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Introduction to "The General Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales

[The following is the text of a lecture delivered, in part, in English 200, Section 3, on October 5, 1998, by Ian Johnston, at Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, Canada (now Vancouver Island University). This document is in the public domain, released October 1998, and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged]


In addressing "The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales" we are dealing with what has long been recognized as one of the greatest masterpieces of English literature, certainly the finest and most influential work of fiction to emerge in England from that period we call the Middle Ages. For most literary historians, English literature begins well before Chaucer's greatest poem, but this particular work marks the start of the tradition which is still readily accessible in the original language to the diligent reader, even though Chaucer's Middle English requires the constant help of a glossary.

In this lecture I propose to discuss some important (though relatively obvious) interpretative features of "The General Prologue," largely with a view to raising some points which will not only help us to understand Chaucer's poem a little better but also to hone our literary critical skills. Chaucer's poem is a particularly useful place to carry out the latter task, because, if we take the time to get familiar enough with his language to read the poem with some ease, it raises interesting critical problems for those learning about literary criticism of ancient works.

Before turning directly to the text of the poem, however, I would like to say a few words about the historical term commonly associated with this poem, the Middle Ages. By common agreement, this work is the finest poem to emerge in English during the Middle Ages, in part because it provides us such a vivid unforgettable look at a wide social canvas from that time. But what does that term mean?

A Note on the Term Middle Ages

One might well begin by asking "Why the Middle Ages?" Clearly people at the time did not think of themselves as living between two different time periods (they thought of themselves, as every age does, as the most recent arrivals), so where does the term come from? Well, the term Middle Ages was applied by later Renaissance writers and historians to refer to the period falling very roughly between the fall of the Roman Empire in 410 AD (when Alaric sacked Rome) and the Renaissance. The arrival of the latter has no clear date and tends to be dated earlier in southern Europe than in the north. A convenient (but somewhat misleadingly precise) date for the arrival of the Renaissance in England might be 1485, the date of the Battle of Bosworth Field, when Richard III, the last of the Plantaganet kings, was defeated and killed by Henry Tudor, thus initiating the reign of the Tudors, which lasted in England until the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603.

The term Middle Ages, like so many historical terms applied to an earlier period, was deliberately pejorative. There had been the great Classical Period of Greece and Rome, and now there was the wonderful revival of classical learning, the Renaissance. In between was a period viewed by many Renaissance thinkers as a time of relatively little achievement (with some exceptions here and there), a time of ignorance, an absence of the invaluable classical inheritance, feudal oppression, and the widespread power of the church. With deliberate contempt, some writers applied the term The Dark Ages to the earlier part of this period (up to about the eleventh century).

In fact, the Middle Ages was a time of extraordinary vitality. In the first five hundred years of this period, Christianity established itself throughout Europe, developed a complex institutionalized religion capable of governing society at all levels, ministering to the sick, and dealing with judicial disputes; the Church hammered out compromises with secular rulers, an aristocracy derived from the Germanic tribal customs, and placed Europe's economy on a firm agricultural foundation (the work of the monasteries in clearing the land is one of the greatest successes of western labour, an astonishing achievement of the most effective work force our culture has every produced). During this period there were many fierce (and often bloody) disputes about Christian doctrine, about the relative distribution of power between Church and State, and about the relationship between the Church's immense economic power and its ministry to the poor. Nevertheless, for much of the Middle Ages, life was calm, orderly, stable, and relatively prosperous. If we tend to remember the excesses, like the Black Death and the persecution of heretics and witches (which is more a Renaissance phenomenon, anyway), we should not therefore forget that this period established the basis from which were to develop the institutions, customs, and power which fuelled the amazing expansion of Europe in the Renaissance and afterwards.

