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12/5/11 Lecture on Chaucer's General Prologue


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Inrodcion o "The General Prologe" of The Canterbur Tales
[The folloing i he e of a lece delieed, in pa, in Englih 200, Secion 3, on Ocobe 5, 1998, b Ian Johnston, a Malapina Uniei-College, Nanaimo, BC,
Canada (no Vancoe Iland Uniei). Thi docmen i in he pblic domain, eleaed Ocobe 1998, and ma be ed b anone, in hole o in pa, iho pemiion
and iho chage, poided he oce i acknoledged]
In addressing "The General Prologue to The Caneb Tale" we are dealing with what has long been
recognied as one of the greatest masterpieces of English literature, certainl the finest and most influential
work of fiction to emerge in England from that period we call the Middle Ages. For most literar historians,
English literature begins well before Chaucer's greatest poem, but this particular work marks the start of the
tradition which is still readil accessible in the original language to the diligent reader, even though
Chaucer's Middle English requires the constant help of a glossar.
In this lecture I propose to discuss some important (though relativel obvious) interpretative features of
"The General Prologue," largel with a view to raising some points which will not onl help us to
understand Chaucer's poem a little better but also to hone our literar critical skills. Chaucer's poem is a
particularl useful place to carr out the latter task, because, if we take the time to get familiar enough with
his language to read the poem with some ease, it raises interesting critical problems for those learning about
literar criticism of ancient works.
Kafka Projec Tor 2012
Follow in Fran Kafka' s footsteps to Prague, Krakow & Berlin
12/5/11 Lecture on Chaucer's General Prologue
Befoe ning diecl o he e of he poem, hoee, I old like o a a fe od abo he hioical
em commonl aociaed ih hi poem, he Middle Age. B common ageemen, hi ok i he fine
poem o emege in Englih ding he Middle Age, in pa becae i poide ch a iid nfogeable
look a a ide ocial cana fom ha ime. B ha doe ha em mean?
A Noe on he Tem Middle Age
One migh ell begin b aking "Wh he Midde Age?" Cleal people a he ime did no hink of
hemele a liing beeen o diffeen ime peiod (he hogh of hemele, a ee age doe, a
he mo ecen aial), o hee doe he em come fom? Well, he em Middle Age a applied b
lae Renaiance ie and hioian o efe o he peiod falling e oghl beeen he fall of he
Roman Empie in 410 AD (hen Alaic acked Rome) and he Renaiance. The aial of he lae ha no
clea dae and end o be daed ealie in ohen Eope han in he noh. A conenien (b omeha
mileadingl pecie) dae fo he aial of he Renaiance in England migh be 1485, he dae of he
Bale of Booh Field, hen Richad III, he la of he Planagane king, a defeaed and killed b
Hen Tdo, h iniiaing he eign of he Tdo, hich laed in England nil he deah of Qeen
Eliabeh I in 1603.
The em Middle Age, like o man hioical em applied o an ealie peiod, a delibeael pejoaie.
Thee had been he gea Claical Peiod of Geece and Rome, and no hee a he ondefl eial of
claical leaning, he Renaiance. In beeen a a peiod ieed b man Renaiance hinke a a ime
of elaiel lile achieemen (ih ome ecepion hee and hee), a ime of ignoance, an abence of he
inalable claical inheiance, fedal oppeion, and he idepead poe of he chch. Wih delibeae
conemp, ome ie applied he em The Dak Age o he ealie pa of hi peiod (p o abo he
eleenh cen).
In fac, he Middle Age a a ime of eaodina iali. In he fi fie hnded ea of hi peiod,
Chiiani eablihed ielf hogho Eope, deeloped a comple iniionalied eligion capable of
goening ocie a all leel, minieing o he ick, and dealing ih jdicial dipe; he Chch
hammeed o compomie ih ecla le, an aiocac deied fom he Gemanic ibal com,
and placed Eope' econom on a fim agiclal fondaion (he ok of he monaeie in cleaing he
land i one of he geae ccee of een labo, an aonihing achieemen of he mo effecie
ok foce o cle ha ee podced). Ding hi peiod hee ee man fiece (and ofen blood)
dipe abo Chiian docine, abo he elaie diibion of poe beeen Chch and Sae, and
abo he elaionhip beeen he Chch' immene economic poe and i mini o he poo.
