Chaucer's humor is devoid of spite and malice; discuss with reference to the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer is considered by many to be a man of multiple firsts: "father of the short story," "father of poetry," and (for some) "father of literature." Influenced by others, Chaucer's work has a refreshing originality.
Chaucer has also been referred to as a student of human nature, evident in the details he offers not just with regard to the appearance of the pilgrims in the Prologue, but also in terms of their behavior.
Chaucer was able to move through a large cross-section of the medieval social strata: he interacted with the peasants, as well as the aristocracy and the emerging middle class (landowners, tradesmen, etc.). He held several positions, including the Controller of the Custom in London, working under the direction of his patron, John of Gaunt. At one point his living quarters were built into the wall that encircled London above the gate to the city. Here he saw the comings and goings of all kinds of people, even witnessing the Peasants' Rebellion of 1381.
His diplomatic duties allowed him, among other things, to interact with members of the clergy. All the while, Chaucer studied the attitudes and behaviors of each group.
Students...can appreciate the author’s technique in capturing the variations of human temperament and behavior.
Acknowledging Chaucer's gifts of writing and observation, it is little wonder that he was able to successfully share an intimate view of men and women of the Middle Ages. Chaucer was an astute observer, but he does not criticize his characters. He shares his observations and lets the reader "pass judgment." Chaucer was...
...humane, tolerant and amused by his fellow human beings[, he] shows a profound understanding of human motivation, and comments—sometimes seriously, sometimes humorously...
In terms of sharing his opinions, Chaucer's...
...tone ranges from comic to ironic to satirical, but always he reveals himself as a genial and warm-hearted person who has sympathy for his fellow human beings.
In refraining from judging his characters, Chaucer is able to avoid a "preachy" tone. The audience can be entertained or draw a lesson from his writing—it is their choice.
From his writing, the reader can infer how Chaucer felt about each one. For example, of the Knight he writes:
A knight there was, and he a worthy man,
Who, from the moment that he first began
To ride about the world, loved chivalry,
Truth, honour, freedom and all courtesy. (1-4)
He notes that the Knight has traveled straight from his latest campaign to partake in the pilgrimage without even removing his armor. Chaucer's admiration is evident.
On the contrary, consider the Pardoner—a dishonest member of the clergy. He sells stolen pardons from Rome so he can pocket the money without giving to the Church. (People paid for "forgiveness" from the Church.) And...
...in his bag he had a pillowcase
The which, he said, was Our True Lady’s veil:
He said he had a piece of the very sail
That good Saint Peter had, what time he went
Upon the sea, till Jesus changed his bent. (23-27)
Having survived three plagues and suffering the after-effects, the peasants trusted the Church to care for them; the Pardoner cheats them. However, for Knight and Pardoner, Chaucer allows the reader to draw his/her own conclusions.
Adventures in English Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers: Orlando, 1985.