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Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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CHARACTER ANALYSIS (continued)

The Wife of Bath

The Wife of Bath is Chaucerís most delightful character. She is a skilled weaver who even surpasses the weavers of Ypres and Ghent. She thinks highly of herself and loses all patience if anybody dares to precede her in making an offering. She is garishly dressed. She wears scarlet red stockings and supple new shoes. Her handkerchiefs are of the finest weave and weigh over ten pounds. Chaucer mentions that she has been married five times and has had innumerable affairs in her youth. She has traveled widely and has been on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Rome, Bologna, Galicia and Cologne. She is gap-toothed and rides her gentle ambling horse easily. It was believed in the Middle Ages that a gap-toothed person would be very lucky and travel far and wide. The lengthy description of her travels indicates that she has led a fairly comfortable life. She wears a riding skirt round her large hips and a pair of sharp spurs on her heels. She knows how to enjoy herself in company and her special forte lies in her knowledge of all the cures of love. Her knowledge about the remedies of love is probably a reference to Ovidís "Amor Remedia". The irony lies in her knowledge of "Amor Remedia" rather than "Ars Amatoria". Chaucer comments that it is a pity that the good Wife of Bath is somewhat deaf. The reader learns in the Prologue to her Tale that this is a result of her dominating character. Her fifth husband had struck her angrily on the head in response to her attempt to dominate him. But ultimately the Wife of Bath had governed him for the rest of his life. The Wife of Bath is a happy daughter of Venus from whom she gets her lecherous temperament and Mars from whom she gets her fiery temper. She is frank and forthright in her opinions and believes in leading an enjoyable life. She is the first feminist character in English Literature and appeals for the liberation of women in her tale. She is a charming, lively, energetic character. Although some readers are offended by her coarseness, one must concede that her bold face and domineering spirit make her portrait immensely vivid.


The Parson

The Parson, like the Knight, is an idealized figure. The Parsonís portrait is totally devoid of any ironical undertones or satire. He is a truly virtuous, devout, conscientious, pious, diligent and patient individual. However Chaucerís description of this ideal Parson in turn serves to indicate the sins of the average priest in the fourteenth century. He is a learned man, a clerk, and devoutly teaches his parishioners the tenets of Christianity. It was unusual for a Parson to be learned and scholarly during the Middle Ages. In fact the majority of the parish ecclesiastics were totally uneducated and incompetent men. The Parson retains his faith in God even in times of adversity. Further he is benign, wonderfully hardworking and bears his troubles patiently. He is very generous and gives his sparse income to the needy parishioners even when there is scarcely enough left for himself. He is opposed to excommunicating poor parishioners for the non-payment of tithes (taxes paid to the church). The Parson would also give away the offerings made by the parishioners to the very poor and needy. His parish is far flung but, the Parson nevertheless trudges along religiously with a staff in hand to provide solace to those who are sick or needy. Chaucer uses the biblical imagery of a shepherd tending to his flock of sheep to describe the Parsonís activities. Indeed the Parson sets a noble example before his flock or people as he practices what he preaches. Unlike other mercenary priests, Chaucerís Parson does not hire out his benefice and run off to St. Paulís in London, in pursuit of an endowment by singing masses for the dead or to be retained by a gild. Rather, he stays at home in his parish and guards his flock against all kinds of evil. Although the Parson is holy and virtuous he isnít contemptuous of sinners and nor is he overbearing and haughty in his speech. But if some sinner proved to be obstinate he would reprove him sharply without regarding whether he belonged to the high or low estate. Chaucer asserts that he does not know a better priest than this Parson who preached Christís gospel but first followed it himself. The Parson is obviously meant to be an ideal stereotype and a reflection of what priesthood should be like.

The Plowman

The Plowman is the Parsonís brother and another idealized portrait. Chaucer emphasizes the Plowmanís industriousness by stating that he is a good and true laborer. The Plowman lives in peace and perfect charity and willingly helps out his neighbors. He would thresh, carry dung, dig, and make ditches to help a poor neighbor. He loves God with all his heart and promptly pays his tithes to the Church. Chaucer here negates the commonly held perception of the peasantís supposed hatred of the church. The Plowman not only loves God but also pays his tithes without any grudges. Chaucerís Plowman follows Christís both commandments: to love God and to love oneís neighbor as oneís self. The Plowman rides an inferior mare and is humbly dressed in a laborerís coat. Many feel that Chaucerís Plowman is modeled on the allegorical ploughman of Langlandís poem, Piers Plowman, who always serves Truth. Chaucer has portrayed the humble Plowman sympathetically and admires his pride in his calling and true Christianity.

The Miller

The Miller, named Robin, is a stereotypical representation of a dishonest man. He is a rich villager whose prime concern is the augmentation of his own profits. Professor Curry has provided a scientific explanation of the Millerís character based on Aristotle, Rhazes, and the Secreta Secretorum. His physical characteristics are a reflection of his personality and temperament. His broad-shouldered, stocky built, his huge plump face with luxuriant red beard, and squat nose with an ugly black wart on top --- is symptomatic of his shameless, loquacious, quarrelsome, deceitful and lecherous character. Chaucer states that the Miller is quite an expert in stealing grain and charging thrice the amount and yet has a golden thumb. Chaucer uses the common saying, "An honest miller hath a golden thumb" as a pun, to ironically suggest that this Millerís golden thumb only serves to increase his own profits. The Miller is very strong and can heave the strongest door off its hinges by battering it with his head. He comes across as a repulsive buffoon who likes to joke about sin and scurrilous tales. He plays the bagpipe very well, and leads the company of pilgrims out of the town, to its soulful music.

The Manciple

A Manciple is an attendant who purchases provisions for a college, an inn of court, or the like. Chaucerís Manciple serves the lawyers and students at the temple that is the Inner or Middle Temple near the Strand. The Manciple is as dishonest as the Miller and always makes a profit on his purchases. Chaucer ironically praises his financial wisdom that enables him to hoodwink his masters comprising of the best-learned lawyers in the country. Chaucer has drawn a satiric portrait of the Mancipleís professional malpractice.


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