How could Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales be considered a portrait gallery?

Expert Answers
Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Although we have visual depictions of most of Chaucer's pilgrims in various illustrated manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer includes very detailed "portraits" of the pilgrims in the Prologue so that  readers have no problem visualizing the speaker of each tale.  Because each pilgrim is meant to be both a specific individual and a representative of a class of people, Chaucer includes in his narration details about each pilgrim's occupation, appearance, character, and place of residence so that reader's can picture them in the mind's eye, as well as understand their character through description and the tale each one chooses to tell.

For example, the first pilgrim to speak--because he occupies the top level of society within the group--is the knight, who his described as 

A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,/That fro the tyme that he first bigan,/To ridan out, he loved chivalrie,/Truth and honour, fredom and curteisie. (A.ll.43-46

Chaucer provides the reader with the character of an ideal medieval knight for whom "Truth and honour" are important attributes of his inner being.  Equally important is the physical description of the knight:

His hors were goode, but he was nat gay./Of fustian he wered a gypoun/Al bismotered with his habergeoun,/For he was late ycome from his viage. . . .

Because the knight has just returned from one fo the Crusades, Chaucer makes sure the reader "sees" that the knight horse is a fine one but not adorned in any way and that the knight himself is dressed in a plain tunic, with his chain mail completely covered with dirt.  This physical detail is important not only because it allows the reader to visualize the knight but also because the knight's physical characteristics mirror his inner character--he has, because he believes in "Truth and honour" been to fight on Christianity's behalf.

Another character--the wife of Bath--is depicted as follows:

Boold was hir face, and fair, and reed of hewe./She was a worthy womman all hir lyve: Housbandes at chirche she hadde fyve, . . . Gat-toothed was she, soothly for th seye.

Here, we have a physical description--a reddish complexion and a "bold" look--as well as a description of her life, specifically, that she had five husbands.  This, of course, implies a lusty, healthy woman who can outlive at least four men.  That she is a lusty woman we learn from Chaucer's detail that her front teeth had a gap between them.  In medieval beliefs, a gap-toothed person characterized as vain, lustful, bold and given to having sex as often as possible.  In very few words, then, Chaucer gives the reader both a physical description and a glimpse into the wife's character.

Chaucer carries this style through for each of the other pilgrims in such a way that allows us to visualize each one and to understand the essence of each pilgrim's character.



Read the study guide:
The Canterbury Tales

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question