12/5/11 Lecture on Chaucer's General Prologue

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Inrodcion o "The General Prologe" of The Canterbur Tales
[The folloing i he e of a lece delieed, in pa, in Englih 200, Secion 3, on Ocobe 5, 1998, b Ian Johnston, a Malapina Uniei-College, Nanaimo, BC,
Canada (no Vancoe Iland Uniei). Thi docmen i in he pblic domain, eleaed Ocobe 1998, and ma be ed b anone, in hole o in pa, iho pemiion
and iho chage, poided he oce i acknoledged]
In addressing "The General Prologue to The Caneb Tale" we are dealing with what has long been
recognied as one of the greatest masterpieces of English literature, certainl the finest and most influential
work of fiction to emerge in England from that period we call the Middle Ages. For most literar historians,
English literature begins well before Chaucer's greatest poem, but this particular work marks the start of the
tradition which is still readil accessible in the original language to the diligent reader, even though
Chaucer's Middle English requires the constant help of a glossar.
In this lecture I propose to discuss some important (though relativel obvious) interpretative features of
"The General Prologue," largel with a view to raising some points which will not onl help us to
understand Chaucer's poem a little better but also to hone our literar critical skills. Chaucer's poem is a
particularl useful place to carr out the latter task, because, if we take the time to get familiar enough with
his language to read the poem with some ease, it raises interesting critical problems for those learning about
literar criticism of ancient works.
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Befoe ning diecl o he e of he poem, hoee, I old like o a a fe od abo he hioical
em commonl aociaed ih hi poem, he Middle Age. B common ageemen, hi ok i he fine
poem o emege in Englih ding he Middle Age, in pa becae i poide ch a iid nfogeable
look a a ide ocial cana fom ha ime. B ha doe ha em mean?
A Noe on he Tem Middle Age
One migh ell begin b aking "Wh he Midde Age?" Cleal people a he ime did no hink of
hemele a liing beeen o diffeen ime peiod (he hogh of hemele, a ee age doe, a
he mo ecen aial), o hee doe he em come fom? Well, he em Middle Age a applied b
lae Renaiance ie and hioian o efe o he peiod falling e oghl beeen he fall of he
Roman Empie in 410 AD (hen Alaic acked Rome) and he Renaiance. The aial of he lae ha no
clea dae and end o be daed ealie in ohen Eope han in he noh. A conenien (b omeha
mileadingl pecie) dae fo he aial of he Renaiance in England migh be 1485, he dae of he
Bale of Booh Field, hen Richad III, he la of he Planagane king, a defeaed and killed b
Hen Tdo, h iniiaing he eign of he Tdo, hich laed in England nil he deah of Qeen
Eliabeh I in 1603.
The em Middle Age, like o man hioical em applied o an ealie peiod, a delibeael pejoaie.
Thee had been he gea Claical Peiod of Geece and Rome, and no hee a he ondefl eial of
claical leaning, he Renaiance. In beeen a a peiod ieed b man Renaiance hinke a a ime
of elaiel lile achieemen (ih ome ecepion hee and hee), a ime of ignoance, an abence of he
inalable claical inheiance, fedal oppeion, and he idepead poe of he chch. Wih delibeae
conemp, ome ie applied he em The Dak Age o he ealie pa of hi peiod (p o abo he
eleenh cen).
In fac, he Middle Age a a ime of eaodina iali. In he fi fie hnded ea of hi peiod,
Chiiani eablihed ielf hogho Eope, deeloped a comple iniionalied eligion capable of
goening ocie a all leel, minieing o he ick, and dealing ih jdicial dipe; he Chch
hammeed o compomie ih ecla le, an aiocac deied fom he Gemanic ibal com,
and placed Eope' econom on a fim agiclal fondaion (he ok of he monaeie in cleaing he
land i one of he geae ccee of een labo, an aonihing achieemen of he mo effecie
ok foce o cle ha ee podced). Ding hi peiod hee ee man fiece (and ofen blood)
dipe abo Chiian docine, abo he elaie diibion of poe beeen Chch and Sae, and
abo he elaionhip beeen he Chch' immene economic poe and i mini o he poo.
Neehele, fo mch of he Middle Age, life a calm, odel, able, and elaiel popeo. If e
end o emembe he ecee, like he Black Deah and he peecion of heeic and iche (hich i
moe a Renaiance phenomenon, ana), e hold no heefoe foge ha hi peiod eablihed he
bai fom hich ee o deelop he iniion, com, and poe hich felled he amaing epanion
of Eope in he Renaiance and afead.
