Chaucer's narrative art is most prominently displayed and praised in his epic poem The Canterbury Tales.
While many sources cite Chaucer as the father of poetry, he was also keenly observant of those he met, demonstrating that he was also a shrewd student of human nature.
Chaucer held a great many jobs in his life and so was able to move freely not only within the upper class (among royalty), but also with peasants, merchants and members of the clergy. If perhaps cynical in some instances, he had a great appreciation for the diversity of the people he met. Chaucer's love of humor is also included, as is his sense of irony.
The structural device of the pilgrimage allows Chaucer to bring together all sorts of folks that made up medieval society so that even years after his death, the world was able to view a cross-section of society during the Middle Ages.
Chaucer used his descriptive and narrative skill to express a comic vision of humanity undimmed by the passage of six centuries.
One of the reasons Chaucer's characters are so impressive is that he had an uncanny ability to maintain
an air of personal detachment; his appreciation of the individuality of his characters affords an honest and objective account of each of them...at times it is difficult to determine whether he intends to commend or reprimand, so well does he blend satire with faint praise.
While Latin was the language of the Church, and at that time most people used Old English to write, the emerging language of Chaucer's day was Middle English. With little written in that manner, Chaucer worked diligently and created a form of writing that would soon be widely emulated by other writers. Chaucer is sometimes referred to as the father of the English language because his efforts would lay the ground work for modern English.
As seen in The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer wrote poetry, not prose. He mastered the use of rhyming couplets and near-rhyme. However, it is his narrative style that is so impressive.
The premise of The Canterbury Tales is that groups of people from many walks of life come together to travel on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas à Becket (the martyred Archbishop of Canterbury). It was believed that by traveling to a holy place, one could atone for his or her sins. Because it was something practiced by people of all socioeconomic groups, Chaucer is able to present a wide variety of people that would not generally interact with one another. Represented are those highly regarded in the Church, as well as a lowly Parson. The Knight has just returned from war. There are also several merchants represented, including the legendary Wife of Bath, a very colorful character. Something else that makes the story so unusual is that the author includes himself in the story as another person making the pilgrimage.
The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales introduces the main characters. As an organizational element, Chaucer has his characters agree that at the end of each day of travel to the shrine, one member of the group will tell a story. Structurally, Chaucer uses these tales to cleverly allude to many characteristics of the speaker but allows the reader to make his or her own decisions about that person's true nature. In reading between the lines, both in the Prologue and in the Tales, the reader learns a great deal about human nature, medieval society, integrity, goodness, guile, etc. For example, the reader gains new insight into the wretched behavior (greed, self-centeredness, lasciviousness, etc.) of most of the clergy represented in the story—except the Parson, who is a true servant of God.
Consider the Wife of Bath. She is from the town of Bath and she makes beautifully woven cloth.
In the Wife of Bath, Chaucer created one of the great comic characters in literature, larger than life, an imperious feminist, outrageous, but fiercely and somehow admirably resolute.
She is dressed in red and her face is red. She is deaf, is quite wide and has gaps in her teeth. However, she is well-dressed and quite successful as well.
Her kerchiefs were of finest weave and ground;
I dare swear that they weighed a full ten pound
Which, of a Sunday, she wore on her head.
Her hose were of the choicest scarlet red,
Close gartered, and her shoes were soft and new.
Bold was her face, and fair, and red of hue.
She'd been respectable throughout her life,
With five churched husbands bringing joy and strife,
Not counting other company in youth;
But thereof there's no need to speak, in truth. (453-462)
Chaucer describes her as if she stands before him. He employs several devices to bring the Wife alive before our very eyes. His vernacular makes his writing seem casual and friendly: "I dare swear..." There is humor in his exaggeration with regard to the weight of her headdress: "a full ten pound." We can only imagine that her wealth and a desire to be seen has prompted her to wear "hose...of the choicest scarlet red..." Her face is "bold"—she is honest and forthright: she does not mince words, as we will discover when she shares her tale. We discover that she has been married five times and is looking for a sixth husband! She is bawdy with her jokes, with no apology. Our narrator reveals that she did have dalliances in her youth, but since then has behaved properly within the confines of matrimony. Her tale is in keeping with her personal quest for marriage—again.
When it is her turn, the Wife tells a tale of Sir Gawain (one of King Arthur's knights) who is punished for forcing himself upon a maiden. He must search for the answer to a riddle to save his sorry hide from death. Without the answer in a year's time, he will be executed. The question is: What is it that a woman truly wants?
Gawain travels for 364 days and finally meets a crone who will give him the answer, but he must promise to marry her in exchange for saving his life. She provides the answer to the riddle at court, which is: Her way with men in all things, or rather, getting her own way all the time.
Gawain must keep his promise to marry the crone or die. At bedtime He enters the chamber with much trepidation—how can he sleep with such a horrid old woman? At this point, however, she turns into a beautiful, young woman. There are several versions of the tale: they convey a choice Gawain's new wife offers him—does he want a beautiful, young wife who will be unfaithful, or an ugly woman who will delight him behind closed doors, forever faithful? Another version offers him a choice of an ugly wife by day and a gorgeous wife by night, or vice versa.
The common thread to these versions is that Gawain has wisely learned his lesson, and lets her choose whichever she wants to be, thus giving the woman her way in all things.
Chaucer's descriptive details of the Wife allows the reader to envision a woman who does not pretend to be beautiful, but after burying five husbands (the reader can assume) is well-versed in pleasing her man. Her story asks the listeners (the men) which is more important to a man? The introduction Chaucer provides supports the theme of the story she tells, alluding to a frisky relationship in the bedroom if one can overlook a less than perfect appearance.
Chaucer's ability to present such lifelike people without judgment or pretense enables the onlooker to imagine what life was truly like in his day—and to realize that people then were very much as they are today. While we can enjoy his use of humor and appreciate the irony he witnesses, his narrative provides a realistic sharing of information that is not preachy or harsh. The author's slice of life is revealing yet gentle. The final assessment of these characters is left to the reader.
Adventures in English Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers: Orlando, 1985.