What are some elements of realism in Chaucer's "Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales?
It's challenging to think of Chaucer's work in terms of realism, which is a nineteenth-century movement that values portraying things as they are, like describing an objective photograph. Henry James and Gustave Flaubert are relevant examples of realist authors.
Chaucer writes in the fourteenth century, and it's hard to imagine an audience being drawn to that type of story. Chaucer's reading audience was largely courtly, due to his own court connections and the illiteracy of many subsections of fourteenth-century England. (See this site for a qualification of literacy assumptions.)
Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a collection of genres representing the variety of stories told in his day. He invents a vast array of social types to tell these stories, seemingly matching each tale to its teller. In the General Prologue, Chaucer the Pilgrim presents structural irony, which occurs when one has a naive narrator. This narrator thinks all the pilgrims are "worthy," yet, through the descriptions, we find a sliding scale of moral and social value. This irony creates the Estates Satire, a common medieval genre that satirizes people for trying to rise above or below their estate, or for not fulfilling the expected duties of the estate to which they belong. For satire to work, even in this broad comedy, some measure of realistic portrayal must occur. Chaucer deals in stereotypes, but he offers enough distinguishing detail for one to see the pilgrims as uniquely individual or realistic versions of type: the squire curls his hair, the Wife wears red stockings to church, and the Monk has bells on his horse.
Another subtle way that Chaucer may be nudging toward realism is through his matching of tale to teller—though in many instances we are not entirely sure who tells which tale. In the "Knight's Tale," however, we are certain that the speaker is a Crusade-battered fighter. He tells a conventional romance but struggles to do it well. He minimizes some elements (Theseus's wedding, or Emily, or pretty much anything that concerns human love, for instance) while emphasizing others (e.g., war, injustice, submission to duty). His view of life is distinctly dark, as seen in the description of the Temples, and he confuses Providence and Chance at significant moments. Many readers of this tale find common features associated with PTSD—not surprisingly, given his history at some of the bloodiest of the Crusades.
Similarly, the dissonance between the Wife's wildly brilliant and anti-misogynistic Prologue and her tale, which indulges in striking wish-fulfillment, suggests an odd gap that readers are invited to interpret. Like the Knight's own approach to the storytelling task, the Wife's offers elements that point in a very elemental way to a certain psychological realism.
These subtle qualities that reflect essential human foibles may be why Chaucer remains so delightful to read centuries later.