In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, 32 characters make the trip to Canterbury. 29 of these are mentioned in line 24 of the “General Prologue.” The narrator joins this group (making 30). The host, Harry Bailey, makes 31. The Canon’s yeoman, who joins the group later, makes 32.
If one had to make a gross generalization about the virtues Chaucer commends and the vices he attacks, it would not be wrong to say that he condemns pride (selfishness and love of self) and that he commends selflessness and love of God. Pride, in Chaucer’s day and beyond, was considered the root cause of all other sins. Pride involved placing oneself and one’s own interests before love of others and especially love of God. By the same token, love of God was considered the most effective antidote to pride. Anyone who loved God truly and deeply would almost automatically love everything else – and everyone else – in the proper way.
The Knight, for instance, is a perfect instance of a character who loves God first and foremost and who therefore provides an exemplary model – a standard by which the other pilgrims can be judged. Little wonder, then, that Chaucer begins with the Knight. After reading about him and his worthiness, it is easy to see how many of the other characters fall short of the example he sets. He is modest, courageous, charitable, kind, and thoughtful, and thus he deserves his famous description as “a verray, parfit, gentil knight” (72).
On the other hand, his son, the squire, seems vain and somewhat immature. He is not an evil character by any means, but he is preoccupied (as young men often are) by the pleasures of the world far more than his father is. The same is true, ironically, of many of the “religious” figures, including the Prioress, the Monk, the Friar, and various others. Most of the characters, in fact, display some sort of selfishness or vanity that makes them targets of Chaucer’s often subtle satire. They are shown to be in bondage, in various ways, to the world, the flesh, and, implicitly, the devil – the three great enemies all Christians in the middle ages were told they had to resist.
In contrast, characters such as the Clerk, the Parson, and the Plowman all provide, like the Knight, examples of worthy behavior in their different ways. The Clerk is devoted to true study, thus using his God-given gift of reason in the proper way. The Parson is perhaps the only religious figure employed by the Church who actually seems to deserve his job, because of his loving commitment to his parishioners. And the Plowman, the Parson’s brother, has a humble social status but is a splendid spiritual example. The narrator says of the Parson that he was always
Living in pees and parfit charitee.
God loved he best with his hoole herte
At all times, though him gained or smerte,
And thanne his neighebor right as himselve. (534-37)
In other words, the Plowman’s love of God is constant (whether he is enjoying good fortune or enduring bad fortune), and his love of God leads him to love his neighbors as he loves himself. This, it would seem, is the basic ideal by which Chaucer measures all his characters and finds many of them sadly lacking.