Why does Chaucer represent the characters in The Canterbury Tales both negatively and positively?

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In writing The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer is presenting us with a cross-section of medieval English society. It's important, then, for him to portray his characters realistically, warts and all. This is what makes The Canterbury Tales such an enduring piece of work, one that still speaks to us today.

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In writing The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer is presenting us with a cross-section of medieval English society. It's important, then, for him to portray his characters realistically, warts and all. This is what makes The Canterbury Tales such an enduring piece of work, one that still speaks to us today.

Although the pilgrims inhabit a completely different world to ours, they still display universal human characteristics, both positive and negative, with which we can all readily identify. A cast of characters containing nothing but the purely good or the totally wicked would soon make the stories rather tedious, to put it mildly. To be human is to have the capacity for both good and bad. And as Chaucer wants to display human nature in all its various facets, it's important for him to show this in his characterization of the pilgrims.

The Canterbury Tales is also a satirical work, especially in its presentation of the corruption and taste for luxury that was a notable feature of the medieval Church. Yet the tone of Chaucer's satire is gently mocking rather than destructive. Although we cannot approve of the shocking cynicism of the Pardoner, for example, as he shamelessly confesses to hawking worthless relics to the perpetually credulous, we cannot help but find him an amusing and engaging fellow. The Pardoner's all-too-human foibles enable Chaucer to make his satirical point more effectively without resorting to a hectoring, didactic tone.

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Let us remember that Chaucer's key intention in writing these tales is to entertain. Therefore he paints the various characters that join together on this pilgrimage in all of their glory, both focusing on the positives and the negatives, which, if we are honest, any audience might find more humorous and appealing. If we examine the General Prologue therefore, we can see the way that Chaucer, who casts himself as the narrator of this piece and as another character on the pilgrimage, is rather ironic in the way that he introduces the various characters, focusing both of their positives and negatives. For example, consider the presentation of the Friar:

He was a noble pillar of his Order,

And was well in and intimate with every

Well-to-do freeman farmer of hsi area,

And with the well-off women in the town...

He was an easy man in giving shrift,

When sure of getting a substantial gift.

We have the ironic contrast of the Friar being "a noble pillar" but then also clearly being out for all he can make from rich people. If you want an example of a character that is presented favourably, consider the Knight:

There was a knight, a reputable man,

Who from the moment that he first began

Campaigning, had cherished the profession

Of arms; he also prized trustworthiness,

Liberality, fame, and courteousness.

This is definitely a character that is spared a lot of Chaucer's mocking commentary, though he is made out to be rather dull and so focused on chivalry that he lacks the flair and colour of the other disreputable characters.

This collection of tales therefore presents both the good and bad side of characters because it sets out to entertain, and I think in a sense it is the "bad" characters that are the most vivid and real and offer the most entertaining stories in some senses.

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