Neehele, fo mch of he Middle Age, life a calm, odel, able, and elaiel popeo. If e
end o emembe he ecee, like he Black Deah and he peecion of heeic and iche (hich i
moe a Renaiance phenomenon, ana), e hold no heefoe foge ha hi peiod eablihed he
bai fom hich ee o deelop he iniion, com, and poe hich felled he amaing epanion
of Eope in he Renaiance and afead.
12/5/11 Lecture on Chaucer's General Prologue
Medieval Christianit
I i paiclal impoan fo moden eade of medieal ok no o make he common b faal eo of
hinking abo he Middle Age, and epeciall abo he Chiian Chch in he Middle Age, a omehing
monolihic, homogeno, and backad. Thee i a common endenc fo inepeienced eade of Chace
o offe ciicim like "Well, in he Middle Age, eeone belieed hi o ha." Sch aemen make no
moe ene han imila genealiaion abo oda o, indeed, abo an ohe ime. Wihin he Chch, a
ihin he ank of moden libeal capialim, hee ee all o of enion beeen adiional
ahoiaian coneaie, adical fee hinke, commniaian iniing on limiing indiidal feedom,
indiidali iniing on moe indiidal feedom, efome aning a bee deal fo he poo and le
mone fo he op beaca, and o on. The majo ok of he Chch a o mainain, in he mid of all
hee enion, a okable ocial commni in he hoand of e mall agiclal commniie
hogho Eope, and in hi aemp i a fo a long ime aonihingl ccefl. If man of he pope
and bihop, like he impeial Caea, lef behind candalo ecod of peonal micondc, neehele
man ee efficien and caing adminiao, and he beacac of he Chch cold ofen ok
eemel ell ih copion a he op, becae i a affed b edcaed and diligen hman being a
loe leel.
Th, i i e, e mileading o make an eeping genealiaion abo he Middle Age (a i i abo
an comple peiod), and o hold a once check an imple in oelf o bing o bea on Chace'
ok an peconceied geneal noion o hae ha, becae he Middle Age happened long ago and i
ala aociaed ih Roman Caholic Chiian hieach, i heefoe can be eail chaaceied and
mmed p ih a ingle pih inigh o logan.
A mch bee idea (and hi applie o all lieae fom he pa o fom cle diffeen fom o on)
i o e all ch peconcepion aide and o ene he ok a if i i decibing a cle ha o hae
ddenl come aco on o ael hogh he foe. If o find ch a cle a all iniging, he fi
hing o do i no o jdge i b o make ome aemp o ndeand i. And ha mean, aboe all ele,
keeping o on immediae ealaie jdgmen a ba nil ch ime a o hae leaned omehing
moe abo ha i going on in ch a cle. If he people hee ae doing hing hich ae diincl odd
o een abhoen b o andad, hen find o h he ae doing hem. Eploe he belief em ha
pomp ch behaio. Find o ha he ale, ha le and iion gide hei ndeanding of he
old, he diffeen aieie of condc hich go on, befoe deemining oo caall j ha he enie
cle i oh. And if one an o be fai o ha cle, one need o be e pecie abo one'
obeaion and cplo abo he jdgmen hich aie o of hem.
The Renaissance
The em Renaiance i applied o he peiod of inellecal and clal hio hich cceeded he
Middle Age. Lieall he em efe o he ebih of claical leaning hich ep aco Ial in he lae
foeenh and eal fifeenh cen, a old claical mancip ee edicoeed, edied, anlaed, and
12/5/11 Lecture on Chaucer's General Prologue
distributed throughout southern Lurope, moing slowly northward throughout the iteenth century. 1he
immediate impetus which launched this reial was the serious threat posed to Lastern Lurope by the
1urkish Muslim orces moing up towards Constantinople and Vienna throughout the early part o this
period ,Constantinople was captured by the 1urks in 1453,. 1he light o Greek scholars with the
manuscripts toward the \est brought into the \est, and especially into Italy, what had been lost long ago,
Greek language and literature. 1he diusion o such learning accelerated rapidly ater the inention o
printing in the 1450's.
But there was more to the Renaissance than just this scholarly reial. 1here was a renewed emphasis on
classical humanism, on the iew that the good lie did not hae to be lied under the constant superision
o the Church within the oten limited restrictions o the small community. 1he increasing interest in
exploration, the growing wealth o the towns, and the rising interest in speculating about the nature o the
earth and the heaens ,oten supported by ambitious central monarchs growing in power, all put pressure on
the static, traditional, communal model which had been the social reality o Lurope or eight centuries.
