What are some of the primary features of Chaucer's characterization in The Canterbury Tales?

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scarletpimpernel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer characterizes each of the pilgrims using a similar structure.

1. Apparel--Chaucer's description of each pilgrim in The Prologue often begins with notes about the character's clothing. When introducing the Merchant, Chaucer notes that he has

"Upon his head a Flemish beaver hat; / His boots were fastened rather elegantly. . ." ("The Merchant," 3-4).

These notations about the characters' clothing allow the reader to determine early on which social class the character represents (or hopes to represents) and his or her priorities.

2. Physical Features--At times, Chaucer includes his description of the character's physical features with his or her clothing. For some of the pilgrims, the poet relies upon Medieval superstitions regarding bodily fluids (The Humours) to illuminate a pilgrim's vices. When describing the Cook, the author mixes phrases about his dishes with an image of his sore. The narrator confesses,

"But very ill it was, it seemed to me, / That on his shin a deadly sore had he . . ." ("The Cook," 7-8).

By choosing to give the characters often grotesque or unwanted physical features, Chaucer is able to illuminate quickly and effectively the character's moral nature.

3. Juxtaposition--The poet also uses juxtaposition to demonstrate the hypocrisy found in people from each Medieval social class. The "clerical" characters, such as the prioress and the monk, should be devoted to charity, and yet the prioress relishes fine food and clothing, and the monk--who should have taken a vow of poverty, spares no expense when purchasing horses and greyhounds for hunting ("The Monk," 26-28). Chaucer's choice to position comments about the characters' profession right before snide remarks about their vices enhances his satire of those pilgrims.

Throughout The Prologue, Chaucer is an equal opportunity critic. He includes problematic pilgrims from the noble, merchant, and church "estates" and spares practically no occupation from his satire.