Term Paper: Chaucer Canterbury Tales

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Canterbury Tales

HUMOR in CANTERBURY TALES

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is a human comedy, which represents an interesting kaleidoscope of life as the author presents it through various characters. These characters are caricatures of their real-life counterparts and hence provide readers with great insight into the hypocrisy and shallowness of some people in the society. The author in a lighthearted manner criticizes the society and the roles that it has assigned to various people and occupations. Chaucer is a master humorist whose satire and wit is never meant to offend but is serious in nature. They draw attention to the flaws of societal expectations and hence we find caricatured images of a wife, a nun, a knight or a monk. For example the prioress is presented in an interesting manner with a nasal voice since "this mode of nasal intonation is traditional with the recitative portions of the church service." 29 in a very sly manner, the author reveals the affectations of prioress. The woman is given a dainty structure and extra feminine attributes to contrast with the common image of a nun. She has an interesting name "Madame Sweet-Briar," and her dainty build is described as ("hardily, she was nat undergrowe"), and speaking of her wide forehead, the author says, "it was almost a spanne brood, I trowe." Her English is fluent but has a Middlesex accent.

The prioress is presented as a woman of exaggerated sensibilities: she would burst into tears at slightest sign of cruelty. But nowhere in the portrait do we see any sign of malice. The author has nothing against the prioress. He may not like the church or its strictures but he is clearly amused by the people who represented these institutions. He creates a completely different picture of the real characters simply to amuse readers and to offer an alternative version of them. The whole portrait has a sympathetic touch to it and the author cannot have fun with her since she is completely absorbed in her own world and is overly sensitivity about people and things. The satire originates not from exaggerated distortion of various characters but from author's inability to throw them off balance now and then. Chaucer's work has often been cited as an example of fifteenth and sixteenth century English comedy. The increasing literacy of the period made caricatures a more acceptable comic device since people had begun to realize the eccentricities associated with various institutions like the church, the monastery, marriage etc. (Brewer133). While discussing the use of humor in 14th century literature, Paul Ruggiers wrote:: "Clearly no system can do justice to any of the great geniuses of comic writing, their wit and irony, the special flavor of license, their power to challenge staid opinion, that peculiar innocence that allows them to escape defilement even in the relating of the obscene" (Ruggiers194). In the medieval literature, low life characters are included to highlight the "laughable or disreputable aspects of human nature" while the serious aspects of life were embodied in the characters of persons like the knight. This is what we notice in Chaucer's tales as well: "When ordinary people are admitted -- artisans, tradesmen, churls and servants -- they usually perform a limited function, often farcical" (Winny21).

Chaucerian humor can be compared to the humor found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which was written, in the same period as Canterbury Tales. The tone of the humor is never religious or didactic but being a human comedy, its only purpose is to treat "the plights of his various protagonists and, by extension, the human condition itself." (Morgan432). In almost the same manner, we find Chaucer trying to help his characters rid themselves of the restrictions society has placed on them by virtue of their occupations. The juxtaposition of the real with the comic provides "comic satisfaction" as well as "uproarious jocularity." (Jost 232) Jost finds that the wife in the Wife of Bath Tale is "humorous in its excess" since she is opposite to how people would like to see a wife. She already has had five husbands and doesn't mind having another. "The circumstances of her life with each of them are equally jocose in their vivid, even bombastic, quest for life" (Jost 232). The wife is not meant to be a vulgar character. She is only a hyperbolic symbol of an emancipated woman who doesn't let society hold her down. Her lascivious comments and behavior are meant to generate laughter and to bring people out of their shells. The character is so enthralling that satire takes a backseat and we get to enjoy the character for what it represents. "...in this instance Chaucer is so mastered by his humor, so carried away by his realization of the character, that the satire becomes a minor thing, and the picture is enjoyed just for what it is, irrespective of the vices of her who is delineated" (Walker23).

Wife of Bath is one of the most amiable, lively and enthralling characters in the history of comic writing. She embodies just the opposite of the traits that society wants to see in her. She has physical stamina and lust that she is not embarrassed to talk about. Her flamboyant attire and free-spirited attitude are what make this character outstanding. Her hate which is "as broad as a buckler or a shield" (Chaucer39), combined with her "incongruous obsession with husbands and pilgrimages" reveal an interesting, full of life yet completely honest personality (Winny2). Her confidence in herself and her ability to enthrall is evident from the fact that she doesn't wait for an invitation to speak but instead grabs a chance to begin a "a shameless autobiographical confession that holds the pilgrims fascinated, and with one exception speechless, to the end" (Winny 1). The Wife's unabashed monologue becomes even more gripping when she responds to the complaint of her husband in these words:

Then you compared a woman's love to Hell

To barren land where water will not dwell,

And you compared it to a quenchless fire,

The more it burns the more is its desire.

To burn up everything that burnt can be.

You say that just as worms destroy a tree wife destroys her husband and contrives,

As husbands know, the ruin of their lives (Chaucer292; 371-377).

The wife is not embarrassed to admit that she is a wild fire that has consumed five men and is waiting for her next victim. The forthrightness of this character and her physical desire for men are quite opposed to wives of the day would like to reveal. Wives in those days were meant to suppress their sexual desire and the irony of this situation lies in the Wife's repeating this complaint as evidence of the exasperation that she has to bear. The comparison with wild fire applies aptly to a woman who has consumed five husbands and is looking for a sixth. Similar jocular images are found in the stories by other characters as well. Talking of the humor in the Prioress's tale, Donald MacDonald says,

The comic effect of a fable of even the most primitive kind derives from the basic incongruity in the spectacle of animals behaving like humans and, in particular, using human speech; this incongruity is increased in proportion to the degree in which animals not only use the language of humans but, in so doing, display impressive erudition and a mastery of rhetorical forms (MacDonald464)

Chaucerian humor is grounded in misplaced activity. The place for certain action is deliberately altered to make it more hilarious. What we don't expect a wife to do, she does with aplomb. Similarly what we might expect a monk to do, he revels in rejecting the same. While the monks in those days were expected to abide by the Rules of St. Augustine regarding monastery living and ethics, the monk in the Tales repudiates them with ease and instead jocularly declares that he loves to hunt and keep horses. Similarly we find the Knight's Tale rather incredulous. The comic in his tale is hidden in seriousness of tone: Edward Foster asserts "We cannot avoid the comic irony of the newly victorious Arcite falling off his charger.... Even Arcite's funeral pyre is made of wood whose cutting comically disposes the woodland gods" (Foster92). Like all other characters, the knight has also been adorned in a unique outfit. His rusted armor generates an immediate response: "The comedy is the most generous possible, always in a tone of admiring sympathy" (Jost233). Edward Foster says that the straight narration or monologue is "broken with witty, clever, ironic, or incongruously funny language."

Chaucer's wit and humor are both entertaining and intelligent without being tactless or offensive. His comic timing and sense inspired many other writers of his time. What made his comic enthralling was the subtle use of irony in a lighthearted manner. Some critics have accused Chaucer of being too non-serious about his comic writings. They felt that he simply loved talking about… [END OF PREVIEW]

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