Character Analysis in The Canterbury Tales
Chaucer presents all of the characters in the General Prologue in order to set up the tales they tell later in the story. He uses physical descriptions in order to reveal each character’s personality, social rank, and he associates a particular adjective with each character, such as churl or wise, to reveal the character’s dominant personality trait. Since the tale functions as an estates satire, a character’s physcial description and personality serve to represent all memebers of that social class and profession.
The Wife of Bath: The Wife of Bath contradicts all feminine stereotypes from this time. While women were expected to be faithful wives and homemakers, the Wife of Bath is independent and self-possessed. She reveals in her prologue that she has been married five times and is now the head of the house. She confidently asserts that all households should be headed by a woman because men are no match for a powerful female mind. Her tale espouses the conviction that men cannot have a happy marriage until they yield to the sovereignty of their wives.
The Knight: The Knight is a member of the most prestigious class of people on this pilgrimage. He embodies chivalry, honor, courage, and strength. He has won many religious battles; however he remains humble. He embodies the ideal human virtues in an almost hyperbolic way.
The Miller: The Miller is vulgar, offensive, and crass. He has a large stature and an aggressive personality. His tale is comedic and obscene. It contains evidence that he has a grudge against carpenters.
Character Analysis Examples in The Canterbury Tales:
The narrator prefaces his story with a brief description of his companions. Again, the narrator breaks down the barrier between his audience and the text in order to set up the next part of his poem: a long catalogue of descriptions in which he introduces each of his characters.
Here Chaucer's narrator speaks directly to the audience. In breaking down this barrier between the reader and the text, Chaucer positions his narrator as an interpreter or presenter of events. The narrator here suggests that he knows what will come and promises the reader that he will eventually tell them how events took place.
Chaucer uses this term to mean showy. Here again, he juxtaposes the good quality of what the knight possesses and the modesty with which he handles what he possesses. Note that in this repetition and hyperbolic description of the Knight’s greatness there is a hint of irony that suggests Chaucer may be poking fun at the idea of this perfect Knight.
Though the narrator finds little military talent to focus on in his description, he still reveals affection for the squire. The narrator seems especially impressed with the squire’s ability to obey his father.
The narrator highlights non-military talents when he describes the Squire. In juxtaposing the chivalric description of the Knight with this description of his son, the narrator suggests that the squire has few military attributes and is not quite cut out for knighthood the way his father is. In this way Chaucer reveals details about the characters without having to directly state them.
Here the narrator lists basic abilities of a knight rather than impressive characteristics of an exceptional soldier. In pointing out these average traits, the narrator damns the squire with faint praise.
This means that the Squire is wearing a tunic with a red and white cross on it. However, the syntax of this description metaphorically “embroiders” the squire himself with “red and white,” making the squire synonymous with the symbol he wears.
Flanders, Artois, and Picardy are provinces in Northern France. This reference suggests that the Squire has been on military expeditions. However, it also shows that he has not gone as far as his father, the Knight. Whereas the previous description focused on the honor, chivalry, and military prowess of the Knight, this description focuses more on the youth, strength, and beauty of the young squire.
The narrator uses this long catalogue of the Yeoman's clothing and possessions to show that this servant has all the traits of a good yeoman, and by extension that the Knight keeps good company.
In this context "he" once again refers to the Knight. A Yeoman is a servant that is one step above a groom yet below a squire. Chaucer's emphasis that the Knight had no more servants than this one man further emphasizes his humility.
All of the characteristics that the narrator catalogues here are typical of descriptions of noble women. This suggests that Chaucer characterized the Prioress as a noble woman forced into a nunnery in order to create a social satire.
Here Chaucer juxtaposes the Prioress' moral senses, that make her pity trapped mice, with a rather gruesome description of the "roasted flesh" she feeds her dogs. Flesh at this time would have been an extremely fancy meal for a dog, that might have been better used to feed the malnourished poor. This juxtaposition and view of her extremely pampered dogs further demonstrates that the Prioress' moral compass is askew.
Here the narrator focuses most of his description on the Prioress' table manners rather than traits of her religious devotion. Some have suggested that the Prioress' upper class etiquette suggests that she was a daughter of a noble family who was sent to a nunnery when she was unable to get married. In focusing on her upper class upbringing rather than her religious devotion, Chaucer satirizes this social practice.