Chaucer's poem was written late in the ourteenth century, in the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance,
depending on how one wishes to consider the time. And a ew things about the social conditions o the
period are clear rom the picture o society he gies us there. Let me list a ew o them:
lirst, the Church is still clearly a major part o society. About one third o the pilgrims going to Canterbury
are church oicials, and the entire group is celebrating spring by taking part in a traditional Christian ritual,
the pilgrimage to an important holy shrine. In doing so they are giing public testimony to things that are
alued in their society and their lies, just as we would reeal a great deal about our social and personal
alues, i we were to write this poem today by picturing our pilgrim band as containing many people
working or the goernment, all on their way to Disneyland in a charter jet.
Secondly, while none o the pilgrims comes rom the top classes o society, the aristocracy, many o them
are quite rich and sophisticated. In examining them, we are, or the most part, looking at members o the
middle-class ,although the concept o class did not exist at the time,. Some o them hae money, a ew hae
traeled extensiely. 1hey know about good clothes and books and ood. Some ordinary olk hae horses.
\hat we would call the trading and serice industries are well represented by people who would not be out
o place in a Nanaimo mall. And yet we are reminded, too, that the traditional roles o the Middle Ages hae
not yet disappeared.
linally, there is a sense o rising indiidualism among them. \hile the ideals o the dedication to a
traditional Christian communal society are still clearly there, it is equally eident that or many o these
pilgrims, including the Church oicials, the sense o a communal duty is being eroded by a personal desire
or money and the ine things money can buy. In act, there is a strong sense throughout The Canterbur Tales
that this money is somehow a threat to something older and more aluable.
All o these details suggest a society in transition. \e are not here dealing with the ision o the Middle
Ages o a ew hundred years beore, a time when books were ery scarce, traeling much more diicult, and
12/5/11 Lecture on Chaucer's General Prologue
money ,and the good things it purchases, in much shorter supply. I'm going to be going into some o these
points in more detail later. lere I simply want to call attention to the obious act that we don't hae to
read much o the General Prologue to sense that we are not dealing with simple agricultural olk, piously
obedient to their church, and without any knowledge o the world beyond the next illage or o some o the
iner consumer items which make lie more comortable and un.
Chaucer, incidentally, lied beore the inention o printing and the widespread diusion o classical
literature into Northern Lurope. 1hus, although he was well read in lrench and Italian literature and drew
heaily upon certain Continental works and traditions, he did not hae access to Greek literature. \hen he
wrote about 1roilus and Cressida and the 1rojan \ar, he was drawing on medieal traditions o this amous
story, without direct knowledge about Greek ersions in lomer or the tragedians.
The Canterbur Tales: Some Initial General Observations
I hae no intention here o reiewing details o Georey Chaucer's lie ,which are irreleant to an
understanding o the poem and which are more than adequately coered by the Norton introduction,. But
beore looking in detail at the poem, I would like to comment on the oerall plan o his masterpiece, The
Canterbur Tales.
1he General Prologue makes clear that the oerall plan or the work called or our stories rom each
character, two on the way there and two on the way back. 1hat intention was clearly not met. 1he
manuscripts contain work on twenty-our tales, with two o these uninished. Putting these tales together
into what seems to be the most coherent orm is a major editorial challenge.
1he basic structure o the work, as established in the General Prologue, is simple enough and relatiely
conentional. A group o traelers are thrown together and, to pass the time, they determine to tell each
other stories ,in a manner common to all sorts o narraties like the Thousand and One Nights, The Decameron
o Boccaccio, and so on,. Chaucer chooses one o the oldest narratie deices, a journey, in this case a
pilgrimage which includes a wide ariety o social types. On this amiliar narratie ramework, he then
hangs a series o tales in which he can display a number o dierent literary orms ,airy stories, prose
sermons, romance narraties, bawdy tales, animal ables, and so on,. In this way, he has a ready-made recipe
or a wide ariety o personalities and stories. And one o the greatest achieements o The Canterbur Tales
is the richness o it characters and its literary styles.
The Narrator
Linking the episodic nature o the gallery o characters and their stories is the engaging presence o the
narrator, who is a major presence in the poem. Chaucer presents the narrator as one o the pilgrims, a ellow
Christian traeling to Canterbury and meeting the arious characters and hearing their stories. 1his gies his
descriptions the immediacy o a personal narration based upon intimate conersations and direct witnessing
o the dramatic eents which take place upon the way ,like the dierent quarrels among some o the
12/5/11 Lecture on Chaucer's General Prologue
At the same time, howeer, it is quite clear that many o the details we learn ,especially in the General
Prologue, are obiously based upon a perspectie that cannot be simply deried rom a personal encounter.
