Chaucer as a Realist OR Chaucer’s Realism

Chaucer as a Realist

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines realism in the following words: “Realism is the tendency to view or represent things as they really are”.

Literature is actually the reflection of the age in which it is produced. It gives birth to its own world which always goes parallel with the real world. As we know that the world of literature is fictional and imaginative, it is difficult to take its characters as the prototypes of the characters found in the real world. Now it depends on the skills and artistic ability and genius of a writer to what extent he is successful in producing a resemblance between his imaginatively created characters and the characters of the real world.

It was the good luck of every golden period in the history of English literature that it got some supreme (برتر) literary artist who was shaped and moulded by the society of image, his value of life, his religious and political ideas but the primary purpose of a writer was to produce work of art and it is only incidentally that we can obtain information.

History of literature testifies that the writers like Fielding, Tennyson and Pope produced literature according to what they witnessed around them. Chaucer is one such artist. He can be called a true realist. “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” clearly shows his scholarly and profound interest in the world and its temporal activities. It also shows his human and humane look. As a poet, he believes, “Literature is the reflection of life with the help of words.” He has catholicity and tolerance which are part and parcel of his realism. Tolerance is the quality that compels a realist to show no prejudice and be objective in his observation. He has sharp sight and penetrating insight into different aspects of the world. As a critic says, “Chaucer is no visionary, afraid to face the facts of life, dwelling in a world of beauty and delight which has no counterpart on earth, but a poet who takes no shame in human nature, whose eyes see so clearly that they are not blinded by devil, who dares to say, with his creator, that the world is good.” Chaucer is the first great English poet who reveals the truth about life as he sees it. Before Chaucer, the writers were living in the world of dreams. They were weaving their imaginative stories but Chaucer did not accept this idea and kept away from such artifices. He took the ideas of his characters from the real world and presented them with having imaginative touch. “Chaucer like Fielding could have claimed that he gave the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”In “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales,” his purpose is:

 “To tell you all the conditcioun,

Of each of him. So as it seemed me,

And which they weren, and of what degree

And eek in what array they were inn.”

            The setting of “The Prologue” is highly realistic because Chaucer’s art is a blend of an expert photographer and an imaginative painter. He took the advantage of customary pilgrimage to give a vast and detailed picture of his society. The pilgrimage procured forgiveness for one’s sins. We can say that the portrayal of the pilgrims offering pilgrimage was the best vehicle for him to portray his society. So, being a realist, he had felt deeply that the pilgrims offering pilgrimage had no religious motive behind it. Some pilgrims considered it the journey for merry-making, pleasure-seeking, music and vulgarity. “The Host” is here to sketch out a plan for story-telling to alleviate the boredom of the journey to the Canterbury shrine. The Miller, the Pardoner and the Summoner narrate vulgar stories. All the pilgrims are in a holiday mood, relaxed and show themselves in their true colours. As David Daiches remarks: “They (The Pilgrims) are on holiday, not at their daily labours, so that they are more relaxed and self-relieving than they would otherwise be. But their daily lives, their moral habits of thinking, their prejudices, professional bias, most familiar ideas, and personal idiosyncrasies come out in their conversation and their behaviours.” Now let’s discuss Chaucer as a realist.

First, Chaucer as a realist portrays the medieval characters. The young Squire is one of these typical characters. In the Middle Ages, the Squires were considered the attendants of specific knights. Chaucer’s Squire is at home in music, dance, painting and writing. He is a skillful horseman and likes jousts. As a representative of Medieval Squires, he is very careful in the selection of his dress. His embroidered (زیبائشی) garment which he is wearing looks like a meadow full of fresh flowers.

 “Embroidered was he, as it were a meede

Al ful of fressh floures, whyte and reede.”

The Sergeant of Law is another typical Medieval figure. He receives fees as well as robes from his clients. There was a lack of paucity of cash in “The Middle Ages.” Therefore, it was common practice to make the payment in the form of robes which also meant “Whole sets of clothing.Wycliffe, Langland, Gower and other writers of the period criticized the shrewdness and greed of those lawyers. The Cook also shows some medieval features. The Host blames the Cook for he serves stale food to the visitors attending this London Shop. The Doctor of Physik is another example having features of the Middle Ages. The Wife of Bath cannot be overlooked in this regard. Marriage at that time was totally based on monetary considerations and a well-to-do woman could marry as many times as she liked. It was also very difficult for a woman to remain single, as a greedy man would compel her to marry him so that he might own her property.  So, we see that the Wife of Bath shows all these characteristics of the wealthy women of that time.

She was a worthy woman al hir lyve:

Husbands at the church door she hadde fyve.”

Lastly, the antipathy between the Miller and the Reeve was a salient feature of the Middle Ages. The Miller and the Reeve in “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” are at daggers drawn with each other.

            The second major point that Chaucer has discussed is the growing prosperity and prominence of the common man. Crafts and manufacturing flourished and brought new wealth. These newly rich persons founded their own corporations. This thing created another evil. These people began controlling the churches by forming parish guilds and later these guilds also became distinguished in the political field. These guilds got great status in society and even their wives were fully aware of the status of their husbands.

