So in my last post, “Does Chaucer Suffer from Multiple Character Dis-Order?”, I came to the conclusion that the catalogue style that’s used helps sort out the immense cast.
Well…maybe I lied.
Short story long, the characters, giving there own respectable amount of time to speak/be spoken about makes them really complex. Which just makes things more confusing.
For one thing, nearly everyone is either (a) a hypocrite or contradiction to or (b) extreme exaggeration of their stereotype.
Nearly all the religious figures here are lecherous, flirtatious, greedy, and/or pompous. The oxford clerk is an impoverished bookworm because he spent all of his money on books. The Miller is loud, proud, rude and crude to the highest extent. The Wife of Bath is the original feminist…and yet her primary arsenal is argumentative speech and cunning…and for her husbands a certain “See you next Tuesday”—the weapons usually associated with sneaky women. (Don’t believe me? I direct you to Cersei Lannister, Guinevere, and Lady Macbeth.)
I don’t expect the Wife of Bath to grab the Knight’s sword and start war with her husband, nor do I expect the Miller to go all soft like the Parson. It’s who they are and I like them that way…but does that mean any of these characters are accurate?
Which leads me to the other half of the problem. Chaucer is a snarky narrator.
Quite often, it’s hard to tell whether he’s being sincere or sarcastic…in some cases it could be both. When he talks about the Prioress, is he does he sincerely find her composure delicate or is he making fun of her attempts to act like a courtesan? When he talks about the Friar is he awed that he knows the tavern wenches so well or disgusted by it? When the Wife of Bath is ripping out pages from a book of misogyny is he congratulating her or does he find her ridiculous?
Furthermore, we’re never really sure if he’s telling us the truth, or if what he says are his opinions and fantasies about each character based on their appearance. Is the Oxford Clerk really that poor because of books, or is it because he’s taking care of his mother? Are the guildsmen really dressing up because their wives force them to act above their status or are they actually really pompous?
What really gives it away is that he says: “I told you soothly” (715, General Prologue). Why say you’re telling the truth if we already assume it?
So do I believe him? Hey, it’s his story, let him tell his story (about people who tell stories…with stories in their stories)(See? This goes through so many layers it could be Inception).
And frankly, like I said in my last entry, the stories are interesting and they comment on the characters really well. The fact that Chaucer is kind of a sketchy narrator and the characters have extremely exaggerated or extremely hypocritical characteristics put the tales into context or give them a whole other meaning.
I like that the Miller’s Tale is raunchy and that the Wife of Bath’s Tale is feminist–because that’s who they are. I like that the Pardoner’s Tale is a parable simply because that’s not who he truly is, and so it not only teaches a lesson, but gives insight into what kind of person the Pardoner is. I even like the fact that the Knight’s tale is a boring righteous tale is because that’s who he is–a boring righteous person.
Whether Chaucer means that sincerely or sarcastically is another story entirely.
“How potent is the fancy! People are so impressionable, they can die of imagination.” -Chaucer