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The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

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What varying senses of "worthiness" do the Knight, Friar, Merchant, and Wife of Bath represent in The Canterbury Tales? Which are ironic?

Quick answer:

The Knight, the Wife of Bath and the Merchant are all described as worthy in different ways. The Knight has truly served his king and country, is loyal to his friends and God. The Wife of Bath is a successful business woman with a good sense of humor. The Merchant, though well-dressed, and seeming to have money, is really in debt but is pretending that he has everything under control. The Friar's worthiness is not what it seems.

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In Chaucer's Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer provides the reader with a variety of insights into these characters of diverse backgrounds: from the very wealthy to the poor and humble.

In this case, we will look at Chaucer's descriptions of the Knight, Friar, Merchant and Wife of Bath.

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In this case, we will look at Chaucer's descriptions of the Knight, Friar, Merchant and Wife of Bath.

The Knight and the Wife of Bath are truly worthy.

The Knight is a man who has fought for king and country. He has returned from war, and his first thought is to go on this holy pilgrimage to thank God for sparing his life. Beneath his armor we see that the clothing he wears to protect his skin is marred with wear and tear associated with battle, and the condition of his clothes attests to how hard he works.

...from the day on which he first began / To ride abroad had followed chivalry, / Truth, honor, generousness and courtesy...He was of sovereign value in all eyes., / And though so much distinguished, he was wise / And in his bearing as modest as a maid. / He never yet a boorish thing had said / In all his life to any, come what might; / He was a true, a perfect gentle-knight.

Chaucer points out that the Knight does not just say the right things, but the proof of his sterling character can be found in what he does.

The Wife of Bath is a totally different kind of person. She is bawdy (tells jokes and sings songs that are inappropriate for a woman), but she is a good person at heart. This is one of several holy pilgrimages she has made. She has had five husbands and is looking for another. She supports marriage and enjoys it. She is a successful merchant of fabrics, has a very upbeat personality, and while she is larger than life, her heart is good. She is desirous of a sixth marriage, for she is a woman who enjoys sex, but only in the confines of marriage.

The Merchant's description is a brief one. He is dressed very nicely. He is solemn in his demeanor, wishes trade lanes were protected against pirates. He is an expert with all things related to money, however he has also learned to hide the true secret of his financial situation:

This estimable Merchant so had set / His wits to work, none knew he was in debt, / He was so stately in negotiation, / Loan, bargain and commercial obligation.

The Merchant does not let the world see the truth about him—he pretends to be wealthy and implies he is knowledgeable and successful, but he is in debt. He helps no one: having money and keeping it is everything. He is unworthy.

The Friar (unworthy) represents those of the Church's clergy who Chaucer believes have stopped serving God. The truth is that the Friar fools around with the young girls and then arranges marriages for them. He will hear a sinner's confession—but for a price.

He is a Limiter, a begging friar, but he makes more than a beggar. The more people give him, the more he forgives them. He is more familiar with bars and barmaids, than the poor he is supposed to serve: lepers, beggars, etc. Rather than praying, people should give him silver. For the woman without shoes, he take her last coin. He settles arguments for a fee. He has time for the rich if they can help him, but no time for those who suffer in his parish.

While the Knight and the Wife of Bath are honest and admired by Chaucer, the worthiness he ascribes to the last two characters is ironic: he may say that they are well-versed in what they do, but they are not honest people. They do only for themselves. Reading between the lines exposes Chaucer's true feelings.

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