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Chaucer's irony throughout the Canterbury Tales is contained in his sarcastic tone and satirical characters. Since the poems are written from the perspective of one of the travelers, relating what he say and heard, most of the irony is in the form of verbal irony. Throughout the Prologue, this irony is found in the descriptions of the characters themselves. Chaucer both physically satirizes the characters and exaggerates their personalities. For example, in reading the description of the Friar, we see that granted absolution in exchange for money, and that he "knew the taverns will in every town...better than beggars and lepers and their kind." The describes the Cook as greasy, dirty, and having oozing boils. Even the knight, who is not seen as a negative character, is describe as being as meek as a girl. These types of descriptions are found throughout the Prologue, and makes up the irony of the tales.
Many of Chaucer’s characters in the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales are presented with an ironic twist. Chaucer uses irony to expose the dishonesty and greed that he sees in people who have legal and religious authority and power. Considering the time in which it was written, the Middle Ages, it is a strikingly honest portrayal of man’s propensity for such evil.
The last character presented in the Prologue is the Pardoner. In the Middle Ages a pardoner was a church official who was supposed to administer pardons issued by the Pope to absolve sins. Pardoners were notoriously liable to accept bribes in the granting of such pardons and to cheat parishioners in other ways. Chaucer’s Pardoner did this and also carried with him a collection of fake religious relics that he used to make money (by charging people a fee to view them):
. . . he in one day got himself more money
than the parson got in two months.
And thus, with false flattery and tricks,
he made monkeys of the parson and the people.
The irony comes in how the Pardoner behaves in church. Although he is a cheat, he acts pious in church:
He could read a lesson or a history beautifully,
but best of all he sang an offertory;
The Pardoner puts on a good face, but as Chaucer warns us, that doesn’t mean he is above taking advantage of the less fortunate.
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