Medieval Christianity

It is particularly important for modern readers of medieval works not to make the common but fatal error of thinking about the Middle Ages, and especially about the Christian Church in the Middle Ages, as something monolithic, homogenous, and backward. There is a common tendency for inexperienced readers of Chaucer to offer criticisms like "Well, in the Middle Ages, everyone believed this or that." Such statements make no more sense than similar generalizations about today or, indeed, about any other time. Within the Church, as within the ranks of modern liberal capitalism, there were all sorts of tensions between traditional authoritarian conservatives, radical free thinkers, communitarians insisting on limiting individual freedom, individualists insisting on more individual freedom, reformers wanting a better deal for the poor and less money for the top bureaucrats, and so on. The major work of the Church was to maintain, in the midst of all these tensions, a workable social community in the thousands of very small agricultural communities throughout Europe, and in this attempt it was for a long time astonishingly successful. If many of the popes and bishops, like the imperial Caesars, left behind scandalous records of personal misconduct, nevertheless many were efficient and caring administrators, and the bureaucracy of the Church could often work extremely well with corruption at the top, because it was staffed by educated and diligent human beings at lower levels.

Thus, it is very, very misleading to make any sweeping generalizations about the Middle Ages (as it is about any complex period), and you should at once check any impulse in yourself to bring to bear on Chaucer's work any preconceived general notions you have that, because the Middle Ages happened long ago and is always associated with Roman Catholic Christian hierarchy, it therefore can be easily characterized and summed up with a single pithy insight or slogan.

A much better idea (and this applies to all literature from the past or from cultures different from our own) is to set all such preconceptions aside and to enter the work as if it is describing a culture that you have suddenly come across on your travels through the forest. If you find such a culture at all intriguing, the first thing to do is not to judge it but to make some attempt to understand it. And that means, above all else, keeping your own immediate evaluative judgments at bay until such time as you have learned something more about what is going on in such a culture. If the people there are doing things which are distinctly odd or even abhorrent by our standards, then find out why they are doing them. Explore the belief system that prompts such behaviour. Find out what they value, what rules and visions guide their understanding of the world, the different varieties of conduct which go on, before determining too casually just what the entire culture is worth. And if one wants to be fair to that culture, one needs to be very precise about one's observations and scrupulous about the judgments which arise out of them.

The Renaissance

The term Renaissance is applied to the period of intellectual and cultural history which succeeded the Middle Ages. Literally the term refers to the rebirth of classical learning which swept across Italy in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century, as old classical manuscripts were rediscovered, edited, translated, and distributed throughout southern Europe, moving slowly northward throughout the fifteenth century. The immediate impetus which launched this revival was the serious threat posed to Eastern Europe by the Turkish Muslim forces moving up towards Constantinople and Vienna throughout the early part of this period (Constantinople was captured by the Turks in 1453). The flight of Greek scholars with the manuscripts toward the West brought into the West, and especially into Italy, what had been lost long ago, Greek language and literature. The diffusion of such learning accelerated rapidly after the invention of printing in the 1450's.

But there was more to the Renaissance than just this scholarly revival. There was a renewed emphasis on classical humanism, on the view that the good life did not have to be lived under the constant supervision of the Church within the often limited restrictions of the small community. The increasing interest in exploration, the growing wealth of the towns, and the rising interest in speculating about the nature of the earth and the heavens (often supported by ambitious central monarchs growing in power) all put pressure on the static, traditional, communal model which had been the social reality of Europe for eight centuries.

Chaucer's poem was written late in the fourteenth century, in the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance, depending on how one wishes to consider the time. And a few things about the social conditions of the period are clear from the picture of society he gives us there. Let me list a few of them:

First, the Church is still clearly a major part of society. About one third of the pilgrims going to Canterbury are church officials, and the entire group is celebrating spring by taking part in a traditional Christian ritual, the pilgrimage to an important holy shrine. In doing so they are giving public testimony to things that are valued in their society and their lives, just as we would reveal a great deal about our social and personal values, if we were to write this poem today by picturing our pilgrim band as containing many people working for the government, all on their way to Disneyland in a charter jet.