1he details we learn about all the Knight's achieements, or example, or the details o the \ie o Bath's
behaiour back home in her own church, these are not things that a pilgrim narrator could learn in such
iid detail.
lence, we are dealing with, in eect, two narrators. 1he shits between them are unannounced, and I doubt
i many readers enjoying the poem are at all disturbed by questions about how a pilgrim-narrator could
possibly know so much about people he has just met. 1his, in itsel, is a good reminder that what matters in
reading a poem ,as in iewing a ilm, is not the total absence o logical diiculties o this sort but rather the
skill with which the writer ,or ilm maker, aoids drawing attention to any such inconsistencies. 1he dual
point o iew has the great adantage, o course, o giing the poem the immediacy o a personal narratie
and the wealth o background detail o the sort aailable only to an omniscient narrator where this is a
useul supplement to a portrait or a narratie.
The Geneal Pologe: Some Themaic Conideaion
\hen we irst start reading the General Prologue we are likely to be drawn irst to the richness and ariety
o the gallery o characters. 1hat is, indeed, one o the wonderul things about this poem, as Dryden
obsered, "lere is God's plenty." And we can spend a lot o time, as we hae seen in our seminars,
discussing particular characters in detail. I want to come back to this business o literary criticism as
character analysis ,which may be unashionable in some scholarly quarters but which is still the most ital
contact with narratie ictions or most readers,. Beore that, howeer, I'd like to introduce the notion o a
thematic approach to the General Prologue.
1o approach a work thematically is to consider what ideas or leitmotis co-ordinate its details, how these
ideas are presented, modiied, challenged, and ,perhaps, resoled by the end o the work. 1hematic criticism
will tend to see characterization as primarily important or what it contributes to the complication or
presentation o such co-ordinating ideas.
It's important to stress or all those interested in thematic criticism that works o iction are not
philosophical works. 1hey do not present rational arguments ,although such arguments may exist in them at
times,. 1hus, thematic criticism is not simply a matter o reducing a work to some simple "moral" or prose
summary. \hat matters in thematic criticism is ollowing the way in which a particular idea or theme is
qualiied, complicated, challenged, deepened, resoled, reinorced as one proceeds through the iction. In
some ictions, the thematic dimension will be ery clear indeed ,e.g., in allegories,, in others, it may not
exist at all ,the point o the iction may well be to disqualiy any thematic approach to experience--which,
when one thinks about it, is a theme in its own right,.
1o separate themes rom characterization is, o course, suspect, since the two o them work together
12/5/11 Lecture on Chaucer's General Prologue
inextricably. So what we're talking about here is a matter o emphasis. 1hematic critics tend to get irritated
when all people want to talk about are the minute particulars o character ,see L. C. Knights' amous essay
"low Many Children lad Lady Macbeth" or a classic statement o this objection,, and interpreters who
like to emphasize character criticism tend to get irritated when other interpreters want to turn a narratie
totally into a debate about ideas ,\illiam Lmpson's celebrated study o Paadie Lo in Milon' God
contains a sturdy deence o character analysis as a sound basis or criticism in his spirited attacks on those
who want to turn Milton's poem into a matter o doctrinaire ideas,.
The Opening Senence
So a thematic approach to the General Prologue might begin by ocusing attention on the amous opening
sentence. I want to call attention to some o the details o the opening lines, in order to illustrate some
potentially important thematic considerations and to show how a detailed attention to what's going on in
the language can alert us to what is going to emerge as an important part in the characterization o the
1he irst point to notice about that opening sentence is that it alls into two equal parts, the irst ocusing on
the spring and the second on the holy duty o the pilgrimage. 1he irst hal really stresses the erotic energies
o spring, with words like "engendred", "Inspired," "priketh," "Ram," and so on. 1hese words oten denote
penetration and ertilization, and the moement o the lines and the short owels in some o the words help
to create a sense o erotic energy o a time when nature is so charged with sexual itality that een the birds
sleep with one eye open.
