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Write a Critical Analysis of the General Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Paying Special Attention to Character Drawing. Dwell O N Three Characters of Your Own Choice.

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Chaucer is undoubtedly a masterful writer, especially in character drawing. His heroes in
“The General Prologue” are genuinely and full-dimensionally presented. The first time I read the text, it was like watching a “black and white” picture, probably due to the many unfamiliar words in the text, although the copy was in Modern English. After looking up the words, the picture became like of a “high definition” screen, but after mastering the glossary and re-reading the text several times, it turned into 3D visualization plus Dolby surround sound. The images came into life! I could see the meek noble Knight in his “clothes…a bit drab…cotton tunic stained with mud and gore” and also his young handsome son, the Squire, in “his clothes all embroidered like a bed planted full of fresh flowers white and red”. The bridles of the monk’s horses were “jingling on the wind as clear and quite as loudly as did the chapel bell” and the resounding Pardoner’s voice was flowing so smoothly during the offertory.
Necessarily, few words must be said about the set behind the characters’ portrayal. As the spring has unfolded, twenty nine people from almost every kind of walk in England, wend to pilgrimage to Canterbury. Pilgrimage might serve as a special set for displaying characters. According to Peter Brown, pilgrimage might serve both as “therapy of the distance” and as searching of your own self[1]. The same author says that “the saint” had been accommodated in that part of the soul of the ancients, where the layer of their “ego”[2] and the immediate supernatural layer overlapped in the Classical pre-Christian period.[3] Consequently, going to a pilgrimage may serve as a way of self-discovery and consequently a display of characters. Did Chaucer choose the pilgrimage as a plot for his poem with this though in mind? We cannot be sure. The heroes, chosen for discussion are: the Monk, the Pardoner and the Parson.

Chaucer draws the air of his characters in a very clever and amusing way. The Monk is “broad in the beam”; with face “all smeared in butter”; his “bald head shone like a mirror on top”; his eyes “rolled around his head”. He looks so real before the reader’s eyes. But he might and do serve as a collective figure of his class. As we can see from the quotations, Chaucer uses comparisons very skillfully. The ironic manner in which the writer reveals the Monk’s philosophy is also very comical. “The rules of Saints Maurus and Benedict…This modern monk he let these old things pass…Why should he drive himself mad with study. Pouring over a dull book in his cell?” Chaucer reveals the Monk as vain and hypocritical. He is supposed to have elevated spiritual life, to be humble and to be spending his time praying for salvation. But instead of that, we see this monk hunting and thinking for nothing but pleasures. Chaucer’s characters are universal and they still trample the earth – with almost no difference in their appearance and manners. Not long time ago, a monk, who is also “broad in the beam” and “all smeared in butter,” made the bridles of his “horsepower” resound quite loudly. [4]

The next character in view is the Pardoner. Frankly said, I read the text before Chaucer’s autobiography and then I could swear that Chaucer was a contemporary of Martin Luther. Everything sounded so genuine and historically relevant to Luther’s time. It probably means that the author’s own time did not differ very much from the sixteenth century on the one hand, but on the other hand, it also means that Chaucer succeeded in presenting the real life with very convincing personages of his day. The Pardoner has “…the bright glaring eyes of a wild hare” and the author could swear that “he was a gelding or a mare”. Again the comparisons are very entertaining and alive. Chaucer continues with the fact that the Pardoner has just arrived from Rome and has “his wallet is...Brimful with pardons brought hot foot from Rome”. His preaching must have consisted of the later Tetzel’s message "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs." The Pardoner is very talented with voice and teaching skills and very persuasive in selling his pardons. He is “trendy”, sings merrily and “hones his tongue to win as much as he can from the crowd”. Although there are no indulgences nowadays, there are still many pardoners, for example – the oily American “trendy” TV preachers who promise great blessings to the giver.[5] [6] (These are must-see). To be realized better, the Pardoner (and the Monk) must be seen in contrast with the next character – the Parson.

The Parson is a spotless personality in the poem. He represents the ideal for a church minister. “A parish priest, and impecunious, but he was rich in faith and charity, a great scholar of theology.” These very first words in the Parson’s description resemble “The Book of Revelation”: “I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich)…”[7]
On the contrary, the Pardoner and the Monk pertain to another category that is described in the same Biblical book. [8] The author does not say much about the Parson’s appearance perhaps because his inner beauty makes it redundant. The Monk and the Pardoner are antipodes of the
Parson. The Parson would not leave his sheep and go to Saint Paul’s to sing in order to please the rich as the Pardoner does. He is not a hypocrite like the Monk but “He taught, but first he followed it himself.” As mentioned above, the Parson is a good theologian. In contrast, the Clerk,
“our fellow from Oxford” despite the fact he studied hard all the time, he was not presented as a good theologian. The Parson and his brother, the Ploughman, represent the later Protestant morals in England.

Indisputably, Chaucer’s characters are drawn in an alive, amusing and interesting manner. They breathe, walk and talk. Some people compare “The Prologue” to a picture-gallery and the pilgrims to twenty nine pictures hung on the wall but I believe they are more than that. There are very good comparisons, descriptions, contrasts in the poem. Chaucer also has a very good sense of humour, he uses irony and possesses great talent in drawing characters.

-----------------------
[1] The cult of the Saints, Peter Brown, Sofia 2000, page 113

[2] Аз-а
[3] ibid, page 77
[4] http://dariknews.bg/view_video.php?video_id=149758
[5] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zVKGCdE1tRc
[6] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRG1ObQJLK4
[7] Revelation 2:9
[8] “So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” 3:16-17

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