Secondly, while none of the pilgrims comes from the top classes of society, the aristocracy, many of them are quite rich and sophisticated. In examining them, we are, for the most part, looking at members of the middle-class (although the concept of class did not exist at the time). Some of them have money, a few have traveled extensively. They know about good clothes and books and food. Some ordinary folk have horses. What we would call the trading and service industries are well represented by people who would not be out of place in a Nanaimo mall. And yet we are reminded, too, that the traditional roles of the Middle Ages have not yet disappeared.

Finally, there is a sense of rising individualism among them. While the ideals of the dedication to a traditional Christian communal society are still clearly there, it is equally evident that for many of these pilgrims, including the Church officials, the sense of a communal duty is being eroded by a personal desire for money and the fine things money can buy. In fact, there is a strong sense throughout The Canterbury Tales that this money is somehow a threat to something older and more valuable.

All of these details suggest a society in transition. We are not here dealing with the vision of the Middle Ages of a few hundred years before, a time when books were very scarce, traveling much more difficult, and money (and the good things it purchases) in much shorter supply. I'm going to be going into some of these points in more detail later. Here I simply want to call attention to the obvious fact that we don't have to read much of the General Prologue to sense that we are not dealing with simple agricultural folk, piously obedient to their church, and without any knowledge of the world beyond the next village or of some of the finer consumer items which make life more comfortable and fun.

Chaucer, incidentally, lived before the invention of printing and the widespread diffusion of classical literature into Northern Europe. Thus, although he was well read in French and Italian literature and drew heavily upon certain Continental works and traditions, he did not have access to Greek literature. When he wrote about Troilus and Cressida and the Trojan War, he was drawing on medieval traditions of this famous story, without direct knowledge about Greek versions in Homer or the tragedians.

The Canterbury Tales: Some Initial General Observations

I have no intention here of reviewing details of Geoffrey Chaucer's life (which are irrelevant to an understanding of the poem and which are more than adequately covered by the Norton introduction). But before looking in detail at the poem, I would like to comment on the overall plan of his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales.

The General Prologue makes clear that the overall plan for the work called for four stories from each character, two on the way there and two on the way back. That intention was clearly not met. The manuscripts contain work on twenty-four tales, with two of these unfinished. Putting these tales together into what seems to be the most coherent form is a major editorial challenge.

The basic structure of the work, as established in the General Prologue, is simple enough and relatively conventional. A group of travelers are thrown together and, to pass the time, they determine to tell each other stories (in a manner common to all sorts of narratives like the Thousand and One Nights, The Decameron of Boccaccio, and so on). Chaucer chooses one of the oldest narrative devices, a journey, in this case a pilgrimage which includes a wide variety of social types. On this familiar narrative framework, he then hangs a series of tales in which he can display a number of different literary forms (fairy stories, prose sermons, romance narratives, bawdy tales, animal fables, and so on). In this way, he has a ready-made recipe for a wide variety of personalities and stories. And one of the greatest achievements of The Canterbury Tales is the richness of it characters and its literary styles.

The Narrator

Linking the episodic nature of the gallery of characters and their stories is the engaging presence of the narrator, who is a major presence in the poem. Chaucer presents the narrator as one of the pilgrims, a fellow Christian traveling to Canterbury and meeting the various characters and hearing their stories. This gives his descriptions the immediacy of a personal narration based upon intimate conversations and direct witnessing of the dramatic events which take place upon the way (like the different quarrels among some of the pilgrims).

At the same time, however, it is quite clear that many of the details we learn (especially in the General Prologue) are obviously based upon a perspective that cannot be simply derived from a personal encounter. The details we learn about all the Knight's achievements, for example, or the details of the Wife of Bath's behaviour back home in her own church, these are not things that a pilgrim narrator could learn in such vivid detail.