1he second hal o the sentence ocuses on something entirely dierent, the desire o people to gie thanks
to God or haing suried another winter, haing with the help o God and his special saint oercome
illnesses and threats o death. 1he sounds and moements o this part o the sentence is much soter and
Now this sentence holds in perect balance the two primary moties o lie--the erotic dries which come to
us rom spring and which push us orward into newly renewed lie, and the desire or a common religious
experience to thank God or our lie together, something which pulls us to worship. On the basis o these
two motions, the irrational push o Lros and the spiritual pull o 1hanatos ,to use lreudian terms, we can
approach the study o society which Chaucer then depicts or us.
\hat I would like to suggest is that the opening sentence announces a powerul theme which runs
throughout the General Prologue: that there are two essential orces o lie and that what matters is that
they be held in a balance ,as they are grammatically in the opening sentence,. 1his theme, you might think,
is not nearly so explicit as I am suggesting in the opening sentence. But it becomes explicit as soon as we
think about this opening sentence in relation to the irst pair o portraits ,o the Knight and Squire, ather
and son,, a pairing which unites the highest irtues o actie Christianity displayed in the lietime o serice
o the Knight with the exuberant itality o the son, an erotic loe o lie which yet remains in check, so that
12/5/11 Lecture on Chaucer's General Prologue
he knows his duties towards his ather ,as the last detail o the portrait makes clear,.
I we look closely at the irst pair o portraits in the light o the theme suggested by the opening sentence,
then we encounter a standard o human conduct against which we will ineitably compare the later
portraits. \hat is clear about the Knight is that he has led a actie lie ighting on behal o Christianity,
especially against the threat o 1urkish inasion. le has displayed ortitude, courage, truth, honour,
courtesy, and earned a high reputation. \et he remains humble and does not launt his rank in an expensie
exterior or display any sense o superiority. le has just arried back in Lngland and immediately joins the
procession to gie thanks.
lis son, the Squire, shows all the irtues o youth, ull o erotic energy, song, a loe o the ine things o
spring and a commitment to the ideals o chialry, he is a creatie spirit, able to sing, write lyric poetry,
dance, and, in general, celebrate the joy o lie. But, as already mentioned, this has not led him to orget the
respect he owes his ather.
Later in the poem, near the end, we meet another pair, the Parson and the Ploughman. 1hey display irtues
remarkably similar to those o the Knight and the Squire. 1hey are, aboe all, charitable and hard working.
1hey hae dedicated their lies to the serice o their ellow creatures and do not shrink rom sel-sacriice
or danger to stand up to injustice. \hat seems clear is that the energies which drie them through lie ,and
into this pilgrimage, are in harmony with the highest ideals by which the narrator measures human conduct.
1here's an important thematic point to starting the catalogue o pilgrims with an ideal standard and to
reintroducing it near the end. \hat this achiees is to enable us to make moral judgments more easily about
the other portraits. It is clear what the narrator in this poem most admires, he coneys that in these ideal
portraits. In this way, we could claim that a central theme o the General Prologue is an exploration o the
ull range o the moral qualities o late Medieal Christianity as they maniest themseles in the daily lie o
the people.
The General Prologe as an Epic Poem
I we wish to address the ision o lie deeloped in the General Prologue, we can pay tribute to its epic
quality. 1his literary term is usually resered or certain narratie ictions which hold up or our exploration
something more than just a story. 1hey hae a social breadth and a narratie scope which proide a much
wider and all-inclusie canas than an ordinary iction. In reading them, we are exploring, not simply
particular characters in a particular setting, but an entire cultural moment. Lpic narraties, rom lomer
onwards, celebrate ciilization in a particular maniestation, and part o their power and interest comes rom
our sense that an entire way o lie is under scrutiny. Parenthetically, what is curious about epic poems is
that they tend to appear when the way o lie they celebrate is the process o disappearing oreer ,lomer,
or example, is writing about a heroic society a couple o centuries older than him, Paadie Lo appears
when the great Protestant experiment under Cromwell is clearly oer, many o the noels celebrating the
American South come ater the Ciil \ar and the deeat o the Conederate cause,.
12/5/11 Lecture on Chaucer's General Prologue
In that sense, the General Prologue inites us to ealuate a particular society. Like all societies this culture
is under tension. It has a clear sense o alues, what we might call the traditional alues o actie
Christianity, best summed up in the well known Biblical celebration o aith, hope, and charity ,and the
greatest o these is charity,. 1he ideal portraits make it clear to us that the narrator o this poem admires
such qualities more than any others. And the remaining portraits acquaint us with the arious ways in which
these qualities are under threat. lence, reading the General Prologue is a oyage through the ealuation o
an entire society.
