MA English Poetry: Chaucer’s Art of Characterisation

Chaucer flourishes the fantastic colours of his words and paints different characters of his age with minute observation. Indeed, he is a great painter who paints not with colours but with words. Undoubtedly, he has The Seeing Eye, the retentive memory, the judgment to select and the ability to expound. His keen analysis of the minutest detail of his characters, their dresses, looks and manners enable him to present his characters lifelike and not mere bloodless abstractions. His Prologue is a real picture gallery in which thirty portraits are hanging on the wall with all of their details and peculiarities. Rather it is a grand procession with all the life and movement, the colour and sound. Indeed, his characters represent English society, morally and socially, in the real and recognizable types and still more representative of humanity in general. So, the characters in Chaucer’s “The Prologue” are for all ages and for all lands. Though the plan of the Canterbury’s Tales has been taken from Giovanni, Italian poet, Chaucer’s technique of characterization is original and unique. As a result his characters are not only of his age but universal in nature. They are not only types, but individuals. The pilgrims are the epitome of mankind. It is such a veritable picture gallery of the 14th century as the details of their physical appearance, their social status and character are so artistically presented that the whole man or woman come alive before our eyes. Tim Brink wrote:

“We receive such an exact idea of the men he (Chaucer) is describing that we can almost see them bodily before our eyes”

Chaucer is the first great painter of character in English literature. The thirty portraits traced by Chaucer give us an excellent idea of the society at that time. The different pilgrims represent different professionals. For example, the doctor, the sergeant, the Oxford Clerk and the Friar represent certain traits which characterize their respective professionals. The war-like elements are represented by the Knight, the Squire and the Yeoman. The ploughmen, the Miller, the Reeve and the Franklin typify agriculture. The Sergeant of Law, the Doctor, the Oxford Clerk and the Poet himself represent the liberal professions. The Wife of Bath, the Weaver, and the embody industry and trade; similarly the Merchant and Shipman personate commerce. A Cook and the Host typify provisional trades. The Poor Parson and the Summoner represent the secular clergy while the monastic orders are represented by the Monk, the Prioress and the Pardoner. Thus, the characters in the Canterbury Tales are types as well as individual, as each of them represents a definite profession or class of society and portrays certain individual characteristics with all their idiosyncrasies of dress and speech. A.C. Ward asserts:

“Chaucer’s characters are not mere phantoms of the brain but real human beings and types true to the likeness of whole classes of men and women”

Chaucer description of each man’s horse, furniture and array, reads like a page from a memoir. He describes them in the most nature genial and humorous manner. Although, Chaucer’s characters are typical, they also have other features which are not to be found in other members of their profession. Thus, his characters can be distinguished from their colleagues. Because he imparts individual traits to them. These features distinguish them as individuals. For example, the Shipman has a beard; the Wife of Bath is ‘Som-del deef’ and ‘gat-toothed’; the Reeve has long and lean legs, the Miller has “a wart surmounted by a tuft of hair” on his nose, the Summoner’s face is full of pimples and Squire is “as fresshe as is the monthe of May”. Chaucer’s lawyer seems typical of our own day when he says:

“Nowhere so bisy a man as he ther was/ And yet he seemed bisier than he was”

In fact, there is a different method of almost every pilgrim. He varies his presentation from the full length portrait to the thumb-nail sketch, but even in the sketches, Chaucer conveys a strong sense of individuality and depth. Chaucer does not take a dramatic approach, he uses descriptive and narrative approach which suits the theme of The Canterbury Tales. Unlike Wycliffe and Langland, He has broad humanity and sympathy for all the characters, the just and the unjust. We feel a sense of comradeship with Chaucer. They are shown to possess those traits and humors and habits that characterize the men and women of all ages in the world. Their traits are universal, though some of them have changed their positions yet their nature is the same. Chaucer uses the technique of contrast in drawing the portraits of the pilgrims. The good and the bad rub shoulders together. We have the paragon of virtue in the Parson and the Ploughman and monsters of vice in the Reeve, the Miller and the Summoner. Like Shakespeare, Chaucer’s characters are three-dimensional i.e., having length, breadth and depth. For example, the Wife of Bath and the Monk are complex figures. Chaucer has been called an outstanding representative poet of his age because of the typical element in his characterization. So, Dryden says:

“All his pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other, and not only in their inclinations but also in their physiognomies and persons”

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