How is the Clerk an idealistic character in the Canterbury Tales?

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M.P. Ossa | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Chaucer's Canterbury Tales presents us with characters that directly contrast each other in terms of lifestyle, philosophy, and background. In the case of the clerk, we find that Chaucer strategically places him in between two money-hungry, cold, and calculating men: The Squire and the Law Man.

We know that the clerk is a poor student from Oxford. He dresses quite humbly because of his lack of money. His youth and education have turned him into quite a deep thinker whose philosophy goes against the acquisition of material goods.

The clerk advocates for a conscious and temperate way of life. This is part of his idealism because it is obvious that no other character seems to be in tandem with his characteristics. When he is summoned to tell a tale, he is even mocked about his appearance, and how he looks as pure as a "maiden":

SIR Clerk of Oxenford," our Hoste said,
"Ye ride as still and coy, as doth a maid
That were new spoused, sitting at the board:
This day I heard not of your tongue a word.
I trow ye study about some sophime:* *sophism
But Solomon saith, every thing hath time.
For Godde's sake, be of *better cheer,* *livelier mien*
It is no time for to study here.
Tell us some merry tale, by your fay;* *faith
For what man that is entered in a play,
He needes must unto that play assent.
But preache not, as friars do in Lent,
To make us for our olde sinnes weep,
Nor that thy tale make us not to sleep.

The reader already can notice that the clerk embodies the characteristics of a philosopher, for which reason they ask him not to preach, nor to try and make them become better people.

However, he clerk tells a story in which he criticizes the attitudes of men toward their wives while mentioning the huge gap between the social classes. He claims that all women, such as the character of his story, Grisellda, have the right to live happily, no matter who they are. The clerk does admire the lifestyle of the Wife of Bath because she is willing to live for her own interests first, instead of submitting herself to the whims of the typical Medieval husband. This is also what makes him philosophical and idealistic: He cuts with the typical believes of the day (such as the need for a wife to be submissive), and tells the story of Griselda as a way to symbolize how ridiculous the idea of "the suffering wife" should look in the eyes of men.