Beore moing onto other matters, I'd like to make two comments about the moral ision we encounter.
lirst, by the end o the General Prologue we hae become well acquainted with the seen cardinal irtues
,prudence, ortitude, temperance, justice, aith, hope, and charity, and the seen cardinal sins ,pride, eny,
coetousness, sloth, anger, lust, and gluttony,. And it seems clear that the narrator o the poem is
deeloping the portraits in accordance with the thematic importance o this traditional alue scheme.
Second, and related to the aboe point, is the emphasis on the social basis or irtue. \hat makes people
good or bad Christians, in the world o this poem, is how they treat each other. Virtue is not an abstract
matter o doctrine, a puriication ritual carried out in contemplatie isolation, or a challenge to the
indiidual will. It is thoroughly social, a matter o one's obligations to help others and to rerain rom
mistreating them. 1hat list o irtues and ices I recited aboe are primarily social and cannot be understood
outside o a rich social context. 1his is, as we shall see, in ery marked contrast to the other great Christian
pilgrimage we shall be reading about in Pilgim' Poge.
Comparatie Critical Details
In this respect, you should notice how certain words and details appear rom one portrait to the next. lor
example, we are oten told about a character's attitude to or use o money. And it's worth paying attention
to what each character alues enough to spend money on. 1he Knight's price is his reputation, and he has
paid or a good horse. 1he Parson's gold is his sense o Christian duty ,"i gold rust, what shal iren do",, the
Clerk ,student, spends money on books. 1he Ploughman dutiully gies money to the Church. Other
pilgrims spend money on a wide ariety o consumer goods: clothes, ood, ine liing. low do these people
get their money low do they use their money
In ollowing just this one point, we can see how that necessary balance between one's erotic and one's
religious eelings can be upset, perhaps in some places corrupted. lere it is important to notice how many
o the portraits are o Church oicials, or whom this question is o particular importance. By looking
closely at what the Monk purchases with his money or the tactics used by the lriar and the Pardoner to get
money we see immediately where their particular sense o priorities drie them.
Similarly, we should pay attention to clothes. Sometimes these are quite appropriate to the social unction a
character occupies ,e.g., the Knight and perhaps the Prioress,. At other times, we might wonder. 1he
narrator clearly likes a ine appearance and has a keen eye or good clothes, just as he alues books and the
12/5/11 Lecture on Chaucer's General Prologue
ability to read and write, as well good manners ,courtesy,. But his highest praise is resered, as I hae
mentioned, or those details which enable us to see someone as charitable, that is, as loing his neighbours
more than himsel. So when the words charity or charitable appear we need to be particularly alert to
assessing just what the words mean in this context.
1his business o loe is essential. \hat does each character loe Is this loe a corruption o the spirit In
the Prioress we are not sure. 1he brooch might ery well reer to loe o God ,or the slogan is a common
religious statement,. In the Monk, his loe o God has become a lust or hunting and eating, the lriar's loe
directs him to all the common pleasures. 1he inest thing about the Parson is the perect balance between
his loe or God and or this world. In the Pardoner, by contrast, the loe o God's justice ,o which he is
the agent, and or humanity has become hopelessly corrupted.
\e hae to be careul about assessing the importance o each detail. 1he task asks us to ealuate, not what
we think o the character in question, but what the narrator thinks. low do the details he presents about
each character shape our understanding o how he eels about them \hat emotional pressures is the
language putting on us to understand a particular character in one way rather than another 1he narrator
rarely, i eer, oers an explicit judgment that is not tinged with some irony. But the list o speciic details
deelops a latent judgment in a ery delicate manner that the reader needs to attend to and respect.
Chaucer's Iron
1his sort o assessment is particularly challenging in the General Prologue because o the ironic tone which
perades so many o the portraits. In act, there could hardly be a better introduction to the importance o
ealuating irony than this amous poem. So it is appropriate here to say a ew words about this all-important
critical term.