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Medieval Christianit
I i paiclal impoan fo moden eade of medieal ok no o make he common b faal eo of
hinking abo he Middle Age, and epeciall abo he Chiian Chch in he Middle Age, a omehing
monolihic, homogeno, and backad. Thee i a common endenc fo inepeienced eade of Chace
o offe ciicim like "Well, in he Middle Age, eeone belieed hi o ha." Sch aemen make no
moe ene han imila genealiaion abo oda o, indeed, abo an ohe ime. Wihin he Chch, a
ihin he ank of moden libeal capialim, hee ee all o of enion beeen adiional
ahoiaian coneaie, adical fee hinke, commniaian iniing on limiing indiidal feedom,
indiidali iniing on moe indiidal feedom, efome aning a bee deal fo he poo and le
mone fo he op beaca, and o on. The majo ok of he Chch a o mainain, in he mid of all
hee enion, a okable ocial commni in he hoand of e mall agiclal commniie
hogho Eope, and in hi aemp i a fo a long ime aonihingl ccefl. If man of he pope
and bihop, like he impeial Caea, lef behind candalo ecod of peonal micondc, neehele
man ee efficien and caing adminiao, and he beacac of he Chch cold ofen ok
eemel ell ih copion a he op, becae i a affed b edcaed and diligen hman being a
loe leel.
Th, i i e, e mileading o make an eeping genealiaion abo he Middle Age (a i i abo
an comple peiod), and o hold a once check an imple in oelf o bing o bea on Chace'
ok an peconceied geneal noion o hae ha, becae he Middle Age happened long ago and i
ala aociaed ih Roman Caholic Chiian hieach, i heefoe can be eail chaaceied and
mmed p ih a ingle pih inigh o logan.
A mch bee idea (and hi applie o all lieae fom he pa o fom cle diffeen fom o on)
i o e all ch peconcepion aide and o ene he ok a if i i decibing a cle ha o hae
ddenl come aco on o ael hogh he foe. If o find ch a cle a all iniging, he fi
hing o do i no o jdge i b o make ome aemp o ndeand i. And ha mean, aboe all ele,
keeping o on immediae ealaie jdgmen a ba nil ch ime a o hae leaned omehing
moe abo ha i going on in ch a cle. If he people hee ae doing hing hich ae diincl odd
o een abhoen b o andad, hen find o h he ae doing hem. Eploe he belief em ha
pomp ch behaio. Find o ha he ale, ha le and iion gide hei ndeanding of he
old, he diffeen aieie of condc hich go on, befoe deemining oo caall j ha he enie
cle i oh. And if one an o be fai o ha cle, one need o be e pecie abo one'
obeaion and cplo abo he jdgmen hich aie o of hem.
The Renaissance
The em Renaiance i applied o he peiod of inellecal and clal hio hich cceeded he
Middle Age. Lieall he em efe o he ebih of claical leaning hich ep aco Ial in he lae
foeenh and eal fifeenh cen, a old claical mancip ee edicoeed, edied, anlaed, and
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distributed throughout southern Lurope, mo·ing slowly northward throughout the íiíteenth century. 1he
immediate impetus which launched this re·i·al was the serious threat posed to Lastern Lurope by the
1urkish Muslim íorces mo·ing up towards Constantinople and Vienna throughout the early part oí this
period ,Constantinople was captured by the 1urks in 1453,. 1he ílight oí Greek scholars with the
manuscripts toward the \est brought into the \est, and especially into Italy, what had been lost long ago,
Greek language and literature. 1he diííusion oí such learning accelerated rapidly aíter the in·ention oí
printing in the 1450's.
But there was more to the Renaissance than just this scholarly re·i·al. 1here was a renewed emphasis on
classical humanism, on the ·iew that the good liíe did not ha·e to be li·ed under the constant super·ision
oí the Church within the oíten limited restrictions oí the small community. 1he increasing interest in
exploration, the growing wealth oí the towns, and the rising interest in speculating about the nature oí the
earth and the hea·ens ,oíten supported by ambitious central monarchs growing in power, all put pressure on
the static, traditional, communal model which had been the social reality oí Lurope íor eight centuries.
Chaucer's poem was written late in the íourteenth century, in the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance,
depending on how one wishes to consider the time. And a íew things about the social conditions oí the
period are clear írom the picture oí society he gi·es us there. Let me list a íew oí them:
lirst, the Church is still clearly a major part oí society. About one third oí the pilgrims going to Canterbury
are church oííicials, and the entire group is celebrating spring by taking part in a traditional Christian ritual,
the pilgrimage to an important holy shrine. In doing so they are gi·ing public testimony to things that are
·alued in their society and their li·es, just as we would re·eal a great deal about our social and personal
·alues, ií we were to write this poem today by picturing our pilgrim band as containing many people
working íor the go·ernment, all on their way to Disneyland in a charter jet.
