In a work of fiction, a writer uses different characters to evolve a story and convey his idea through their personality. Without characters and their development, the story cannot progress. Characters in The Canterbury Tales, represent Geoffrey Chaucer’s idea of love, rivalry and religious corruption in the context of medieval society. Some of the major characters from The Canterbury Tales have been discussed below.
Characters in The Canterbury Tales
Chaucer has presented the Knight as an ideal character. He is a significant and admirable character, and everyone respects him. The Knight is also a nobleman, who struggles, fights for God and truth instead of yearning for stardom and glory. He is a victorious man with an extended travel history. His modesty, simplicity, and generosity, makes him a complemented character. Despite being a victorious warrior, he remains humble. He dresses moderately, as per that time, and he cares about his duties. He is not obsessed with worldly standards.
The Wife of Bath
The Wife of Bath is another important character of the tales. Chaucer’s description of her features is sexually suggestive; especially her gap between teeth foreshadows her sensual and lusty nature. A seamstress by trade, the Wife of Bath, has gotten married five times. In both, prologue and as well as the tale, she discusses marriage, virginity and most notably the question of sovereignty. On account of her marriage experiences, she considers herself an expert in marriage counseling. When Chaucer states that she goes on pilgrimage often, it appears that despite her promiscuous nature, she is also a religious woman and loves traveling.
The Miller is a typical representative of the greedy people. The description of his physical features speaks volumes of his personality. His broad shoulders, plump face, fashionable red beard, and stubby nose reflect shamelessness, corrupt and quarrelsome character. Chaucer further highlights that he is dishonest with a golden thumb, as he steals grains, and charges three times more than the original price. Hence, he is a wealthy man whose utmost concern is to increase his profit. Chaucer has ironically used the common saying, “An honest miller hath a golden thumb” to show his greedy nature. He is a pompous fool too, who considers himself of higher class as he jumps in after the knight to narrate his tale.
The Parson, unlike knight, is a highly esteemed figure in the general prologue. He is patient, virtuous and an ideal person. However, the exemplary description of this character serves as a clue to understanding the sinful role of priests in the 14th century. A clerk by profession, the Parson is undoubtedly a knowledgeable person who eagerly preaches Christian doctrine. He is generous enough to help the needy parishioners with his meager income. Chaucer further highlights the saintly nature of Parson by adding biblical references of the shepherd tending to the flock of sheep, which means he preaches what he practices. Chaucer himself says that he has never sighted a pious, virtuous and holy priest like Parson as there is no contradiction in his words and actions. Therefore, he is the best example of a priest.
The Plowman is Parson’s brother and another ideal figure in the general prologue. He is a true laborer, who lives in peace and helps his neighbors. The Plowman performs one of the dirtiest jobs of filling the carts with cow’s manure, yet never complains. He fulfills his duty with great pride. He upholds true faith in God, and wholeheartedly serves the church. Chaucer deals with this character with respect because he is not like other peasants who hate the church.
The Merchant represents the emerging middle class with his fashionable outfit, forked beard, and English boots. Being highly skilled in English trade policies, he always refers to his supporters instead of opponents. He is an expert in borrowing and lending money. Also, he never faces any loss in his bargains. His excellence in his dealing of financial affairs is surprising as no one knows that he is in debt. Chaucer considers him a virtuous man having his own tactics of business and trade.
The Clerk is another ideal figure and a serious student of logic. Not only is he a poor man with his thin horse but also wears ordinary clothing. He prefers to quench his thirst of knowledge rather than chasing riches and glories of life. Unlike the philosophers of the Middle Ages who knew the tactics of making gold by transforming base materials into gold and silver, Chaucer’s clerk is a simple man with no signs of greed. He is also a passive participant who speaks only when required.
The Sergeant of Law
The Sergeant of Law is a skilled lawyer and a highly reputed person. He often plays the role of a judge in the assembly. As a professional lawyer, he charges high fees for his work. He often shows his presence on the porch of St. Paul’s church to join his fellow lawyers for a consultation. Chaucer has portrayed him as an expert as no one can find fault in his draft of legal documentation. He is very wise and vigilant in his conversation and holds a high opinion about himself. He pretends to be busy all the time to show and propagate his professionalism.
The Pardoner is the symbol of evil, who comes from Rome along with his bag of false holy relics to deceive the innocent people. He believes that the extortion of money is possible only by preaching against the greediness of money. That is why he walks around with holy relics and preaches the evils of money. Out of greed, he robs many innocent persons in the name of religion. Ironically, he is not ashamed of his wrongdoings and moral corruption. It is through his character that Chaucer has unveiled moral corruption of the religious figures of that time.
The author of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer also appears in the text as an observer. He plays the role of an innocent narrator who skillfully narrates the truth about the pilgrims. His presence provides realism to the book and gives a feeling that the tales are not fictional but real accounts of someone’s journey. He, being part of the pilgrims, narrates the tales of Sir Topas and Milibee and calls himself a poet. He openly praises the noble characters like the Knight, the Clerk, and the Plowman and condemns the morally corrupt characters like the Nun, the Pardoner, and the Reeve. His role is significant, and without him, the presentation of other characters would have been impossible.