French was the language of culture and law until about 1300, at which point English displaced it. The Prioress' ability to speak French demonstrates both learning and upper class culture.
"Eglantine" means sweet briar, a type of pink flower. When nuns take their vows they choose new names, generally religious names. However, the Prioress chooses a name that symbolizes beauty rather than religious connotations. This further supports reading her character as social satire.
Because she is a nun, it is odd that her greatest oath is "but" to Saint Eloy, the saint of metal workers and goldsmiths. This oath is out of place for nuns as they weren't supposed to go on pilgrimages or swear oaths. The presence of the oath could suggest that the Prioress' character is meant to be a social satire.
The Monk carries a number of expensive and flashy items with him on his pilgrimage. These possessions not only contradict a monk's vow of poverty, but also suggest that the Monk has taken donations contributed by rich aristocrats to the monastery for his own personal gain.
A "prelate" is a high ranking clergy member that is supposed to act as an example to all other monks. The narrator calls the Monk a "fine prelate" suggesting he is good at his duties. Since he has just presented a man who loves hunting, seems to not care about his vows, and uses money donated to the monastery to buy material possessions, the narrator changes what it means to be a "fine prelate." This suggests that Chaucer uses this character to critique corrupt church practices.
In the beginning of this introduction, the narrator stated that the Monk was a good monk. However, after a description of the Monk's beliefs, he reiterates the statement and follows it with a string of rhetorical questions, each one pointing out the absurdity in the Monk's actions and beliefs. Chaucer's sequencing of lines suggests that this line should be read ironically or sarcastically; the Monk is not progressive but rather defying his calling and vows.
The Monk rejects religious texts that say that monks should not hunt, indulge in food, or leave the cloister. Notice that the Monk's "progressive" disagreement with these religious texts are all told through food metaphors. This could suggest that the Monk is of the body that must eat rather than of the spirit.
In Chaucer's time this word meant two things: personable and virile. Again, these are not traits one would generally assign to a pious monk. However, the narrator states that these qualities make the monk an "able abbot," meaning these qualities make him a good monk. This suggests that the narrator sees all monks as worldly and impious and implicitly acts as a critique of the church.
In these first two lines, the narrator describes the Monk as someone who is allowed to leave the monastery and loved to hunt. These characterizations contradict the typical traits of a monk. Instead, the narrator seems to present characteristics that show church corruption.
This attention to detail about the way in which the Friar speaks suggests that the Friar carefully constructed this attribute. The narrator claims that this lisp makes the Friar's English more sweet, suggesting that he speaks in this way to more effectively seduce those who might give him money. The Friar is therefore not only hypocritical, but intentionally manipulative.
A farthing is a British coin roughly equivalent to a penny. Here, Chaucer demonstrates the full extent of the Friar's amorality: he takes money from everyone, even poor widows who do not even have shoes. The Friar is concerned primarily with money rather than his vocation, and he takes advantage of everyone, rich and poor alike.
Again, the narrator ventriloquizes the Friar's arguments to demonstrate his severe hypocrisy. St. Francis, the founder of the Franciscan Friars, dedicated his life to preaching to lepers and keeping only their company. In making this statement, the Friar demonstrates not only his aristocratic mindset but his defiance of the very order he represents.
This description of the Friar demonstrates that he spends more time in bars and with bar maids than he does helping the sick and the poor. Since he is a friar, and he has vowed to renounce the world and commit himself to preaching to the poor and sick, this description further demonstrates the Friar's hypocrisy.
The narrator quickly turns from his severe criticism of the Friar's religious practices to talking about the Friar's ability to play a musical instrument well. He follows this with a catalogue of the Friar's other attributes, all of which make him good at pleasing others socially and bad at being a Friar.
This means that giving money is a sign that one has confessed and purged one's soul of sin. However, in Catholic Church doctrine, it is not confession and payment for confession that relieves sin but honest repentance for that sin. Here, Chaucer ventriloquizes the Friar's argument in order to demonstrate his corruption and hypocrisy. This corrupt member of the clergy highlights one of the main themes in Chaucer's text of Church corruption.
