Chaucer’s Art of Characterization in The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales
Characterization is the method to disclose the personality of a character. The writer has two options by which he discloses the personality of his character. First one is “Direct Characterization”which tells the audience what the personality of a character is and the second one is “Indirect Characterization” that shows things that reveal the personality of a character. Indirect characterization can be done through speech, thoughts, actions, effects of characters on others, and looks.
Characterization is of great significance in the world of literature. It bears the same relation to plot as architecture to the bricks and mortar and though a story which in inferior hands would be crude and improbable, becomes real and life-like. We have studied the greatest writers like Pope, Shakespeare, Milton and Fielding who were perfect in painting their characters. Chaucer is also one of them. He has won world-wide acclaim only because of his art of characterization. Let’s discuss major qualities of Chaucer’s art of characterization.
First major quality of Chaucer’s art of characterization is “Realism.” He is the first great observer and the first great painter of the characters in the English literature. Before Chaucer, the writers were dreaming dreams and weaving stories but “with him is born our real poetry”, says Mathew Arnold. Without any doubt, it can be saif that he is the above all and next to Shalespeare in this art. A critic observes Chaucer’s art of characterization and finds out that Chaucer has “a concentrated brilliance.” He always describes his character as if his eyes had been focusing and noticing every minute detail of his character but he does all this in a casual and haphazard manner. That’s why, some critics find in his casualness “an art which conceals art.” The portrayal of his characters is a real picture gallery in which twenty nine portraits are hanging on the wall showing all their details and specifications. Rather we can say that it is a grand procession having life, movement, colour and sound. No doubt, “Chaucer has the seeing eye, the rentive memory, the judgment to select and the ability to expound.”He very realistically portrays “The Friar.” He is the one who ignores his religious duties. He advises the sinners not to offer prayers or weep to purgate of their sins. Rather he calls for high amount of money from the sinners to absolve of their 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.”
Second quality of Chaucer’s art of characterization is “Humour” which makes his characterization prominent and distinguished. “Chaucer is a born humorist.” His literary works reflect his perfection in the field of humour. In “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales,” he has depicted all the characters humorously. For example, first he talks of the bravery, skill, experience and grandeur of the Knight but later on he tells that the Knight is very gentle in his behaviour and never causes harm to anybody. In the Prologue, the poet says about the Knight: “And of his port as meeke as is a mayde.”(The Prologue. Line # 69)He also skillfully and beautifull presents the Reeve with a touch of humour. Do reed these lines.
“Ful longe were his legges and ful lene,
Y-lyk a staf, there was no calfy-sene.”(The Prologue lines# 609-610)
Third quality of Chaucer’s art of characterization is irony and satire. No doubt, most of the humour is based on comic touches but there are some characters that have touches of irony and satire. But as Chaucer was a man whose heart was full of the milk of human kindness, he never tries to be sharp and bitter in his attitude. Almost all the ecclesiastical characters except the Parson are presented in a mocking style. Her dress and fashionable manners have been presented ironically. Her aristocratic show of manners, pretentions and vanities have been conveyed ironically.
“And sikerly she was of great desport,
And ful plesaunt and amyable of port
And peyned hire to counterfete cheere
Of court, and to been estatlich of manere.”
About the Monk, Chaucer says that he is never ready to follow the conventual rules. He always wears a gold pin which is in the shape of love-knot. He always demands a roasted swan also. “He yaf nat of that text a pulled hen.” The Doctor loves gold especially, “For gold in medicine is a cordial.” The Shipman has been presented ironically and called a good fellow but actually he is not rather he is a rascal. The Franklin’s chief interest is to eat different dishes and to take wine of fine and superior quality. Thus, we can say that Chaucer uses irony and humour as tools to disclose the absurdities, the greed, the immorality and the hypocrisy of the characters.
Fourth quality of Chaucer’s art of characterization is his minute study of human psychology and his mastery over it. His characters have relation with all the ages and climes. Even in this age, we meet these characters with few changes. These changes are in the names and titles but his characters are same forever and ever.
Fifth quality of Chaucer’s art of characterization is the distinctness which he gives to all of his characters. No character has resemblance with any other character depicted in the book. All the characters are different from the other characters. For example, the Miller, the Reeve and the Cook exhibit coarseness, yet they are different from each other in their vulgarity. Even the corrupt members of the church including the Summoner, the Pardoner, the Friar and the Monk are different from one another in their corruption and in this way they maintain their individuality.
Sixth major quality of Chaucer’s art of characterization is the depiction of balanced characters. You can never observe exaggeration in the presentation of these characters. You can also never underestimate them. Chaucer’s Knight is a worthy man but not free of shortcomings. One of the major flaws in his personality is that he neglects his own son who, unlike his father is the representative of the degenerated and deteriorated ideals of chivalry.
Seventh major quality of Chaucer’s art of characterization is that he uses scientific manner when he portrays his characters. He uses this scientific approach to differentiate his characters by means of their functions. It was first time in the history of literature that a writer proved that he was completely aware of the relation between individuals and ideas. At some places, we see that Chaucer uses medical terms to present some of his characters. For example, he uses the term “Sanguine” for the Franklin and “Choleric” for the Reeve.
Eighth major quality of Chaucer’s art of characterization is that he is away from superficiality. He does not depict his characters with supernatural or superhuman qualities. They are totally unaware of this art. They do what they can. They cannot perform wonders which an ordinary man is unable to perform. He is so great painter in the depiction of his characters that he does not portray even his ideals characters far from reality. Two ideal characters portrayed in the poem are the Knight and the Parson but a close look at these characters shows that they closely resemble the characters of the real world. Such people exist everywhere in every clime as they were found in his own age and climate. Dryden also says: “Chaucer’s characters are still remaining in mankind, and even in England, though they are called by other names. For mankind is always the same, though everything is altered”
Ninth major quality of Chaucer’s art of characterization is “Naturalism.” He depicts all his characters so naturally, vividly and realistically that it is easy for a reader to know what the profession of each character is. We see them deeply involved in the daily affairs of their life.
Tenth major quality of Chaucer’s art of characterization is his modernism. In modern poetry, human emotions and dramatic element are considered the part and parcel. In so far as the human emotions are concerned, there is no doubt in the fact that they have been same for thousand years. And in so far as the dramatic element is concerned, we see that there is no use of allegory and personification in his depiction of the characters. The use of dramatic element can be observed in his tales, dialogues, conflict, characterization and settings, etc. No doubt, he has written no drama or a novel but his works contain the elements of both drama and novel. That’s why, he is considered “The grand-father of the English novel”, and “A Complete Dramatist.” A critic remarks: “Chaucer is a modern among the medieval and medieval among the moderns.”
To sum up, we can say without any hesitation and fear of contradiction that like Pope, Shakespeare and Milton, he is the master in the portrayal of his characters and above all he is a realist and delineates his characters as he sees them. His success in the field of characterization is due to many factors. The first of these factors is the range of classes which his pilgrims represent. Second is the compression which is the result of high degree of selection of details. Third is the use of individual details with typical statements and the fourth one is the way in which he combines the elements in different descriptions. All these provide an ample explanation to call him the greatest painter in the field of characterization. We fully agree with the remarks of a critic who observes: “Never before in English Literature had there been anything like this company of real, unidealised, contemporary men and women, and there was to be nothing comparable again until Shakespeare began to write two hundred years later.” (Words: 1735)