Secondly, while none oí the pilgrims comes írom the top classes oí society, the aristocracy, many oí them
are quite rich and sophisticated. In examining them, we are, íor the most part, looking at members oí the
middle-class ,although the concept oí class did not exist at the time,. Some oí them ha·e money, a íew ha·e
tra·eled extensi·ely. 1hey know about good clothes and books and íood. Some ordinary íolk ha·e horses.
\hat we would call the trading and ser·ice industries are well represented by people who would not be out
oí place in a Nanaimo mall. And yet we are reminded, too, that the traditional roles oí the Middle Ages ha·e
not yet disappeared.
linally, there is a sense oí rising indi·idualism among them. \hile the ideals oí the dedication to a
traditional Christian communal society are still clearly there, it is equally e·ident that íor many oí these
pilgrims, including the Church oííicials, the sense oí a communal duty is being eroded by a personal desire
íor money and the íine things money can buy. In íact, there is a strong sense throughout The Canterbur Tales
that this money is somehow a threat to something older and more ·aluable.
All oí these details suggest a society in transition. \e are not here dealing with the ·ision oí the Middle
Ages oí a íew hundred years beíore, a time when books were ·ery scarce, tra·eling much more diííicult, and
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money ,and the good things it purchases, in much shorter supply. I'm going to be going into some oí these
points in more detail later. lere I simply want to call attention to the ob·ious íact that we don't ha·e to
read much oí the General Prologue to sense that we are not dealing with simple agricultural íolk, piously
obedient to their church, and without any knowledge oí the world beyond the next ·illage or oí some oí the
íiner consumer items which make liíe more comíortable and íun.
Chaucer, incidentally, li·ed beíore the in·ention oí printing and the widespread diííusion oí classical
literature into Northern Lurope. 1hus, although he was well read in lrench and Italian literature and drew
hea·ily upon certain Continental works and traditions, he did not ha·e access to Greek literature. \hen he
wrote about 1roilus and Cressida and the 1rojan \ar, he was drawing on medie·al traditions oí this íamous
story, without direct knowledge about Greek ·ersions in lomer or the tragedians.
The Canterbur Tales: Some Initial General Observations
I ha·e no intention here oí re·iewing details oí Geoíírey Chaucer's liíe ,which are irrele·ant to an
understanding oí the poem and which are more than adequately co·ered by the Norton introduction,. But
beíore looking in detail at the poem, I would like to comment on the o·erall plan oí his masterpiece, The
Canterbur Tales.
1he General Prologue makes clear that the o·erall plan íor the work called íor íour stories írom each
character, two on the way there and two on the way back. 1hat intention was clearly not met. 1he
manuscripts contain work on twenty-íour tales, with two oí these uníinished. Putting these tales together
into what seems to be the most coherent íorm is a major editorial challenge.
1he basic structure oí the work, as established in the General Prologue, is simple enough and relati·ely
con·entional. A group oí tra·elers are thrown together and, to pass the time, they determine to tell each
other stories ,in a manner common to all sorts oí narrati·es like the Thousand and One Nights, The Decameron
oí Boccaccio, and so on,. Chaucer chooses one oí the oldest narrati·e de·ices, a journey, in this case a
pilgrimage which includes a wide ·ariety oí social types. On this íamiliar narrati·e íramework, he then
hangs a series oí tales in which he can display a number oí diííerent literary íorms ,íairy stories, prose
sermons, romance narrati·es, bawdy tales, animal íables, and so on,. In this way, he has a ready-made recipe
íor a wide ·ariety oí personalities and stories. And one oí the greatest achie·ements oí The Canterbur Tales
is the richness oí it characters and its literary styles.
The Narrator
Linking the episodic nature oí the gallery oí characters and their stories is the engaging presence oí the
narrator, who is a major presence in the poem. Chaucer presents the narrator as one oí the pilgrims, a íellow
Christian tra·eling to Canterbury and meeting the ·arious characters and hearing their stories. 1his gi·es his
descriptions the immediacy oí a personal narration based upon intimate con·ersations and direct witnessing
oí the dramatic e·ents which take place upon the way ,like the diííerent quarrels among some oí the
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At the same time, howe·er, it is quite clear that many oí the details we learn ,especially in the General
Prologue, are ob·iously based upon a perspecti·e that cannot be simply deri·ed írom a personal encounter.
