to sing and preach, using his persuasive skills to solicit donations and garner attention.

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