For catel hadde they ynogh and rente,

And eek their wyes wolde it wel assente;

And elles certeyn were they to blame.”

In Chaucer’s age, the merchants did wholesale traffic of cloth, iron, wool and tin. In the later Middle Ages, these merchants had control over the national purse strings. Their power was recognized everywhere in England. As a result, they got more special status and reverence than that of the aristocracy. The Merchant in “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” is the best example of this fact. He desires that trade routes should be kept free for the transference of goods and merchandise.

He wolde the see were kept for anythyng

            Bitwixe Middleburgh and Orewelle.

                        Wel koode he in eschaunge sheeldes selle.”

Another important feature of Chaucerian society is corruption in the church. In his age, the Pope of Rome had supreme power and the states were under his power. Religion was a force that was shaping and moulding the life of the people but some clergymen were presenting its deteriorated and degenerated aspect. Some orders of Friars and monasteries had become totally corrupt. Materialism was their first and foremost preference. They had no interest in religion rather worldly matters mattered a lot. They had forgotten their sacred obligations and were fond of profligacy and Epicureanism.  That’s why, the people had lost faith in what they preached and what they did. The portrait of the Friar in “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” has been presented on realistic grounds. We know that he is clever, lustful and avaricious. He totally connives his religious duties. He advises the sinners that they should not offer prayers or weep for the purgation of their sins. In return, he demands a big amount of money from them so that they may absolve of their sins. He has also got a license for begging and confession of sins.

 “Ful swetely herde he confessioun,

And plesaunt was his absolucioun:

He was an easy man to yeve penaunce,

Ther as he wiste to have a good pituance.”

Another example of the deteriorated religious condition has been given through the character of the Monk. He is ignoring his religious duties and seeking pleasure in the horse-riding and keeping grey-hounds. He openly expresses his abhorrence against the monastic rules and the verses of the holy book that censure such secular pursuits.

Therfore he was a prikasour aright:

Grehounds he hadde as swift as fowel in flight;

Of prikyng and of huntyng for the hare

Was al his lust, for no cost wolde he spare.”

Chaucer was not a reformer. He knew that the world contains good as well as bad people. He like Wycliff and Langlad does not criticize the religious orders. He also portrays the Parson who is piety and we are impressed to read the details about his character. He believes that first, a priest himself should follow the right path and then advise others to follow him so that he may become a role model for others. He is very affectionate, affable, and kind to the poor and the needy and lenient to the repentant sinners. He is always ready to help the downtrodden in all circumstances all the time.

For if a priest be foul, on whom we truste,

No wonder is a lewed man to ruste;

And shame it is, if a prest take keep,

A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.”

 Chaucer as a realist presents before us the pulsating life of the common people. His pilgrims’ talk of “their purse, their love affairs or their private funds.” The vision of the pilgrims is clearly bound to their occurrences within their parish. This is the typical vision of the common people and Chaucer presents it before us in a realistic way. Moreover, he does not show any prejudice or partiality in the presentation of these characters. There are no tints of his likes or dislikes and his personal views in the presentation of these characters. Another quality of Chaucer’s realism is that the allusions used by Chaucer are not of an imaginary world but of a real one. Moreover, the metaphors he uses are not for ornament but for use, and like as possible to the things themselves.

However, there are a few touches of artificiality in “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.” Even then he is so successful in creating them and makes us forget them that it seems as if they were real.

No doubt, Chaucer is a great realist but if we observe minutely, we find two major limitations in his art as a delineator of 14th-century England. First, Chaucer is showing silence about historic events of his age. These events include the Hundred Year War which began in 1338, the Black Death and the Peasant’s Revolt. There is a slight touch of Black Death in the character of Doctor of Physik. “He kepte that he won in pestilence.”The Peasant’s Revolt has nothing to do with in “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.” However, one thing is worth mentioning and that is he mentions it in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” The second limitation of Chaucer as a realist is that he avoids literalism. “Chaucer’s is no kodak-camera realism.”No doubt, the details are real but not perfectly real. We can say that they are very much near reality.  Exaggeration is very common in this realism. For instance, idealism is very clear in the delineation of the Knight, the Ploughman, and the Parson. The characters are too good to be literally possible. However, whatever the critics think of Chaucer as a realist, regardless of his two major limitations, he is all times a great realist. We fully agree with a critic who observes, “Chaucer is a realist, yet he is not a literal transcriber of reality.”

To sum up, we can say that Chaucer is a realist of high rank because his principal objective has always been to portray men and women trustfully and truthfully and to present an exact picture of average humanity with an acute power of observation. He sees things as they are and describes them as he sees them. “Chaucer sees what is and paints it as he sees it.” We can sum up with the remarks of Hazzlit who observes: “There is no artificial, pompous display, but a strict parsimony of the poet’s materials like the rude simplicity of the age in which he lived.