1he details we learn about all the Knight's achie·ements, íor example, or the details oí the \iíe oí Bath's
beha·iour back home in her own church, these are not things that a pilgrim narrator could learn in such
·i·id detail.
lence, we are dealing with, in eííect, two narrators. 1he shiíts between them are unannounced, and I doubt
ií many readers enjoying the poem are at all disturbed by questions about how a pilgrim-narrator could
possibly know so much about people he has just met. 1his, in itselí, is a good reminder that what matters in
reading a poem ,as in ·iewing a íilm, is not the total absence oí logical diííiculties oí this sort but rather the
skill with which the writer ,or íilm maker, a·oids drawing attention to any such inconsistencies. 1he dual
point oí ·iew has the great ad·antage, oí course, oí gi·ing the poem the immediacy oí a personal narrati·e
and the wealth oí background detail oí the sort a·ailable only to an omniscient narrator where this is a
useíul supplement to a portrait or a narrati·e.
The Geneal Pologe: Some Themaic Conideaion
\hen we íirst start reading the General Prologue we are likely to be drawn íirst to the richness and ·ariety
oí the gallery oí characters. 1hat is, indeed, one oí the wonderíul things about this poem, as Dryden
obser·ed, "lere is God's plenty." And we can spend a lot oí time, as we ha·e seen in our seminars,
discussing particular characters in detail. I want to come back to this business oí literary criticism as
character analysis ,which may be uníashionable in some scholarly quarters but which is still the most ·ital
contact with narrati·e íictions íor most readers,. Beíore that, howe·er, I'd like to introduce the notion oí a
thematic approach to the General Prologue.
1o approach a work thematically is to consider what ideas or leitmoti·s co-ordinate its details, how these
ideas are presented, modiíied, challenged, and ,perhaps, resol·ed by the end oí the work. 1hematic criticism
will tend to see characterization as primarily important íor what it contributes to the complication or
presentation oí such co-ordinating ideas.
It's important to stress íor all those interested in thematic criticism that works oí íiction are not
philosophical works. 1hey do not present rational arguments ,although such arguments may exist in them at
times,. 1hus, thematic criticism is not simply a matter oí reducing a work to some simple "moral" or prose
summary. \hat matters in thematic criticism is íollowing the way in which a particular idea or theme is
qualiíied, complicated, challenged, deepened, resol·ed, reiníorced as one proceeds through the íiction. In
some íictions, the thematic dimension will be ·ery clear indeed ,e.g., in allegories,, in others, it may not
exist at all ,the point oí the íiction may well be to disqualiíy any thematic approach to experience--which,
when one thinks about it, is a theme in its own right,.
1o separate themes írom characterization is, oí course, suspect, since the two oí them work together
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inextricably. So what we're talking about here is a matter oí emphasis. 1hematic critics tend to get irritated
when all people want to talk about are the minute particulars oí character ,see L. C. Knights' íamous essay
"low Many Children lad Lady Macbeth·" íor a classic statement oí this objection,, and interpreters who
like to emphasize character criticism tend to get irritated when other interpreters want to turn a narrati·e
totally into a debate about ideas ,\illiam Lmpson's celebrated study oí Paadie Lo in Milon' God
contains a sturdy deíence oí character analysis as a sound basis íor criticism in his spirited attacks on those
who want to turn Milton's poem into a matter oí doctrinaire ideas,.
The Opening Senence
So a thematic approach to the General Prologue might begin by íocusing attention on the íamous opening
sentence. I want to call attention to some oí the details oí the opening lines, in order to illustrate some
potentially important thematic considerations and to show how a detailed attention to what's going on in
the language can alert us to what is going to emerge as an important part in the characterization oí the
1he íirst point to notice about that opening sentence is that it íalls into two equal parts, the íirst íocusing on
the spring and the second on the holy duty oí the pilgrimage. 1he íirst halí really stresses the erotic energies
oí spring, with words like "engendred", "Inspired," "priketh," "Ram," and so on. 1hese words oíten denote
penetration and íertilization, and the mo·ement oí the lines and the short ·owels in some oí the words help
to create a sense oí erotic energy oí a time when nature is so charged with sexual ·itality that e·en the birds
sleep with one eye open.
1he second halí oí the sentence íocuses on something entirely diííerent, the desire oí people to gi·e thanks
to God íor ha·ing sur·i·ed another winter, ha·ing with the help oí God and his special saint o·ercome
illnesses and threats oí death. 1he sounds and mo·ements oí this part oí the sentence is much soíter and
Now this sentence holds in períect balance the two primary moti·es oí liíe--the erotic dri·es which come to
us írom spring and which push us íorward into newly renewed liíe, and the desire íor a common religious
experience to thank God íor our liíe together, something which pulls us to worship. On the basis oí these
two motions, the irrational push oí Lros and the spiritual pull oí 1hanatos ,to use lreudian terms, we can
approach the study oí society which Chaucer then depicts íor us.