Irony, considered ery generally, reers to the quality o language to hae dierent leels o meaning, to be
ambiguous, so that we are not entire certain how to interpret a particular phrase or descriptie detail or
action. 1he presence o irony complicates our response because it reeals that what is being described is not
a simple literal act or all to see. It is more complex and layered than that. Irony in language is, as one might
expect, not welcome in certain orms o writing, especially in scientiic and legal writing, where the
unambiguous clarity o clearly deined words is the essence o the prose. In poetry and iction generally,
irony is a writer's stock in trade because it is the surest way to remind the reader that the subject matter o
this text is not something simple and literal, but inherently ambiguous.
low does irony work 1hat's a large subject. But we don't hae to read ery ar in the General Prologue to
see Chaucer's standard technique. le is always setting morally loaded language against actions which do not
lie up to that high praise, thus initing us to see a discrepancy, an ambiguity between the moral language
and the action. lere is a amous example rom the portrait o the \ie o Bath:
She was a worthy womman al hir lie
lusbondes at chirche dore she hadd ie.
12/5/11 Lecture on Chaucer's General Prologue
1he word worth in the irst line sets up a ery approing moral alue judgment, the detail in the second line
undercuts it. Note that that detail doesn't necessarily cancel the approal, but it redirects our attention. \e
hae to wonder about just what the precise nature o the \ie's worthiness consists o. 1he narrator is not
telling us directly, he is initing us to explore the ambiguity in our own reaction. 1he irony does not directly
clariy the nature o the \ie, but it complicates it, initing us to see her in a more complex way. \es, she is
a worthy woman ,a ine person,, but in some ways she might not be as morally worthy as an unambiguous
use o the term might suggest.
Similarly, the narrator tells us that the Prioress is charitable ,ery high praise indeed, gien the importance
o this term established in the earlier portrait o the Knight, and then, to establish that point, tells us that
she weeps i she sees an animal in pain. 1he details add a distinct note o irony to the work charitable. \e
know the literal meaning o the word, but the style is asking us to qualiy our literal understanding with
something more ambiguous. Similarly the lriar is the best beggar in his order. \hat does that mean
Obiously he is a good beggar in the sense that he obtains a great deal o money, but the details o how he
gets his money really qualiy the moral content o the potential moral approal in that word best.
Some o the portraits are clearly not ironic, we are inited to take them as literal portraits o an ideal. I
would argue, as I hae mentioned, that the Knight and the Squire and the Parson and the Ploughman are
such ideals. Perhaps the Clerk is as well. But almost all the rest are ironic portraits o human characters
whose qualities are inherently ambiguous.
Interpreting Iron
lor the literary interpreter the presence o irony is an important challenge, largely because an interpretation
must explore that irony and seek to assess its eects, without being too ham isted, that is, without
resoling the irony too simplistically. I the eect o an ironic portrait is oten thoroughly ambiguous, then
one must acknowledge that and not close o the ironies too quickly. lor example, the portrait o the
Prioress has inited some people either to claim that there is no irony in the portrait whatsoeer ,and thus
she is as ine and elegant a person as one might wish or,, while others hae dismissed her as a
thoroughgoing hypocrite. Both o these reactions, in my iew, deal with the portrait by destroying its most
obious and interesting quality, its elusieness. \es, there are contradictory tendencies in the details, but
,and this is a crucial point, human characters oten consist o contradictory qualities bound up in a single
personality, and one o the unctions o poetry is to explore and illuminate such emotional contradictions,
not to destroy them.
lence, in reading the General Prologue, one has to take care to shape one's response to each character
careully, seeking to deine as precisely as possible our sense o how the ironical details inally add up, what
sort o critical weight we might gie to the presence o irony. One o the obious ways to do this ,something
the poem inites us to do, is to compare the characters with each other. \e might sense, or example, that
the Prioress is clearly not up to the standard o the Knight, but she does seem less corrupt than the lriar,
12/5/11 Lecture on Chaucer's General Prologue
who, in turn, is obiously not as scandalously hypocritical as the Pardoner. Once we start comparing the
characters with the theme o corruption o an ideal in mind, we will learn a great deal about the importance
o making our responses to irony as precise as possible.
In this connection, it might be useul to remember and apply the concepts o sins o omission and sins o
commission. 1he ormer stem rom a ailure to do what one's duty requires one to do, the latter stem rom
actie deeds injuring others directly. And we might want to dierentiate between sins o commission which
are more serious than others. lor example, the lriar commits many sins o commission, but he brings a
certain amount o pleasure and un with him, and his sexual conquests o women, although a disgrace to his
order, are, we are led to beliee, oten well receied. 1he Summoner and the Pardoner, by contrast, actiely
extort money through systematic lies, threats, and a corruption o church doctrine in their sermons.