While sweetly and pleasant seem positive, these characteristics are actually a biting criticism against the Friar. In the medieval era, the ability to give a true confession was directly linked with someone's ability to get into heaven. If the Friar sweetly hears confessions and forgives them pleasantly, then the people confessing are not doing true penance for their sins and will not get into heaven. Thus, the Friar's pleasant demeanor actually makes him harmful; he cares more about retaining his rich friends than purging their souls of sin.
This line serves as a double entendre which suggests that this Friar was intimate with these women both socially and sexually. Notice also that the company he keeps, franklins, rich landowners, and women, must be "worthy," meaning wealthy. This characterization directly goes against the Friar's vow to renounce possessions and material wealth for poverty.
A Flemish beaver hat was a fashionable item of clothing for this time period. It signifies far off exotic lands as the beaver pelt would probably have come from the New World. The Merchant's clothes reveal that he is not only fashionable and wealthy, but that he is involved in trade.
To "gain office" meant to become employed, typically in a church office. Here the narrator connects the Clerk's poverty and hunger with the fact that he has been so busy studying that he has not gotten a proper job.
"Hollow" in this context refers to a hungry or starved look. Both the Clerk and his horse are starving because they are so poor.
In the 14th Century, when The Canterbury Tales is set, England suffered from the Black Death, also known as the bubonic plague, which claimed an estimated 200 million lives. The Cook's leg sore would've been indication enough that he was dying and would likely have infected some if not all of the other pilgrims on this journey before it ended.
This characterizes the sailor as a ruthless victor: whenever he beats someone in battle he forces them to walk the plank rather than showing them "nice conscious" or mercy.
Bordeaux is a province of France that produces wine. Here, the narrator says that the Sailor drank a Bordeaux trader's wine while he slept. This action would endear the sailor to Chaucer's audience as England was engaged in the Hundred Years War against France at the time.
"Pestilence" here refers to the black death that swept Europe in the 14th century and wiped out 30 to 60 percent of Europe's population. People began to accuse physicians of being corrupt during this time period as the remedies they prescribed for the deadly disease repeatedly failed. Chaucer takes up this characterization of the corrupt physician who profits off of misery and cares only for money in his portrayal of the Physician.
The Wife of Bath is an unusual female character for the medieval period in which Chaucer was writing. She ironically claims to be "respectable" all her life while trumpeting her experience with many lovers and husbands. Her story is more about authority and relationships than sex, but in her description and her prologue her marriages and knowledge of love and sex are highlighted.
"Gap-toothed" in this time was a physical trait that suggested a woman was lustful or licentious. This characteristic coupled with her knowledge of "wandering" casts the Wife of Bath as a wanderer, both in terms of location and partners.
Note that the narrator says "either" ear, not both. The original Middle English—"somdel deef"—translates to somewhat or to some measure deaf, meaning that it's not clear exactly how deaf the Wife of Bath is. In this, the narrator is very slyly suggesting that the Wife of Bath will sometimes pretend to be more or less deaf than she really is, depending on the situation. Character RL.11-12.4 RL.11-12.3
Notice that the narrator has called most of his companions the best at their occupations. While most of the other descriptions juxtapose the idea of being the best with qualities that make each character disreputable or repugnant, this description of the Parson seems genuine. Because he is not hypocritical and he follows what he teaches, the Parson stands as the only character thus far who the narrator describes without sarcasm or irony.
Unlike most of the other characters mentioned in the Prologue, the Parson does not seem to care about wealth or appearances. Notice also that the narrator has started with a description of his actions rather than his attire.
In the 1300s peasants and members of the working class wore blue hoods because blue dye was cheaper and more easily accessible. Notice that this description of the Miller differs from previous descriptions of higher ranking characters. Where the narrator focused on details of dress at the beginning of the prologue, his description of the Miller is more concerned with facial features and strength rather than is clothing.
A ram was often a prize given to the winner of a wrestling match. Notice that most of the Miller's prologue demonstrates his strength rather than his wit.