\hat I would like to suggest is that the opening sentence announces a poweríul theme which runs
throughout the General Prologue: that there are two essential íorces oí liíe and that what matters is that
they be held in a balance ,as they are grammatically in the opening sentence,. 1his theme, you might think,
is not nearly so explicit as I am suggesting in the opening sentence. But it becomes explicit as soon as we
think about this opening sentence in relation to the íirst pair oí portraits ,oí the Knight and Squire, íather
and son,, a pairing which unites the highest ·irtues oí acti·e Christianity displayed in the liíetime oí ser·ice
oí the Knight with the exuberant ·itality oí the son, an erotic lo·e oí liíe which yet remains in check, so that
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he knows his duties towards his íather ,as the last detail oí the portrait makes clear,.
Ií we look closely at the íirst pair oí portraits in the light oí the theme suggested by the opening sentence,
then we encounter a standard oí human conduct against which we will ine·itably compare the later
portraits. \hat is clear about the Knight is that he has led a acti·e liíe íighting on behalí oí Christianity,
especially against the threat oí 1urkish in·asion. le has displayed íortitude, courage, truth, honour,
courtesy, and earned a high reputation. \et he remains humble and does not ílaunt his rank in an expensi·e
exterior or display any sense oí superiority. le has just arri·ed back in Lngland and immediately joins the
procession to gi·e thanks.
lis son, the Squire, shows all the ·irtues oí youth, íull oí erotic energy, song, a lo·e oí the íine things oí
spring and a commitment to the ideals oí chi·alry, he is a creati·e spirit, able to sing, write lyric poetry,
dance, and, in general, celebrate the joy oí liíe. But, as already mentioned, this has not led him to íorget the
respect he owes his íather.
Later in the poem, near the end, we meet another pair, the Parson and the Ploughman. 1hey display ·irtues
remarkably similar to those oí the Knight and the Squire. 1hey are, abo·e all, charitable and hard working.
1hey ha·e dedicated their li·es to the ser·ice oí their íellow creatures and do not shrink írom selí-sacriíice
or danger to stand up to injustice. \hat seems clear is that the energies which dri·e them through liíe ,and
into this pilgrimage, are in harmony with the highest ideals by which the narrator measures human conduct.
1here's an important thematic point to starting the catalogue oí pilgrims with an ideal standard and to
reintroducing it near the end. \hat this achie·es is to enable us to make moral judgments more easily about
the other portraits. It is clear what the narrator in this poem most admires, he con·eys that in these ideal
portraits. In this way, we could claim that a central theme oí the General Prologue is an exploration oí the
íull range oí the moral qualities oí late Medie·al Christianity as they maniíest themsel·es in the daily liíe oí
the people.
The General Prologe as an Epic Poem
Ií we wish to address the ·ision oí liíe de·eloped in the General Prologue, we can pay tribute to its epic
quality. 1his literary term is usually reser·ed íor certain narrati·e íictions which hold up íor our exploration
something more than just a story. 1hey ha·e a social breadth and a narrati·e scope which pro·ide a much
wider and all-inclusi·e can·as than an ordinary íiction. In reading them, we are exploring, not simply
particular characters in a particular setting, but an entire cultural moment. Lpic narrati·es, írom lomer
onwards, celebrate ci·ilization in a particular maniíestation, and part oí their power and interest comes írom
our sense that an entire way oí liíe is under scrutiny. Parenthetically, what is curious about epic poems is
that they tend to appear when the way oí liíe they celebrate is the process oí disappearing íore·er ,lomer,
íor example, is writing about a heroic society a couple oí centuries older than him, Paadie Lo appears
when the great Protestant experiment under Cromwell is clearly o·er, many oí the no·els celebrating the
American South come aíter the Ci·il \ar and the deíeat oí the Coníederate cause,.
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In that sense, the General Prologue in·ites us to e·aluate a particular society. Like all societies this culture
is under tension. It has a clear sense oí ·alues, what we might call the traditional ·alues oí acti·e
Christianity, best summed up in the well known Biblical celebration oí íaith, hope, and charity ,and the
greatest oí these is charity,. 1he ideal portraits make it clear to us that the narrator oí this poem admires
such qualities more than any others. And the remaining portraits acquaint us with the ·arious ways in which
these qualities are under threat. lence, reading the General Prologue is a ·oyage through the e·aluation oí
an entire society.