Hence, we are dealing with, in effect, two narrators. The shifts between them are unannounced, and I doubt if many readers enjoying the poem are at all disturbed by questions about how a pilgrim-narrator could possibly know so much about people he has just met. This, in itself, is a good reminder that what matters in reading a poem (as in viewing a film) is not the total absence of logical difficulties of this sort but rather the skill with which the writer (or film maker) avoids drawing attention to any such inconsistencies. The dual point of view has the great advantage, of course, of giving the poem the immediacy of a personal narrative and the wealth of background detail of the sort available only to an omniscient narrator where this is a useful supplement to a portrait or a narrative.

The General Prologue: Some Thematic Considerations

When we first start reading the General Prologue we are likely to be drawn first to the richness and variety of the gallery of characters. That is, indeed, one of the wonderful things about this poem; as Dryden observed, "Here is God's plenty." And we can spend a lot of time, as we have seen in our seminars, discussing particular characters in detail. I want to come back to this business of literary criticism as character analysis (which may be unfashionable in some scholarly quarters but which is still the most vital contact with narrative fictions for most readers). Before that, however, I'd like to introduce the notion of a thematic approach to the General Prologue.

To approach a work thematically is to consider what ideas or leitmotivs co-ordinate its details, how these ideas are presented, modified, challenged, and (perhaps) resolved by the end of the work. Thematic criticism will tend to see characterization as primarily important for what it contributes to the complication or presentation of such co-ordinating ideas.

It's important to stress for all those interested in thematic criticism that works of fiction are not philosophical works. They do not present rational arguments (although such arguments may exist in them at times). Thus, thematic criticism is not simply a matter of reducing a work to some simple "moral" or prose summary. What matters in thematic criticism is following the way in which a particular idea or theme is qualified, complicated, challenged, deepened, resolved, reinforced as one proceeds through the fiction. In some fictions, the thematic dimension will be very clear indeed (e.g., in allegories); in others, it may not exist at all (the point of the fiction may well be to disqualify any thematic approach to experience--which, when one thinks about it, is a theme in its own right).

To separate themes from characterization is, of course, suspect, since the two of them work together inextricably. So what we're talking about here is a matter of emphasis. Thematic critics tend to get irritated when all people want to talk about are the minute particulars of character (see L. C. Knights' famous essay "How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?" for a classic statement of this objection); and interpreters who like to emphasize character criticism tend to get irritated when other interpreters want to turn a narrative totally into a debate about ideas (William Empson's celebrated study of Paradise Lost in Milton's God contains a sturdy defence of character analysis as a sound basis for criticism in his spirited attacks on those who want to turn Milton's poem into a matter of doctrinaire ideas).

The Opening Sentence

So a thematic approach to the General Prologue might begin by focusing attention on the famous opening sentence. I want to call attention to some of the details of the opening lines, in order to illustrate some potentially important thematic considerations and to show how a detailed attention to what's going on in the language can alert us to what is going to emerge as an important part in the characterization of the pilgrims.

The first point to notice about that opening sentence is that it falls into two equal parts, the first focusing on the spring and the second on the holy duty of the pilgrimage. The first half really stresses the erotic energies of spring, with words like "engendred", "Inspired," "priketh," "Ram," and so on. These words often denote penetration and fertilization, and the movement of the lines and the short vowels in some of the words help to create a sense of erotic energy of a time when nature is so charged with sexual vitality that even the birds sleep with one eye open.

The second half of the sentence focuses on something entirely different, the desire of people to give thanks to God for having survived another winter, having with the help of God and his special saint overcome illnesses and threats of death. The sounds and movements of this part of the sentence is much softer and gentler.

Now this sentence holds in perfect balance the two primary motives of life--the erotic drives which come to us from spring and which push us forward into newly renewed life, and the desire for a common religious experience to thank God for our life together, something which pulls us to worship. On the basis of these two motions, the irrational push of Eros and the spiritual pull of Thanatos (to use Freudian terms) we can approach the study of society which Chaucer then depicts for us.