This is a reference to the proverb "an honest miller hath a golden thumb" which means that honest millers are extremely rare. While the Miller described here is said to "have a golden thumb" his propensity to steal indicates that he is not the rare honest miller. Instead, it probably refers to the method by which he triples his grain profits, by using his "golden thumb" to weigh down the scale that measures the weight of grain.
"Coats" here refers to a coat of arms that marked certain families as nobility. The color of "hood" one was allowed to wear also marked their place in society. The Reeve is great at his job, rich for a Reeve, and appreciated by his master, but he is not of the landed gentry class and will never receive "coats and hoods."
Latin was the language of learned men and the only language spoken in the church in Chaucer's time. Speaking Latin was a sign of distinction that signified holiness or learning. However, the summoner here only speaks it when he is drunk and only knows a few phrases in Latin. In this way, the summoner's use of Latin both parodies its social importance and demonstrates the summoner's lack of education and status.
Cherubs are winged beings like angels common in Christian art and iconography. Cherubs have traditionally been depicted as babies or infants with round, rosy cheeks, hence the description of the Summoner as having a red "cherubic" face. In this case it's not a reference to the Summoner's holiness but rather a description of his skin condition.
In this final description of the Pardoner, the narrator seems to move away from his bitting criticism of the Pardoner's hypocrisy to praise his preaching methods. However, in the medieval church, pardoners were not authorized to preach because they were not clerics. The Pardoner only preaches because he is able to make money. Therefore, this description becomes a backhanded compliment that works to compliment the overall picture of the Pardoner as an impious man who exploits the faith of peasants in order to make money.
"Our True Lady" refers to the Virgin Mary. Relics are the physical remains of a saint, holy person, or martyr, or a thing that was believed to be sanctified by contact with this holy person. In the Catholic Church, these items were venerated as shrines that could connect a worshiper directly to a saint. Here, the Pardoner claims to have relics. However, the narrator points out that the items the Pardoner claims are holy are actually mundane household items such as a pillowcase.
A "gelding" is a castrated horse while a "mare" is a female horse. This comparison along with his lack of facial hair and high pitched goat voice work to emasculate the Pardoner. Some critics believe that this line suggests the Pardoner is sexually promiscuous, since sexual promiscuity was seen as making a man effeminate in the Middle Ages. Others believe that this characterization signals the Pardoner's homosexuality. In either interpretation, the Pardoner does not fit the model of a typical religious persona or adhere to church standards of moral conduct for the time.
The medieval church frowned upon men wearing their hair long. This is a sign that the Pardoner is not a holy man that respects the rules of the Catholic Church.
Notice the difference between Emily's prayers and the prayers of Arcita and Palamon. While both male characters are given signs from their gods that they are Emily's one true love, Emily is simply told that her wishes will not be granted and told to go home. It is also interesting how easily Emily accepts this fate.
For the entirety of the Knight's tale, we have only heard Arcita and Palamon's desire for Emily, but never Emily's account of her own fate. This is the first we hear of Emily's desires. Like any noble woman, Emily desires to preserve her chastity. However, unlike a typical woman in a chivalric romance, Emily seems to want freedom more than chastity. In this way, Emily can be seen as an abnormal chivalric character.
Palamon appeals to Venus the god of love rather than Mars the god of war because he believes that love will help him win Emily's favor more than war. This echoes the beliefs of courtly love and suggests that Palamon is a more worthy recipient of Emily's love.
In Greek mythology, Cadmus is the first king and founder of Thebes. Amphion and his twin brother Zethus are credited with building Thebes using magic. Arcita traces his bloodline back to these two great men and finally acknowledges that he is serving his mortal enemy as a squire rather than challenging him as a knight should.
Unlike Arcita who used his freedom to mope in his castle and then return to serve Theseus, Palamon immediately decides to wage war against the king for his dishonorable treatment of the noble knights. Palamon seeks to right the wrong done to his honor rather than pursue the woman.
Notice that when Palamon imagines Arcita waging war against Theseus he believes it will be for Emily's hand in marriage, not to free Palamon, his brother in arms, from prison.
Notice that Arcita here reverses good and bad fortune. He has been let out of prison because he happened to know Pirithous. This should be seen as good fortune. However, because he is unable to see Emily, he feels that he ultimately has bad fortune. He has moved from being in a physical prison to being in a mental prison.