Beíore mo·ing onto other matters, I'd like to make two comments about the moral ·ision we encounter.
lirst, by the end oí the General Prologue we ha·e become well acquainted with the se·en cardinal ·irtues
,prudence, íortitude, temperance, justice, íaith, hope, and charity, and the se·en cardinal sins ,pride, en·y,
co·etousness, sloth, anger, lust, and gluttony,. And it seems clear that the narrator oí the poem is
de·eloping the portraits in accordance with the thematic importance oí this traditional ·alue scheme.
Second, and related to the abo·e point, is the emphasis on the social basis íor ·irtue. \hat makes people
good or bad Christians, in the world oí this poem, is how they treat each other. Virtue is not an abstract
matter oí doctrine, a puriíication ritual carried out in contemplati·e isolation, or a challenge to the
indi·idual will. It is thoroughly social, a matter oí one's obligations to help others and to reírain írom
mistreating them. 1hat list oí ·irtues and ·ices I recited abo·e are primarily social and cannot be understood
outside oí a rich social context. 1his is, as we shall see, in ·ery marked contrast to the other great Christian
pilgrimage we shall be reading about in Pilgim' Poge.
Comparatie Critical Details
In this respect, you should notice how certain words and details appear írom one portrait to the next. lor
example, we are oíten told about a character's attitude to or use oí money. And it's worth paying attention
to what each character ·alues enough to spend money on. 1he Knight's price is his reputation, and he has
paid íor a good horse. 1he Parson's gold is his sense oí Christian duty ,"ií gold rust, what shal iren do·",, the
Clerk ,student, spends money on books. 1he Ploughman dutiíully gi·es money to the Church. Other
pilgrims spend money on a wide ·ariety oí consumer goods: clothes, íood, íine li·ing. low do these people
get their money· low do they use their money·
In íollowing just this one point, we can see how that necessary balance between one's erotic and one's
religious íeelings can be upset, perhaps in some places corrupted. lere it is important to notice how many
oí the portraits are oí Church oííicials, íor whom this question is oí particular importance. By looking
closely at what the Monk purchases with his money or the tactics used by the lriar and the Pardoner to get
money we see immediately where their particular sense oí priorities dri·e them.
Similarly, we should pay attention to clothes. Sometimes these are quite appropriate to the social íunction a
character occupies ,e.g., the Knight and perhaps the Prioress,. At other times, we might wonder. 1he
narrator clearly likes a íine appearance and has a keen eye íor good clothes, just as he ·alues books and the
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ability to read and write, as well good manners ,courtesy,. But his highest praise is reser·ed, as I ha·e
mentioned, íor those details which enable us to see someone as charitable, that is, as lo·ing his neighbours
more than himselí. So when the words charity or charitable appear we need to be particularly alert to
assessing just what the words mean in this context.
1his business oí lo·e is essential. \hat does each character lo·e· Is this lo·e a corruption oí the spirit· In
the Prioress we are not sure. 1he brooch might ·ery well reíer to lo·e oí God ,íor the slogan is a common
religious statement,. In the Monk, his lo·e oí God has become a lust íor hunting and eating, the lriar's lo·e
directs him to all the common pleasures. 1he íinest thing about the Parson is the períect balance between
his lo·e íor God and íor this world. In the Pardoner, by contrast, the lo·e oí God's justice ,oí which he is
the agent, and íor humanity has become hopelessly corrupted.
\e ha·e to be careíul about assessing the importance oí each detail. 1he task asks us to e·aluate, not what
we think oí the character in question, but what the narrator thinks. low do the details he presents about
each character shape our understanding oí how he íeels about them· \hat emotional pressures is the
language putting on us to understand a particular character in one way rather than another· 1he narrator
rarely, ií e·er, oííers an explicit judgment that is not tinged with some irony. But the list oí speciíic details
de·elops a latent judgment in a ·ery delicate manner that the reader needs to attend to and respect.
Chaucer's Iron
1his sort oí assessment is particularly challenging in the General Prologue because oí the ironic tone which
per·ades so many oí the portraits. In íact, there could hardly be a better introduction to the importance oí
e·aluating irony than this íamous poem. So it is appropriate here to say a íew words about this all-important
critical term.
Irony, considered ·ery generally, reíers to the quality oí language to ha·e diííerent le·els oí meaning, to be
ambiguous, so that we are not entire certain how to interpret a particular phrase or descripti·e detail or
action. 1he presence oí irony complicates our response because it re·eals that what is being described is not
a simple literal íact íor all to see. It is more complex and layered than that. Irony in language is, as one might
expect, not welcome in certain íorms oí writing, especially in scientiíic and legal writing, where the
unambiguous clarity oí clearly deíined words is the essence oí the prose. In poetry and íiction generally,
irony is a writer's stock in trade because it is the surest way to remind the reader that the subject matter oí
this text is not something simple and literal, but inherently ambiguous.
low does irony work· 1hat's a large subject. But we don't ha·e to read ·ery íar in the General Prologue to
see Chaucer's standard technique. le is always setting morally loaded language against actions which do not
li·e up to that high praise, thus in·iting us to see a discrepancy, an ambiguity between the moral language
and the action. lere is a íamous example írom the portrait oí the \iíe oí Bath:
She was a worthy womman al hir li·e
lusbondes at chirche dore she hadd íi·e.
