Chaucer and Methods of Characterization

There is a point in the middle of The Canterbury Tales when a rooster named Chauntecleer pauses while recounting a tale of supernatural vengeance and cries out in praise of God: "O blisful God, that art so just and trewe / Lo, how that thou biwreyest mordre alway"(3848-49). This unusual interruption naturally provokes the question of whether Chauntecleer, the Nun's Priest, the narrator, or author Geoffrey Chaucer himself is speaking. Each answer would then color one's interpretation of the particular section of the Tales. Here one has an example of Chaucer providing a seemingly superfluous detail--Chauntecleer need not have paused to give such an oft repeated interjection--that actually helps him accomplish part of his artistic purpose. One learns while reading the Tales that almost nothing Chaucer includes is superfluous or there without design on the author's part. These details accumulate over the course of the Tales to help Chaucer polish the character portraits he had begun to sketch in the General Prologue. Chaucer's characters are astonishingly three dimensional because the narrator's description provides only the basis of characterization, which Chaucer then adds to with features and hints from within each character's tale, from what the characters say aside from telling their stories, and from the brief moments of interaction between the pilgrims.

If ever the saying "we are what we say" were true, it would be in the world of the Tales. Because the narrator only allots a few dozen lines to each character, the essence of whom they are must necessarily be conveyed by the tales they tell. One of the characters who is very much illuminated by the tale he tells is the sexually ambiguous Pardoner. In the General Prologue, the narrator describes the Pardoner as a man who cares very much about his appearances. He makes a great show of singing "ful loude"(672), and he attempts to follow the latest fashion by not wearing a hood and having his hair unbound. Here the Pardoner also pretends to have just arrived from Rome, as he carries a "bretful of pardoun"(687). The narrator's language, however, provides a judgment that begs to differ from that which the Pardoner claims to be true, as in "Hym thoughte he rood al of the newe jet"(682) and "He seyd he hadde a gobet of the seyl"(696). Despite seeing through the Pardoner's fraudulence, the narrator retains some semblance of admiration for the Pardoner because "wel koude he rede a lessoun or a storie"(709). Having established in the Prologue that the Pardoner is a great orator, a fraud, and someone who puts on appearances, one can turn to his tale for further explication of his character. As the Pardoner describes his three revelers, he cites the gruesome behavior of Lot and Herod and attributes their actions to their drunkenness. From drunkenness the Pardoner proceeds to gluttony, finally calling it "cause first of oure confusion"(499) and "original of oure dampnacioun"(500). Though described by the narrator as an outstanding orator, here the Pardoner's argument seems curiously illogical. In addition, he misappropriates quotes that have nothing to do with his argument, for example Paul's "mete unto wombe, and wombe eek unto mete"(522). Since digressing from his tale at the line "That luxurie is in wyn and dronkeness"(484), the Pardoner's sermon on the various sins of gluttony, drunkenness, gambling, and cursing continues for nearly two hundred lines until he finally continues his tale. The Pardoner's digression, his utter absorption in his argument which blinds him from seeing its shortcomings, and his excessive quotations all indicate a man who is almost narcissistically proud of and intoxicated by his own talents. And he has ample reason to be proud, because the actual tale he tells should evoke the story of Christ's death for his audience, an association that would lend authenticity and power to the Pardoner's own tale. The story of betrayal reminds one of the treacherous Judas, and the arbor where the three men find their deaths parallels the garden of Gethsemane. The three men carry out their own version of the Last Supper before the betrayal, and one of them is stabbed "thurgh the sydes tweye"(828), resulting in wounds similar to those of Jesus's. That the Pardoner's material is shaped so as to resemble such a familiar biblical story demonstrates, again, the Pardoner's oratorical abilities. His tale, more so than any other, is a symbolic and moralistic tour de force that showcases the storyteller's preaching abilities. The Pardoner's tale confirms and expands upon what the narrator had described in the Prologue: the Pardoner is very much about putting on performances, and he is enraptured by his own considerable skill as an orator.

