Humor in The Canterbury Tales
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer are tales based on the narrations of 31 pilgrims, including Chaucer himself. The general prologue introduces the audience to what transpired so that the tales came to be. The narrator joins other pilgrims at the Tabard Inn. This group comes from different backgrounds and travels to Canterbury, where the shrine of martyr Thomas Becket is situated. Each of the characters represents a unique occupation, position, and personality. Using the different classes of people, Chaucer gives the picture of an entire society. In doing this, he applies some humor in depicting the gap between what the character should be and what he/he is.
The first character in Chaucer’s narration is the knight, who is presented as an ideal character. For this reason, he is admired and loved by everyone in society. He is depicted as a nobleman who struggles to fight for what is right. His life as a knight has been victorious with some extended travels. He is a modest, simple, and generous character, and all these traits make him a complete and ideal character. The striking humor comes from the speaker’s description of the knight’s contrasting traits “He was a perfect gentle knight” (Chaucer, line 72). This comes as a surprise as the speaker wants to make the knight an ideal person who is gentle and, at the same time, victorious in wars that are filled with bloodshed and death. In a way, the knight’s description leaves some mystery into the person that he is away from the speaker’s naïve description in Chaucer’s poem.
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Squire is another character whose description gives humor to the readers. Squire is the son of a knight who, according to the description of the narrator, is so young and handsome. These two descriptions give the impression of a character who every woman would die for. His age and handsomeness form a clear picture in the mind of a masculine man. However, in reality, this is not the man that Squire is. Further description of Squires gives the impression that Squire is childish and feminine in various ways. He had long curly hair, which is a direct contrast to the true traits of masculinity. Like a woman, he is full of flowers and likes to wear short gowns. He also loves to sit and watch the sky and play his flute (Chaucer lines 84-87). Given that he is a knight and supposed to be a clear example of masculinity, the ideal and the reality around Squire are the sources of humor in Chaucer’s narrations.
The nun is a character who serves as the direct opposite of the ideal. Everyone expects the nun to be a holy person, given her ties to Christianity and her faith in it. The stereotypical assertion of the society about key religious figures such as nuns is that they should be loving to other people, concentrate on their religious duties, and minimize secular activities. The reality in the nun’s life offers the direct opposite to society’s expectations. She loves drinking and taking part in sports, which are not traits associated with nuns. “For French of Paris was to her unknow” (Chaucer line 126). She speaks French, has jewelry, wears expensively, and loves flowers indicating an elegant life, which is not an ideal character of a servant of God. The nun is obsessed with animals that she loves them over the human beings that she serves as a nun, which leaves the reader with the question of why she is not a nun for the animals anyway as she does not fit to be a nun to her fellow human beings.
In a nutshell, Chaucer uses various characters’ tales to contrast the ideal and reality. He uses characters from various backgrounds and occupations and backgrounds to indicate the difference between the utopian ideal people that these characters should have been and the imperfect people they exist to be. This sharp contrast offers readers some sense of humor as the ideal and reality are sometimes so opposite that one could anticipate.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Wordsworth Editions, 2002.