What I would like to suggest is that the opening sentence announces a powerful theme which runs throughout the General Prologue: that there are two essential forces of life and that what matters is that they be held in a balance (as they are grammatically in the opening sentence). This theme, you might think, is not nearly so explicit as I am suggesting in the opening sentence. But it becomes explicit as soon as we think about this opening sentence in relation to the first pair of portraits (of the Knight and Squire, father and son), a pairing which unites the highest virtues of active Christianity displayed in the lifetime of service of the Knight with the exuberant vitality of the son, an erotic love of life which yet remains in check, so that he knows his duties towards his father (as the last detail of the portrait makes clear).

If we look closely at the first pair of portraits in the light of the theme suggested by the opening sentence, then we encounter a standard of human conduct against which we will inevitably compare the later portraits. What is clear about the Knight is that he has led a active life fighting on behalf of Christianity, especially against the threat of Turkish invasion. He has displayed fortitude, courage, truth, honour, courtesy, and earned a high reputation. Yet he remains humble and does not flaunt his rank in an expensive exterior or display any sense of superiority. He has just arrived back in England and immediately joins the procession to give thanks.

His son, the Squire, shows all the virtues of youth, full of erotic energy, song, a love of the fine things of spring and a commitment to the ideals of chivalry; he is a creative spirit, able to sing, write lyric poetry, dance, and, in general, celebrate the joy of life. But, as already mentioned, this has not led him to forget the respect he owes his father.

Later in the poem, near the end, we meet another pair, the Parson and the Ploughman. They display virtues remarkably similar to those of the Knight and the Squire. They are, above all, charitable and hard working. They have dedicated their lives to the service of their fellow creatures and do not shrink from self-sacrifice or danger to stand up to injustice. What seems clear is that the energies which drive them through life (and into this pilgrimage) are in harmony with the highest ideals by which the narrator measures human conduct.

There's an important thematic point to starting the catalogue of pilgrims with an ideal standard and to reintroducing it near the end. What this achieves is to enable us to make moral judgments more easily about the other portraits. It is clear what the narrator in this poem most admires; he conveys that in these ideal portraits. In this way, we could claim that a central theme of the General Prologue is an exploration of the full range of the moral qualities of late Medieval Christianity as they manifest themselves in the daily life of the people.

The General Prologue as an Epic Poem

If we wish to address the vision of life developed in the General Prologue, we can pay tribute to its epic quality. This literary term is usually reserved for certain narrative fictions which hold up for our exploration something more than just a story. They have a social breadth and a narrative scope which provide a much wider and all-inclusive canvas than an ordinary fiction. In reading them, we are exploring, not simply particular characters in a particular setting, but an entire cultural moment. Epic narratives, from Homer onwards, celebrate civilization in a particular manifestation, and part of their power and interest comes from our sense that an entire way of life is under scrutiny. Parenthetically, what is curious about epic poems is that they tend to appear when the way of life they celebrate is the process of disappearing forever (Homer, for example, is writing about a heroic society a couple of centuries older than him, Paradise Lost appears when the great Protestant experiment under Cromwell is clearly over, many of the novels celebrating the American South come after the Civil War and the defeat of the Confederate cause).

In that sense, the General Prologue invites us to evaluate a particular society. Like all societies this culture is under tension. It has a clear sense of values, what we might call the traditional values of active Christianity, best summed up in the well known Biblical celebration of faith, hope, and charity (and the greatest of these is charity). The ideal portraits make it clear to us that the narrator of this poem admires such qualities more than any others. And the remaining portraits acquaint us with the various ways in which these qualities are under threat. Hence, reading the General Prologue is a voyage through the evaluation of an entire society.

Before moving onto other matters, I'd like to make two comments about the moral vision we encounter. First, by the end of the General Prologue we have become well acquainted with the seven cardinal virtues (prudence, fortitude, temperance, justice, faith, hope, and charity) and the seven cardinal sins (pride, envy, covetousness, sloth, anger, lust, and gluttony). And it seems clear that the narrator of the poem is developing the portraits in accordance with the thematic importance of this traditional value scheme.

