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With reference to The Canterbury Tales Prologue, please explain whether to describe...

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shewa55 | (Level 1) Valedictorian

Posted July 27, 2012 at 2:26 AM via web

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With reference to The Canterbury Tales Prologue, please explain whether to describe Chaucer as realist as well as social reformer or only as a social reformer: "Chaucer was not only a realist but also a social reformer." I am confused.

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

Posted July 29, 2012 at 10:58 PM (Answer #1)

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Let's start with what these terms mean in this context. "Realist" in this context means an author who wrote with realism: depicting accurate and authentic, detailed pictures of how society really was in their time. "Social reformer" in this context means an author who exposes social injustices or ills and agitates for the correction of these, someone who wants to bring about reform of what they see. While Chaucer was a realist in his style of writing, he was not a social reformer.

When you think of Chaucer as a realist, don't be confused with the Realism school of writing that was introduced in the nineteenth century that authors like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Zola, Dickens and Bronte belonged to. This Realism had a strong psychological element to characterization. This means stories were more concerned with why a character did what they did and how they felt and what they thought. These stories were much less concerned with what characters did and to whom and how they did it. Psychological characterization was much more important than plot and action.

Chaucer is considered a realist because he gave an accurate picture of the times he lived in. This applies to the kinds of people, the appearance of people, the occupations of people and the beliefs of people who lived at the same time as Chaucer. It also means that Chaucer described the greatest faults of society along with the greatest glamors. If you look beyond The Canterbury Tales for a minute, Chaucer's other works even give a realistic picture of the upper classes, for example, Troilus and Criseyde, Book of the Duchess and The Parliament of Fowles.

Chaucer is not considered to be a social reformer because while he wrote about social problems he did so with a quiet irony and mild satire that was as much tolerant as it was revealing. Reformers not only depict society realistically, with all its flaws and problems, they also depict the dark side of how these weaknesses affect the human condition and impair human dignity. Chaucer does not do this. He exposes the Summoner and the Pardoner but he does not reveal the dark harm they do in the way that Dostoevsky or Dickens reveal the dark harm. Therefore, Chaucer is a realist; he is not a social reformer.

I feel the most natural thing to do,
Is to picture each of this group for you,
To tell you how they all appeared to me -
What sort they were and what rank they might be,
And what they wore, the clothes they were dressed in; (Prologue, Modern English)

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