All of Arcite's and Palamon's declarations of love occur before they have even met Emily. She is completely oblivious to their existence, yet they worship her. In this way, Emily is like a goddess, an ideal woman that the two knights both venerate and claim possession over, but cannot access.
Notice that the first introduction to Arcita and Palamon, the two medieval knights, is not as grand as the introduction to Theseus, the chivalrous classic knight. They are wounded and neither alive nor dead. This could suggest that they are not yet fully chivalrous knights and need to embark on an identity quest to realize their full potential.
Theseus's initial reaction to the women is not chivalric. Rather than asking the women how he can help them, he assumes they are envious of him and shames them for their tears. This shows Theseus's prideful nature.
A "churl" is a contemptible, base fellow that is generally associated with crude or sexually explicit behavior. In describing the Miller using this term, the narrator prepares the reader for the story that will follow and gives the reader an explanation for the content of the story. Notice also that the Miller is a character from a low class. His rude story and churlish description aligns this character with the stereotypes of his class.
Remember that in the prologue we learned that the Reeve is also a carpenter. The Reeve's anger here could mean that he identifies with the story that is about to be told.
"Pilate" is an allusion to Pontius Pilate, the man who orders Jesus's crucifixion. The Miller interrupts the Monk, who is comes next in the social order, so that he can tell his story. His failure to remove his hat demonstrates his disrespect for the other pilgrims and the tavern, while his "Pilate" voice suggests that this character is blasphemous. This introduction to the Miller's tale foreshadows the inappropriate and crude tale that will follow.
The Miller faults the carpenter's lack of education for his poor marriage decisions. Cato is a Roman statesman who believed that a man should marry a woman that is similar to him in order to ensure a good marriage. But the carpenter does not know this because he is uneducated.
A "cuckold" is a man who has an unfaithful wife. Here, the Miller seems to be blaming the wife's unfaithfulness on their age difference and the old carpenter's jealously. He even goes on to compare marrying outside one's age group to marrying outside one's social class when he says "a man should wed according to estate." The Miller's ideas about adultery are controversial because he seems to be making a case that justifies the wife's adultery.
A "lout" is an awkward fellow, generally associated with a low bumpkin or clown. In our first introduction to Nicholas we know that he is both rich and foolish. Here the Miller imports characteristics of his class into the lives of the upper class.
The burning of this book is symbolic for the end of her husband's authority. The Wife and her husband have switched roles: she now governs the lands while he dotes upon her. Alison's personal story foreshadows the story that she will tell the pilgrims. However, notice that in her personal story, she need to both use and endure violence in order to gain her authority, while the character in the story does not.
The Wife ends her story with the Knight allowing his wife to make her own decision. This is an early form of our idea of the woman's right to choose, in both sex and marriage. While the Wife is remembered for her liberated relationship with men and sex, the content of her story suggests that these relationship comes from a deep desire to be in control of her own life.
Seneca was a Roman writer and rhetorician who was born into a wealthy family. He lived through three emperors and wrote prolifically. In mentioning Seneca and Biblical traditions, the old woman is not only grounding her argument in authorities, but also demonstrating her education despite her poverty.
The Pardoner juxtaposes the kind, meek old man with this excessively rude response from the rioters. With this juxtaposition, the rioters are seen as both disrespectful and arrogant men. The Pardoner uses this comparison to conflate actions with personality: the rioters are rude to someone so kind because they are morally decrepit people.
Notice that it takes the Pardoner sixty lines to get to his story. Up until this point he has been giving a sermon on vice and moral depravity. Remember that the Pardoner is someone who sells indulgences and was depicted in the General Prologue as an especially heinous person that manipulated people's faith in order to personally profit. The ironic presence of this moral sermon in a story told by an immoral man points again at the hypocrisy within the church.
In the original order of the Canterbury Tales, "The Nun's Priest's Prologue" comes after the "Monk's Tale." The Monk's tale consists of 17 short, tragic stories based on historical events. Though the Monk claims that he has 100 stories to tell, the Knight stops him here because his stories were too sad. This once again establishes the Knight as the arbitrator and leader of the pilgrims, and demonstrates Chaucer's favorable attitude towards him.