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1he word worth in the íirst line sets up a ·ery appro·ing moral ·alue judgment, the detail in the second line
undercuts it. Note that that detail doesn't necessarily cancel the appro·al, but it redirects our attention. \e
ha·e to wonder about just what the precise nature oí the \iíe's worthiness consists oí. 1he narrator is not
telling us directly, he is in·iting us to explore the ambiguity in our own reaction. 1he irony does not directly
clariíy the nature oí the \iíe, but it complicates it, in·iting us to see her in a more complex way. \es, she is
a worthy woman ,a íine person,, but in some ways she might not be as morally worthy as an unambiguous
use oí the term might suggest.
Similarly, the narrator tells us that the Prioress is charitable ,·ery high praise indeed, gi·en the importance
oí this term established in the earlier portrait oí the Knight, and then, to establish that point, tells us that
she weeps ií she sees an animal in pain. 1he details add a distinct note oí irony to the work charitable. \e
know the literal meaning oí the word, but the style is asking us to qualiíy our literal understanding with
something more ambiguous. Similarly the lriar is the best beggar in his order. \hat does that mean·
Ob·iously he is a good beggar in the sense that he obtains a great deal oí money, but the details oí how he
gets his money really qualiíy the moral content oí the potential moral appro·al in that word best.
Some oí the portraits are clearly not ironic, we are in·ited to take them as literal portraits oí an ideal. I
would argue, as I ha·e mentioned, that the Knight and the Squire and the Parson and the Ploughman are
such ideals. Perhaps the Clerk is as well. But almost all the rest are ironic portraits oí human characters
whose qualities are inherently ambiguous.
Interpreting Iron
lor the literary interpreter the presence oí irony is an important challenge, largely because an interpretation
must explore that irony and seek to assess its eííects, without being too ham íisted, that is, without
resol·ing the irony too simplistically. Ií the eííect oí an ironic portrait is oíten thoroughly ambiguous, then
one must acknowledge that and not close oíí the ironies too quickly. lor example, the portrait oí the
Prioress has in·ited some people either to claim that there is no irony in the portrait whatsoe·er ,and thus
she is as íine and elegant a person as one might wish íor,, while others ha·e dismissed her as a
thoroughgoing hypocrite. Both oí these reactions, in my ·iew, deal with the portrait by destroying its most
ob·ious and interesting quality, its elusi·eness. \es, there are contradictory tendencies in the details, but
,and this is a crucial point, human characters oíten consist oí contradictory qualities bound up in a single
personality, and one oí the íunctions oí poetry is to explore and illuminate such emotional contradictions,
not to destroy them.
lence, in reading the General Prologue, one has to take care to shape one's response to each character
careíully, seeking to deíine as precisely as possible our sense oí how the ironical details íinally add up, what
sort oí critical weight we might gi·e to the presence oí irony. One oí the ob·ious ways to do this ,something
the poem in·ites us to do, is to compare the characters with each other. \e might sense, íor example, that
the Prioress is clearly not up to the standard oí the Knight, but she does seem less corrupt than the lriar,
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who, in turn, is ob·iously not as scandalously hypocritical as the Pardoner. Once we start comparing the
characters with the theme oí corruption oí an ideal in mind, we will learn a great deal about the importance
oí making our responses to irony as precise as possible.
In this connection, it might be useíul to remember and apply the concepts oí sins oí omission and sins oí
commission. 1he íormer stem írom a íailure to do what one's duty requires one to do, the latter stem írom
acti·e deeds injuring others directly. And we might want to diííerentiate between sins oí commission which
are more serious than others. lor example, the lriar commits many sins oí commission, but he brings a
certain amount oí pleasure and íun with him, and his sexual conquests oí women, although a disgrace to his
order, are, we are led to belie·e, oíten well recei·ed. 1he Summoner and the Pardoner, by contrast, acti·ely
extort money through systematic lies, threats, and a corruption oí church doctrine in their sermons.
