Chaucer’s Art of Characterization | The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

Geoffrey Chaucer was a keen observer of human nature. He knew human psyche before it became branch of science. “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” is remarkable example of it. He sketches numerous characters in this book. Every character shows Chaucer’s exceptional art of characterization. He creates realistic characters and paints every character with minute details. In fact, he is famous because of two reasons; firstly, he is a realist and secondly Chaucer’s art of characterization is incredible. He combines both these elements through which he creates real characters. We believe in his stories due to the reason that they they seem real to us.

“Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” contains many wonderful characters. Due to marvelous art of characterization, it is called gallery of different occupations of Chaucer’s era. However, it is wrong to say that this gallery contains just pictures of different human beings; instead we see his characters, talking, laughing and cracking jokes in the way to Canterbury. We feel them and listen carefully their stories. Hardly, we see any poet or writer who has such wonderful power of painting human nature. It is, therefore, no one could surpass him in characterization. He may be the first poet of English literature but he is the best in creating living beings through speech and actions.

Order of Chaucer’s Art of Characterization:

Critics are of the view that Chaucer’s art of characterization is based on following common attributes:

  • He describes appearance of every character.
  • Give detail description of his/her behavior.
  • Define color of his/her belongings.
  • Sketches his/her dress and
  • Discuss his/her sound

However, he does not describe every character in same order. Every time he changes it in order maintains flow of his story.

Major Classes through Characters:

Every class of Chaucer’s era is demonstrated through art of characterization. He presents at least one person from every profession. However, he ignores elite class and lower class of his society. He has not sketched even a single character from these two classes in his book. Following are some classes that he presents in “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”:

  • Chivalry class
  • Class of liberal professions
  • Class of traders/merchants
  • Landed interest
  • Cunning class
  • Middle class
  • Provinces
  • Religious class

Chaucer’s Keen Observation:

Chaucer, in his way to Canterbury, closely observed every character. Possibly, he did not write his book in his way even then detail of every character is worth mentioning. He does not only notice dress of every person but also his style, behavior and his conduct with others. In addition, he observes physical appearance of every character. He observes that “The Prioress” let no morsel drop from her lips, her forehead was as broad as a span and “The Miller”‘s nose was as big as furnace. Besides, he also observes bravery of “The Knight” and kindness of “The Parson”. He also observes and cites dishonesty of merchants. Hence, in this way, Chaucer’s keen observation is an addition to his art of characterization.

Chaucer when sees dress of a person, it does not only show his profession but also his nature. He also observe horse and belongings of every character. From Knight’s dress, he idealizes that he is a brave person because he finds marks of his armor in his dress. Worn clothes of “Clerk of Oxford” reveal that he prefers books on clothes. Similarly, “The Parson’s” simple clothes reveal his straightforward nature. Chaucer has observed every single thing in each character and mentions it in his book “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”. He shows us same realistic image that he himself once observed in his way to Canterbury.

Chaucer’s Balanced Art of Characterization:

Chaucer balances his book by presenting characters in contrast to each other. On one hand, he shows corruption of his society but on the other hand balances it by showing good and honest persons. He shows us morally and physically corrupt religious class. At the same time he portrays such characters who are kind and good. For instance, “The Summoner” and “The Pardoner” are two corrupt persons who belong to religious class but “The Parson” and “The Clerk” are kind and honest. “The Parson” is the most kind person of “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”. Chaucer’s art of realism and characterization can be witnessed in this context. He has not given his biased opinions. If he shows goodness of his society then at the same time shows badness through different characters too.

Not only the religious class has been put in juxtaposition by the poet but also the other persons of his era. “Wife of Bath” is compared with “The Prioress”. Likewise, men of prayer balance men of war and merchants balance the labors. In this way, we witness Chaucer’s balanced art of characterization in “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”.

Moving Characterization:

Chaucer’s art of characterization is praiseworthy. His characters are not still. As mentioned above, they move, talk, laugh, tell stories and crack jokes. When we read Chaucer’s poetry we strike up acquaintance with them due which his characters are as fresh today as they were in his era. His characters do not belong to a Utopian world. They are realistic and living beings. They are like us. We believe in them. When we read their stories we laugh with Chaucer. Thus, “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” is not mere a gallery of still images but a pure imitation of reality.

To cut a long story short, it is true that Chaucer’s art of characterization is commendable. He has presented realistic and extraordinary characters. Such characters have hardly been presented by anyone in the history of English Literature. He may not be a good poet but he is a true artist. He presents universal characters in “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”. They further act and then tell us a story. In this way, Chaucer has blended emotions with every story. His observation of human nature helps him in this regard. In short, Chaucer’s art of characterization is the primary reason behind famousness of “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”.