Turning aside from the Pardoner for an instant, one finds another example of a pilgrim's tale as instrument of character development in the Merchant. The portrait the narrator gives of the Merchant is that of a man who is well put-together and in control. His boots are "clasped faire and fetisly"(273), and "his resons he spak ful solempnely"(274). The Merchant's behavior is dominated by the rhetoric of commerce--"estatly was he of his governaunce / With his bargaynes and with his chevyssaunce"(281-82)--and like the Pardoner he takes care that his appearance is pleasing. Where the Pardoner wishes to project the image of a fashionable man with consummate rhetorical power, the Merchant wishes to project the image of a successful businessman. The narrator once again casts doubt on a projected image when he inserts slyly: "Ther wiste no wight that he was in dette"(280). As the Tales continue, however, the readers learn that contrary to appearances, the Merchant does not have everything under his control. He professes in his prologue regarding his wife that "thogh the feend to hire ycoupled were, / She wolde hym overmacche"(1219-20). It is revealed that his marriage is an area of his life he does not have complete control over. His tale, however, complicates his confession. With his protagonist Januarie, the Merchant attempts to construct for himself a version of the marriage he wishes to have but does not. Januarie's subsequent travails are the Merchant's own. The Merchant--in the guise of Januarie--embarks upon a fanciful ode to the various joys of marriage. However, embedded within his idealistic longings are the Merchant's prejudiced notions. For example, he considers a wife "the fruyt of his tresor"(1270), simply another possession among his many. He compares a wife to "londes, rents, pasture, or commune"(1314), the only difference being the wife lasts the longest amongst all these possessions. She is someone who "kepeth his good, and wasteth never a deel"(1343), and moreover according to the Merchant, the picture of wedded bliss necessitates that "all that [a woman's] housbonde lust, hire lekth weel; / She seith nat ones ‘nay,' whan he seith ‘ye'"(1344-45). Verses such as these occasionally escape from the Merchant's controlling grasp, as in his tale he cannot fully disguise his prejudiced beliefs. They cast doubt on the Merchant's condemnation of his wife. As his tale unfolds and the Merchant comes to a degree of realization that his idea of marriage--just like the idea of a marriage between the hoary Januarie and a young maiden like May--will never work, his fictional marriage falls apart, and Januarie loses his grasp on his wife despite his insistence on having a hand on her at all times. The Merchant and his tale form another example of a pilgrim's tale as a reflection of character. If the Merchant extends his business-like, penny-pinching ways to the realm of his marriage, it is no wonder that it is falling apart.

Aside from the tales themselves, Chaucer provides ample hints about each character when they are not in the midst of tale-telling, when they directly or indirectly address their fellow pilgrims, or when they are simply commenting on their own tale-telling. Most of the prologues and epilogues serve this precise purpose. Taking a look at the two previous examples, one finds that the Pardoner makes sure that both before and after his tale he informs his audience of his fraudulence. He tells them: "For though myself be a ful vicious man, / A moral tale yet I yow telle kan"(459-60). This is simply another aspect of the Pardoner's performance. His act takes on an added dimension here as he not only aspires to be a consummate orator, but to be an orator in whom men believe despite themselves. But the character's complexity does not end here. During his tale, the Pardoner occasionally pauses to address his fellow pilgrims, and it is most often to implore them to seek instruction from their bibles: "Look in the Bible, and there you can learn it"(578). Even as, during his curtain call, the Pardoner attempts to solicit donations from his fellow pilgrims in return for his false absolution, he cannot help adding: "And Jesus Christ, that is our souls' physician, / So grant you to receive his pardon, / For that is best; I will not deceive you"(916-18). Why does Chaucer include these incongruous asides from the Pardoner, whose entire act consists of convincing other of his supreme oratorical power? It is almost as if despite the Pardoner's self-proclaimed sinfulness, he cannot help but let the truth escape at intervals. He cannot help but tell his audience to seek salvation elsewhere. Likewise, the Merchant's prologue serves to add an additional dimension to his character. Where the General Prologue establishes him as a man absorbed in his business, the Merchant's own prologue proclaims that he is trapped in an unhappy marriage. In addition, in the midst of his tale the Merchant manages to take a stab at the Wife of Bath, implying that she, like his own wife, are the chief causes of unhappy marriages. These lines, however, only further condemn the Merchant's character when they are interpreted alongside his revealing tale of an old man and his foolish notions of marriage. In addition, the Merchant's digression on the deplorable "servant traytour"(1785) belies his own desire to control every aspect of his domestic affairs and also his suspicion toward those around him who might intervene. There are numerous other examples of the pilgrims displaying a bit of their own characters in the process of storytelling. The Knight often protests against describing at too great a length the glory of ancient campaigns, but he does so anyway, belying the fact that the Knight recognizes that he is clinging to an outdated idea of chivalry. The Wife of Bath's lengthy prologue that describes her own failed marriages casts new light on her tale as a synthesis of her own ideals, and so on. The details that Chaucer has these storytellers provide--directly or indirectly--when they stray from storytelling add dimensions to the characters.