Second, and related to the above point, is the emphasis on the social basis for virtue. What makes people good or bad Christians, in the world of this poem, is how they treat each other. Virtue is not an abstract matter of doctrine, a purification ritual carried out in contemplative isolation, or a challenge to the individual will. It is thoroughly social, a matter of one's obligations to help others and to refrain from mistreating them. That list of virtues and vices I recited above are primarily social and cannot be understood outside of a rich social context. This is, as we shall see, in very marked contrast to the other great Christian pilgrimage we shall be reading about in Pilgrim's Progress.

Comparative Critical Details

In this respect, you should notice how certain words and details appear from one portrait to the next. For example, we are often told about a character's attitude to or use of money. And it's worth paying attention to what each character values enough to spend money on. The Knight's price is his reputation, and he has paid for a good horse. The Parson's gold is his sense of Christian duty ("if gold rust, what shal iren do?"), the Clerk (student) spends money on books. The Ploughman dutifully gives money to the Church. Other pilgrims spend money on a wide variety of consumer goods: clothes, food, fine living. How do these people get their money? How do they use their money?

In following just this one point, we can see how that necessary balance between one's erotic and one's religious feelings can be upset, perhaps in some places corrupted. Here it is important to notice how many of the portraits are of Church officials, for whom this question is of particular importance. By looking closely at what the Monk purchases with his money or the tactics used by the Friar and the Pardoner to get money we see immediately where their particular sense of priorities drive them.

Similarly, we should pay attention to clothes. Sometimes these are quite appropriate to the social function a character occupies (e.g., the Knight and perhaps the Prioress). At other times, we might wonder. The narrator clearly likes a fine appearance and has a keen eye for good clothes, just as he values books and the ability to read and write, as well good manners (courtesy). But his highest praise is reserved, as I have mentioned, for those details which enable us to see someone as charitable, that is, as loving his neighbours more than himself. So when the words charity or charitable appear we need to be particularly alert to assessing just what the words mean in this context.

This business of love is essential. What does each character love? Is this love a corruption of the spirit? In the Prioress we are not sure. The brooch might very well refer to love of God (for the slogan is a common religious statement). In the Monk, his love of God has become a lust for hunting and eating; the Friar's love directs him to all the common pleasures. The finest thing about the Parson is the perfect balance between his love for God and for this world. In the Pardoner, by contrast, the love of God's justice (of which he is the agent) and for humanity has become hopelessly corrupted.

We have to be careful about assessing the importance of each detail. The task asks us to evaluate, not what we think of the character in question, but what the narrator thinks. How do the details he presents about each character shape our understanding of how he feels about them? What emotional pressures is the language putting on us to understand a particular character in one way rather than another? The narrator rarely, if ever, offers an explicit judgment that is not tinged with some irony. But the list of specific details develops a latent judgment in a very delicate manner that the reader needs to attend to and respect.

Chaucer's Irony

This sort of assessment is particularly challenging in the General Prologue because of the ironic tone which pervades so many of the portraits. In fact, there could hardly be a better introduction to the importance of evaluating irony than this famous poem. So it is appropriate here to say a few words about this all-important critical term.

Irony, considered very generally, refers to the quality of language to have different levels of meaning, to be ambiguous, so that we are not entire certain how to interpret a particular phrase or descriptive detail or action. The presence of irony complicates our response because it reveals that what is being described is not a simple literal fact for all to see. It is more complex and layered than that. Irony in language is, as one might expect, not welcome in certain forms of writing, especially in scientific and legal writing, where the unambiguous clarity of clearly defined words is the essence of the prose. In poetry and fiction generally, irony is a writer's stock in trade because it is the surest way to remind the reader that the subject matter of this text is not something simple and literal, but inherently ambiguous.

