What is art of Characterization of Chaucer in the Prologue Canterbury Tales


Chaucer Art Of characterization Pilgrims In The Prologue elaborates, When we study English literature in depth, we come to know that there had been many great writers who had also presented their works of literature by using their excellent and unique art of characterization. Characterization is a word which is originated from the word character and there are the Characters or agents or figures through which an action of drama, novel or any other literary composition or work, becomes alive on the stage.

If there had not been these agents or characters in any drama or novel of any literature of the world then the whole of the action of these mentioned literary works would not have been shaped into a live presentation. For as the matter of Geoffrey Chaucer is concerned, he is next to Shakespeare and the greatest delineate of character in English Literature. Chaucer has such kinds of traits or qualities in his art of characterization which make his art of characterization unique and superb. In his great quality of presenting a wide variety of characters, he has often been compared with Dickens but the fact is different because Dickens had his specialization in presenting odd and abnormal characters while Chaucer’s characters were supremely normal human beings. On the basis of this great quality, he was rightly called the first great painter of character in English Literature. As we know that he introduces thirty pilgrims, representing all types and shades of 14th century society. That’s why his characters are rightly called the greatest characters of their period.

The very quality or uniqueness which strikes our imagination is that the Prologue proves to be a veritable picture gallery. As it has rightly been termed as a veritable picture gallery, or a grand procession; what Chaucer proposes to do in the Prologue is;

‘To telle you all the condition 

Of ech of hem, so as it seemed me.

In other words, it can be said that he wants to delineate the pilgrims before his readers as he himself thinks of them. Another very striking feature of his characterization is that all his pilgrims are so vividly drawn that they create a permanent impression on our mind and their outlines never blur. The details of their physical appearance, their social status and character are so artistically presented before our eyes that the whole man or woman comes alive before our eyes and we find ourselves in a position to examine each character in detail.

It is also said rightly by some critics that Chaucer’s characters are not only types but also individual because each of them is characterized individually, morally and beautifully. But at the same time, other critics of English literature also acknowledge them as individuals as well as types. The corruption of the church is exemplified by the Friar, Monk, Pardoner and Summoner. As we look at the characters of Reeve and Miller, we come to know that both these are individualized by their dishonesty. Their dishonesty is typical of the age. However, none of these characters remains merely a “type”. Now let us we have the glimpses of physical beauty of some of the characters in which first of all we see that Reeve has long and thin legs, the Summoner has a face full of pimples while the Pardoner is made prominent by his lanke or loose yellow strands of hair. All these mentioned typicality of such characters mark them as individual representatives of their own classes.

If on one hand, the Miller, the Reeve and the Cook exhibit coarseness of physical beauty then on the second hand the vulgarity of each is different from that of another. All of these religious characters are equal partners in sharing the corruption of the church. The summoner, the Pardoner, the Friar and the Monk maintain a separate individuality in their specific brand of corruption. In simple words, we can say that though all are busy in in corruption yet the way of corruption being adopted is different.

It is also one of the best traits of Chaucer art of characterization that he always uses a contrast in his characterization. To simplify it, we can say that the good and the bad rub shoulders together. On the one side we see that Chaucer presents a paragon of virtue in the characters of the Parson and the Plougman and on the other side we see the monsters of vice in the characters-of the Reeve, the Miller and the Summoner. The knight is foil to his son. The squire of the Oxford presents his lust for beauty and worldly ornaments but he is at the same time very opposite of the merry, making

monk. In short, we can say that all types of good or bad characters are presented maintaining the distinctive features of contrast.

Though there had been many writers in English Literature who had a great art of vivid description in their art of characterization yet it was Chaucer’s art of vivid description which made him entirely different from those all great writers of the past. It is Chaucer’s power of vivid description which has made his characters superb. While setting the minute and subtle details; he gives a touch here and a touch there and we being the readers or viewers become able to have an overall inner and outer sketch of a whole character. What a more charming lover is there in all English poetry than the young squire?

“He was as fresshe as if the month of May, 

 He sleep Ma more than dooth a nyghtynale, 

With lokkes curulle as they were layed in press “.

These are such kind of subtle touches which shape his characters alive and all of them take the form of humour or irony usually. This was the very quality of Chaucer’s art which was lacking in the art of rhetoricians. The portraits of Friar, Monk, Prioress and the Wife of Bath can be quoted in this regard or point.

The very distinctive quality of his art of characterization is that his approach is an objective one. The element of objectivity is maintained throughout the book. Chaucer portrays his characters objectively, impartially and disinterestedly. In this respect, he has a very close affinity with Shakespeare and Fielding. His broad humanity and sympathies are for all the characters; whether they are noble or vulgar, pious or the sinner, just or the unjust. All this proves that his style is not subjective.

Chaucer also makes use of colours in his art of characterization and there are splashes of colour which arrest the eyes as we have a glance at various portraits. Though these colourful dresses of the characters serve as a distinction between low and the high classes yet we are allured or captivated by the embroidered gown of the squire, the green coat and hood of the Yeoman. The Prioress’ rosary is made of green beads. In addition to all these, we also see the colourful appearances of several characters. The Summoner had brows, balk and a piled beard. In short, it can be stated that Chaucer also depicts or reveals his characters by their colours, dresses and appearances.

Chaucer does not present a character in a quick and rapid manner. He acts just like a painter and depicts a character in a very gradual manner by adding line after line till the image takes clear shape. He does not give all the details at once stretch, e.g. the ‘Wife of Bath‘ is slightly deaf and she thinks that others are also like her. That’s why she thinks that every other person also listens loudly. In addition to this, she has also. a very good taste of wearing gorgeous and colorful dresses, Chaucer also mentions her taste of wearing fashionable dresses including her handkerchief. Then he talks about her experiences of married life and describes her command over experiences in the affairs of love.

Satire and irony are such striking features which uplift the uniqueness of Chaucer’s art of characterization at a very high level.

There is no doubt in saying that almost all the religious characters except the Parson are the victim of mockery and ridicule. Chaucer describes the fashionable dress manners of the Prioress in a very ironic manner. Friar had forgotten his real religious duties and responsibilities and performed many marriages of young women at his own cost. Here, we find Chaucer unfolding and unmasking the greed, immoralities, absurdities and the hypocrisy of various characters.

It is rightly said that Chaucer always wrote about people and not about puppets or in alive characters. He also wrote about the characters as he saw them. We never feel that he is talking about puppets; such as Harry Bailly. It’s Chaucer’s delight in normality that is freek-free; his characters are perfectly life-like. Only the Wife of Bath seems larger and louder than the life, but she is a special case. 

So, we can also say that Chaucer’s art of character painting has won a wide acclaim or appreciation in the Prologue. It has been said that of all the character writers in English Literature from Ben Jonson to Wordsworth, none is so great as Chaucer is. These following words of various critics can vividly and openly state the true great position of Chaucer in the art of characterization. There is an open air atmosphere about his characters’: “His people are always on the move”. Never do they become shadowy or lifeless. They shout and swear, and laugh or weep, interrupt the storyteller, pass compliments, and in general behave themselves, as we might expect them to be in the dramatic circumstances of the narrative.

Having all the pros and cons of above discussion in mind, now, we can say in the concluding remarks that Chaucer art of characterization is much like a novelist, a dramatist and a humorist and he is equal in the lane of both Fielding and Shakespeare. He is really a master of character portrayal in his Canterbury Tales. There is no doubt in saying that he is rightly considered as the supreme narrative poet of his country and his Canterbury Tales is an outstanding and an excellent monument of his genius as a narrator of characters. It is his great art.of. character narration which uplifts his level above from all the other writers of his age. 


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