Character Analysis: The Canterbury Tales

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Adi Davis
AP Lit
Mr. Campbell

“I Can’t Believe I Read this in Middle English:
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.
Perhaps the first dark comedy?”

Throughout The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer seems to question the popularity of courtly love in his own culture, and to highlight the contradictions between courtly love and Christianity, and social casts and convention. Courtly love is the notion that true love only exists outside of marriage; that true love may be idealized and spiritual, and may exist without ever being physically consummated. In the Knights Tale, both Palamon and Arcite fall madly in love at first sight with Princess Emily. They are prisoners kept in a tower cell, and only glimpse the beauty from their barred cell window. Throughout their quest for her love, they undergo harm and torment, a staple of the idea of courtly love. Another example of courtly love is the Squire in the General Prologue, he wishes to be a Knight as his father, but intertwines love and compassion, instead of his fathers brutality and warrior-like notions, toward the occupation. This brings foreword the ironic imagery used in The Canterbury Tales to substantiate these contradictions of the stereotypical Middle English occupations. In the General Prologue, the clothing and physical attributes of the characters are used to showcase the subtle, and sometimes obvious, satirical observations by the narrator. In a sense, the clothes symbolize what lies beneath the surface of each personality. The Physician’s love of wealth reveals itself most clearly to the reader in the rich silk and fur of his gown. The excessive floral brocade on his tunic symbolizes the Squire’s youthful vanity. The Merchant’s forked beard symbolizes his duplicity. The Prioress, though a nun, wears the garb and acts like a highborn lady, and wears a broach with the insignia “Love Conquers All”, seemingly to contradict the idea of a nun’s celibacy. Through the long, and sometimes laborious, descriptions made in the General Prologue the narrator uses imagery to set up the remaining tale to be ironic, and satirical of social class and convention of the Middle English Era. Irony is rampant in this comedic satire, a precursor to the dark comedy of today’s society. The use of irony is the main literary device implored by Chaucer to highlight, and critique social casts and convention. The characters are all divided into three distinct classes, the classes being "those who pray" (the clergy), "those who fight" (the nobility), and "those who work" (the commoners and peasantry). Convention is followed when the Knight begins the game with a tale, as he represents the highest social class in the group. But when the Miller, who represents a lower class, follows him it sets the stage for the Canterbury Tales to reflect both a respect for and a disregard for upper class rules. Each tale is a separate story from one member of the traveling band of pilgrims, although some seem to “quite” each other, which is someone who repays for a service, the service here being the telling of stories. In the case of the Canterbury Tales, a “quite” is when one member of the storytellers purposely follows another person story with something disgraceful or to mock the previous story. “The Millers Tale” follows the Knights Tale, which an example of an overtly satirical version of courtly love as explained above, while the Millers Tale vastly different from the serious tone of the Knights Tale. "The Miller's Tale" is the story of a carpenter, his lovely wife, and the two clerks who are eager to get her into bed. They eventually succeed, but the tale takes, one could argue, a fabliau turn. Chaucer utilizes a literary device called fabliau, which is defined as a short narrative in (usually octosyllabic) verse, between 300 and 400 lines long, its content often comic or satiric. In the Millers Tale the common fabliau of the misdirect kiss is...
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