One inal comment about irony in a style. Oten, the most important debates between interpreters o a
particular work hinge on whether or not they both see irony in the style or, i they do, just what weight to
gie it. Since irony ineitably undercuts the literal meaning o particular words and phrases, its presence or
absence can make a huge dierence. My aourite example o this is Machiaelli's The Prince. My sense is
that this was intended as a thoroughly ironic, een satiric work, but so many people ailed to see the irony,
that the book has been hailed or condemned as a celebration o the political lie totally diorced rom
morality. Debates oer the ending o the Odsse, or Shakespeare's Twelfth Night or Henr V, or Paradise Lost,
some o the most interesting and ital critical debates, hinge precisely on this question o detecting the
presence o irony and ealuating it.
\hen does irony become satire \hat is the dierence between a thoroughly ironic portrait and a satirically
ironic style One way to sort out the dierence is to remember that the purpose o satire is to hold someone
up to ridicule as an example to others. Satire always has something aggressie about it, a desire to point a
inger and say, in eect, "Look how ridiculous this person is." Making readers laugh at the oolishness o
others is the essence o all satire. And irony is the key stylistic technique used to achiee it. All satire
emerges rom the ironic discrepancy between what people think they are or would like to be and what they,
in act, are. 1he challenge to the satirist is to make this discrepancy "witty," so that people laugh at the
But there is an enormous range to satire, and we are not really saying much about a style just by labeling it
satiric. \e need to ealuate as best we can, on the basis o the language, the precise nature o the satire.
1here's a huge dierence, ater all, between a ery good natured, een aectionate joke at someone's
expense and a saagely harsh indictment o the sinul duplicity o a total hypocrite.
1o make un o people's oolishness and to hold them up as satiric targets requires the satirist to put a
certain amount o distance between the target and the reader and to simpliy the potential complexity o the
personality under attack. 1his is clear enough in one powerul orm o satire still common in society, the
12/5/11 Lecture on Chaucer's General Prologue
political cartoon. 1his depends upon distortion, simpliication, and a black and white presentation o the
target as an object worthy o ridicule. 1he current range o satiric jokes about Bill Clinton ,by, or example,
Jay Leno, uses the same technique. \e are not inited to think about how much pain the target might be in
or what psychological pressures might hae prompted the error. 1he more complex the psychological
presentation o character, the less powerul the satire becomes.
1here's a old lrench saying, "1out comprendre, c'est tout pardonner," to understand eerything is to orgie
eerything. But satire is not asking the reader to orgie oolishness but to mock it. And or that to happen,
a certain distance and simpliication are essential.
Now, it's clear that the narrator in the Canterbury 1ales is initing us to laugh at the oolishness o some o
the portraits. In that sense, we can useully talk about a satiric presence throughout the General Prologue.
But as soon as we hae acknowledged that, we would hae to concede that much o this satire is extremely
gentle. 1he narrator seems genuinely to like these people on the journey. le brings us quite close to them
and indicates that he, or the most part, enjoys their company. So the potential o the satire is enormously
muted, to the point where sometimes one can concede that the satiric possibility disappears completely.
lor example, the portrait o the Prioress is clearly ironic. \e are inited to sense ambiguities in her
character, to wonder about what earthly passions might exist beneath the proper attire and the religious
icons. But the narrator is clearly much taken with her ine appearance and seems to like her clothing and the
way she conducts the diine serice. 1here is an aection, een an admiration, or the woman. lence, the
irony deelops little-to-no-satiric energy. \e do not, I think, respond to this portrait with the sense that the
narrator is initing us to mock the woman as a hypocrite.
In other portraits where the irony is considerably stronger and more oert, the attitude o the narrator is
always muting the satiric potential. 1he lriar is obiously a sinner, derelict in his duties, as is the Monk. But
the narrator coneys a liking or these characters and an admiration or some o their qualities. 1his
collapses the distance between the target and the readers and makes the satire, i it is there at all, much
gentler than it might otherwise be. As Paul Baum has remarked, i this is satire, it is satire without
1his mildly aectionate satiric tone ,now you eel it, now you don't, in the General Prologue gies to the
style o this poem its unique quality. 1here's a irm moral ision at work here, and the narrator is not araid
to let us know what he beliees in. At the same time, he has such a genuine liking or people and their
arious silly ways that he is not going to let a censorious judgment come between them. 1his adds a distinct
note o compassion, humour, and sociability to the narrator himsel who, in some ways, emerges by the end
o the General Prologue as the most interesting person on the trip.

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