In The Canterbury Tales, what strategies are used to individualize the characters in Chaucer's General Prologue?

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Susan Hurn | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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Chaucer's band of pilgrims represents a remarkable collection of literary characters, presented to the reader in a generally concise but very effective manner. Chaucer's knowledge of medieval English society, his eye for detail, and his understanding of human nature worked together in the General Prologue to create some truly unique personalities.

Chaucer employed several literary strategies to individualize his characters. For the major characters, he created personal histories and vivid physical descriptions, including their apparel. He also developed these characters by imbuing them with distinct personality traits that set them apart from their fellow travelers.

Another literary device Chaucer employed was to create characters from different English social classes and different walks of life. Numerous characters reflect the organization and workings of the Catholic Church as it existed in Chaucer's time; others represent city life and country life. Chaucer's various pilgrims engage in trades, commerce, law, medicine, education, farming, and military pursuits, to name some of their occupations, in addition to their clerical employments.

By way of example, consider Chaucer's Knight. He has distinguished himself fighting valiantly and well in many foreign campaigns (personal history). He is wise, modest, and never boorish, regardless of the circumstances (personality). The Knight is not "gaily dressed." His tunic is "stained and dark with smudges where his armor had left mark" (physical description). These details set the knight apart from the other pilgrims; he is an individual unlike any of Chaucer's other characters.

Some of Chaucer's characters--like the Haberdasher, Dyer, Carpenter, Weaver, and Carpet-maker are presented with scant detail, while others are developed in far greater detail than the Knight. The dainty Prioress, the worldly Monk, the corrupt Pardoner, the saintly Parson, and the earthy Wife of Bath, to name only a few, are distinct, unforgettable personalities in the General Prologue.

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