How does irony work? That's a large subject. But we don't have to read very far in the General Prologue to see Chaucer's standard technique. He is always setting morally loaded language against actions which do not live up to that high praise, thus inviting us to see a discrepancy, an ambiguity between the moral language and the action. Here is a famous example from the portrait of the Wife of Bath:

She was a worthy womman al hir live
Husbondes at chirche dore she hadd five.

The word worthy in the first line sets up a very approving moral value judgment; the detail in the second line undercuts it. Note that that detail doesn't necessarily cancel the approval, but it redirects our attention. We have to wonder about just what the precise nature of the Wife's worthiness consists of. The narrator is not telling us directly; he is inviting us to explore the ambiguity in our own reaction. The irony does not directly clarify the nature of the Wife, but it complicates it, inviting us to see her in a more complex way. Yes, she is a worthy woman (a fine person), but in some ways she might not be as morally worthy as an unambiguous use of the term might suggest.

Similarly, the narrator tells us that the Prioress is charitable (very high praise indeed, given the importance of this term established in the earlier portrait of the Knight) and then, to establish that point, tells us that she weeps if she sees an animal in pain. The details add a distinct note of irony to the work charitable. We know the literal meaning of the word, but the style is asking us to qualify our literal understanding with something more ambiguous. Similarly the Friar is the best beggar in his order. What does that mean? Obviously he is a good beggar in the sense that he obtains a great deal of money, but the details of how he gets his money really qualify the moral content of the potential moral approval in that word best.

Some of the portraits are clearly not ironic; we are invited to take them as literal portraits of an ideal. I would argue, as I have mentioned, that the Knight and the Squire and the Parson and the Ploughman are such ideals. Perhaps the Clerk is as well. But almost all the rest are ironic portraits of human characters whose qualities are inherently ambiguous.

Interpreting Irony

For the literary interpreter the presence of irony is an important challenge, largely because an interpretation must explore that irony and seek to assess its effects, without being too ham fisted, that is, without resolving the irony too simplistically. If the effect of an ironic portrait is often thoroughly ambiguous, then one must acknowledge that and not close off the ironies too quickly. For example, the portrait of the Prioress has invited some people either to claim that there is no irony in the portrait whatsoever (and thus she is as fine and elegant a person as one might wish for), while others have dismissed her as a thoroughgoing hypocrite. Both of these reactions, in my view, deal with the portrait by destroying its most obvious and interesting quality, its elusiveness. Yes, there are contradictory tendencies in the details, but (and this is a crucial point) human characters often consist of contradictory qualities bound up in a single personality, and one of the functions of poetry is to explore and illuminate such emotional contradictions, not to destroy them.

Hence, in reading the General Prologue, one has to take care to shape one's response to each character carefully, seeking to define as precisely as possible our sense of how the ironical details finally add up, what sort of critical weight we might give to the presence of irony. One of the obvious ways to do this (something the poem invites us to do) is to compare the characters with each other. We might sense, for example, that the Prioress is clearly not up to the standard of the Knight, but she does seem less corrupt than the Friar, who, in turn, is obviously not as scandalously hypocritical as the Pardoner. Once we start comparing the characters with the theme of corruption of an ideal in mind, we will learn a great deal about the importance of making our responses to irony as precise as possible.

In this connection, it might be useful to remember and apply the concepts of sins of omission and sins of commission. The former stem from a failure to do what one's duty requires one to do; the latter stem from active deeds injuring others directly. And we might want to differentiate between sins of commission which are more serious than others. For example, the Friar commits many sins of commission, but he brings a certain amount of pleasure and fun with him, and his sexual conquests of women, although a disgrace to his order, are, we are led to believe, often well received. The Summoner and the Pardoner, by contrast, actively extort money through systematic lies, threats, and a corruption of church doctrine in their sermons.