Finally, one can gain additional insight into the pilgrims' characters when they interact with each other beyond the structure of the game of tale-telling. These are the areas where Chaucer almost lets the characters speak for themselves, where their actions do not simply add realism to the story but also add to the complexity of Chaucer's character portraits. Take the Host, for example. The narrator describes him as a man "boold of his speche"(755), and that "of manhod hym lakkede right naught"(756). After the true reason for the Host's eager accompaniment of the pilgrims is known, however, his "boldness" takes on an additional coloring. Each time the Host tells a crude joke, each time he crassly insinuates that clergymen like the Monk and the Nun's Priest do not lack in virility, his "rude speche and boold"(3605) come across rather as pathetic attempts to disguise his own cowardly submission to his wife. The Pardoner, even before he puts on a performance of his own, cannot resist the opportunity the Wife of Bath presents as he starts up and proclaims with considerable theatrics: "By God and by seint John! / . . . Yet hadde I levere wedde no wyf to-yeere"(168). The rude timing of his response underscores the fact that the Pardoner is desperate for any opportunity to disguise his own perceived shortcomings with a performance. Likewise, the Franklin takes an opportunity to lament that his son "to vertu listeth nat entende"(689) and "hath levere talken with a page / Than to commune with any gentil wight / Where he myghte lerne gentillesse aright"(692-94). The speech is indicative of the Franklin's character in that the narrator had already said this in describing the Franklin: "To lyven in delit was evere his won, / For he was Epicurus owene sone"(335-36). The Franklin's speech is ironic because he is blind to the fact that his son is likely taking after his own example. And just as the Knight tells a principled, organized tale, his desire for order is reflected in his self-appointed role of peacemaker amongst the pilgrims. The reaction of each pilgrim in social contexts more often than not complicates the Tales' representation of each character, and that this is accomplished by seemingly frivolous banter between the pilgrims is a testament to Chaucer's characterization skills.

Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales encompasses an incredible amount of characters and supporting characters. That each of these characters is a complex, believable human being in himself is an even more amazing feat. Through a survey of the major pilgrims, their tales, and their interaction throughout the course of the poem, one arrives at a rough sketch of Chaucer's methods of characterization. His characters are three-dimensional because Chaucer provides not one but multiple angles through which the reader might approach. The narrator Geoffrey Chaucer's descriptions in the General Prologue provide a cursory sketch of each character. These characters become whole in flesh and spirit when they tell their tales, express themselves through storytelling, and interact with other characters. Chaucer's every line and every scene potentially reflects or casts light on a character's background and personality, and none of his details should be taken for granted, not even a rooster's inexplicable invocation of God.