One íinal comment about irony in a style. Oíten, the most important debates between interpreters oí a
particular work hinge on whether or not they both see irony in the style or, ií they do, just what weight to
gi·e it. Since irony ine·itably undercuts the literal meaning oí particular words and phrases, its presence or
absence can make a huge diííerence. My ía·ourite example oí this is Machia·elli's The Prince. My sense is
that this was intended as a thoroughly ironic, e·en satiric work, but so many people íailed to see the irony,
that the book has been hailed or condemned as a celebration oí the political liíe totally di·orced írom
morality. Debates o·er the ending oí the Odsse, or Shakespeare's Twelfth Night or Henr V, or Paradise Lost,
some oí the most interesting and ·ital critical debates, hinge precisely on this question oí detecting the
presence oí irony and e·aluating it.
\hen does irony become satire· \hat is the diííerence between a thoroughly ironic portrait and a satirically
ironic style· One way to sort out the diííerence is to remember that the purpose oí satire is to hold someone
up to ridicule as an example to others. Satire always has something aggressi·e about it, a desire to point a
íinger and say, in eííect, "Look how ridiculous this person is." Making readers laugh at the íoolishness oí
others is the essence oí all satire. And irony is the key stylistic technique used to achie·e it. All satire
emerges írom the ironic discrepancy between what people think they are or would like to be and what they,
in íact, are. 1he challenge to the satirist is to make this discrepancy "witty," so that people laugh at the
But there is an enormous range to satire, and we are not really saying much about a style just by labeling it
satiric. \e need to e·aluate as best we can, on the basis oí the language, the precise nature oí the satire.
1here's a huge diííerence, aíter all, between a ·ery good natured, e·en aííectionate joke at someone's
expense and a sa·agely harsh indictment oí the siníul duplicity oí a total hypocrite.
1o make íun oí people's íoolishness and to hold them up as satiric targets requires the satirist to put a
certain amount oí distance between the target and the reader and to simpliíy the potential complexity oí the
personality under attack. 1his is clear enough in one poweríul íorm oí satire still common in society, the
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political cartoon. 1his depends upon distortion, simpliíication, and a black and white presentation oí the
target as an object worthy oí ridicule. 1he current range oí satiric jokes about Bill Clinton ,by, íor example,
Jay Leno, uses the same technique. \e are not in·ited to think about how much pain the target might be in
or what psychological pressures might ha·e prompted the error. 1he more complex the psychological
presentation oí character, the less poweríul the satire becomes.
1here's a old lrench saying, "1out comprendre, c'est tout pardonner," to understand e·erything is to íorgi·e
e·erything. But satire is not asking the reader to íorgi·e íoolishness but to mock it. And íor that to happen,
a certain distance and simpliíication are essential.
Now, it's clear that the narrator in the Canterbury 1ales is in·iting us to laugh at the íoolishness oí some oí
the portraits. In that sense, we can useíully talk about a satiric presence throughout the General Prologue.
But as soon as we ha·e acknowledged that, we would ha·e to concede that much oí this satire is extremely
gentle. 1he narrator seems genuinely to like these people on the journey. le brings us quite close to them
and indicates that he, íor the most part, enjoys their company. So the potential oí the satire is enormously
muted, to the point where sometimes one can concede that the satiric possibility disappears completely.
lor example, the portrait oí the Prioress is clearly ironic. \e are in·ited to sense ambiguities in her
character, to wonder about what earthly passions might exist beneath the proper attire and the religious
icons. But the narrator is clearly much taken with her íine appearance and seems to like her clothing and the
way she conducts the di·ine ser·ice. 1here is an aííection, e·en an admiration, íor the woman. lence, the
irony de·elops little-to-no-satiric energy. \e do not, I think, respond to this portrait with the sense that the
narrator is in·iting us to mock the woman as a hypocrite.
In other portraits where the irony is considerably stronger and more o·ert, the attitude oí the narrator is
always muting the satiric potential. 1he lriar is ob·iously a sinner, derelict in his duties, as is the Monk. But
the narrator con·eys a liking íor these characters and an admiration íor some oí their qualities. 1his
collapses the distance between the target and the readers and makes the satire, ií it is there at all, much
gentler than it might otherwise be. As Paul Baum has remarked, ií this is satire, it is satire without
1his mildly aííectionate satiric tone ,now you íeel it, now you don't, in the General Prologue gi·es to the
style oí this poem its unique quality. 1here's a íirm moral ·ision at work here, and the narrator is not aíraid
to let us know what he belie·es in. At the same time, he has such a genuine liking íor people and their
·arious silly ways that he is not going to let a censorious judgment come between them. 1his adds a distinct
note oí compassion, humour, and sociability to the narrator himselí who, in some ways, emerges by the end
oí the General Prologue as the most interesting person on the trip.

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