One final comment about irony in a style. Often, the most important debates between interpreters of a particular work hinge on whether or not they both see irony in the style or, if they do, just what weight to give it. Since irony inevitably undercuts the literal meaning of particular words and phrases, its presence or absence can make a huge difference. My favourite example of this is Machiavelli's The Prince. My sense is that this was intended as a thoroughly ironic, even satiric work, but so many people failed to see the irony, that the book has been hailed or condemned as a celebration of the political life totally divorced from morality. Debates over the ending of the Odyssey, or Shakespeare's Twelfth Night or Henry V, or Paradise Lost, some of the most interesting and vital critical debates, hinge precisely on this question of detecting the presence of irony and evaluating it.


When does irony become satire? What is the difference between a thoroughly ironic portrait and a satirically ironic style? One way to sort out the difference is to remember that the purpose of satire is to hold someone up to ridicule as an example to others. Satire always has something aggressive about it, a desire to point a finger and say, in effect, "Look how ridiculous this person is." Making readers laugh at the foolishness of others is the essence of all satire. And irony is the key stylistic technique used to achieve it. All satire emerges from the ironic discrepancy between what people think they are or would like to be and what they, in fact, are. The challenge to the satirist is to make this discrepancy "witty," so that people laugh at the hypocrisy.

But there is an enormous range to satire, and we are not really saying much about a style just by labeling it satiric. We need to evaluate as best we can, on the basis of the language, the precise nature of the satire. There's a huge difference, after all, between a very good natured, even affectionate joke at someone's expense and a savagely harsh indictment of the sinful duplicity of a total hypocrite.

To make fun of people's foolishness and to hold them up as satiric targets requires the satirist to put a certain amount of distance between the target and the reader and to simplify the potential complexity of the personality under attack. This is clear enough in one powerful form of satire still common in society, the political cartoon. This depends upon distortion, simplification, and a black and white presentation of the target as an object worthy of ridicule. The current range of satiric jokes about Bill Clinton (by, for example, Jay Leno) uses the same technique. We are not invited to think about how much pain the target might be in or what psychological pressures might have prompted the error. The more complex the psychological presentation of character, the less powerful the satire becomes.

There's a old French saying, "Tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner," to understand everything is to forgive everything. But satire is not asking the reader to forgive foolishness but to mock it. And for that to happen, a certain distance and simplification are essential.

Now, it's clear that the narrator in the Canterbury Tales is inviting us to laugh at the foolishness of some of the portraits. In that sense, we can usefully talk about a satiric presence throughout the General Prologue. But as soon as we have acknowledged that, we would have to concede that much of this satire is extremely gentle. The narrator seems genuinely to like these people on the journey. He brings us quite close to them and indicates that he, for the most part, enjoys their company. So the potential of the satire is enormously muted, to the point where sometimes one can concede that the satiric possibility disappears completely.

For example, the portrait of the Prioress is clearly ironic. We are invited to sense ambiguities in her character, to wonder about what earthly passions might exist beneath the proper attire and the religious icons. But the narrator is clearly much taken with her fine appearance and seems to like her clothing and the way she conducts the divine service. There is an affection, even an admiration, for the woman. Hence, the irony develops little-to-no-satiric energy. We do not, I think, respond to this portrait with the sense that the narrator is inviting us to mock the woman as a hypocrite.

In other portraits where the irony is considerably stronger and more overt, the attitude of the narrator is always muting the satiric potential. The Friar is obviously a sinner, derelict in his duties, as is the Monk. But the narrator conveys a liking for these characters and an admiration for some of their qualities. This collapses the distance between the target and the readers and makes the satire, if it is there at all, much gentler than it might otherwise be. As Paul Baum has remarked, if this is satire, it is satire without indignation.

This mildly affectionate satiric tone (now you feel it, now you don't) in the General Prologue gives to the style of this poem its unique quality. There's a firm moral vision at work here, and the narrator is not afraid to let us know what he believes in. At the same time, he has such a genuine liking for people and their various silly ways that he is not going to let a censorious judgment come between them. This adds a distinct note of compassion, humour, and sociability to the narrator himself who, in some ways, emerges by the end of the General Prologue as the most interesting person on the trip.


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