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Free Study Guide for The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

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CHARACTER ANALYSIS (continued)

The Reeve

Chaucerís Reeve named Oswald is a slender choleric man. Professor Curry has scientifically interpreted the Reeveís physical attributes. There is a traditional connection between choleric temperament and thinness. Further a choleric man always has thin pipe like legs which indicates a lecherous character. Chaucerís Reeve is also close shaven that is an indication of his inferior position in the social hierarchy. The Reeve occupies a position between that of the steward or seneschal and a bailiff. He was a carpenter in his youth. Oswald is a typical presentation of a deceitful Reeve. He has managed his lordís account since his lord was twenty years old and cheats him to fill his own coffers. Moreover he also knows all the secrets of the bailiffs and laborers and blackmails them. He is thus feared by all and nobody dares to expose him. He is richer than his lord and often lends him his own money. This treacherous Reeve lives in a pleasant house upon a heath, shadowed by green trees. The Reeve rides a farm horse named Scot and wears a long coat tucked in like a friarís. Throughout his portrayal of the Reeve, Chaucer highlights his deceitful malicious and reprehensible character.

The Summoner

The Summoner was a church official who was responsible for summoning the sinners before the ecclesiastical courts. Chaucer shows his extreme loathing and hatred for the two characters of the corrupt Summoner and Pardoner. He groups them together as joint partners in spiritual crime and makes the Pardoner accompany his brother the Summoner in a bawdy song about lustful love. The Summoner possesses disgusting physical features that reflect the sordid state of his soul. His fiery red pimpled cherubic face is the direct result of his sinful and lecherous activities. His food habits are far from sober. His delight in eating garlic, onions and leek and his fondness for wine further aggravates his physical condition. He suffers from some kind of leprosy. The Summoner appears extremely repulsive with suppurating blotches on his cheeks, black scabby eyebrows and scanty beard. It is hardly surprising that innocent children are afraid of his gruesome appearance. Chaucer sarcastically approves of the Summoner saying that there wasnít a friendlier rascal to be found. The Summoner would allow a sinner to keep a mistress for an entire year just in return for a quart of wine. He is sympathetic to such people because in all likelihood he commits the same sin himself. The Summoner is also illiterate and broadcasts his ignorance by repeating a few Latin phrases when drunk. The extent of his entire knowledge lies in the refrain, "Questio quid iuris?" (The question is what is the law?). The Summonerís moral depravity can be glimpsed from his views on excommunication. He is ever ready to forgo excommunicating a sinner if he is sure of a hefty bribe and proclaims that purse is the archdeaconís hell. This means that the punishment is to the sinnerís purse rather than to his soul. This corrupt Summoner extorts protection money from every gullible sinner by threatening them of excommunication At this point Chaucer directly speaks and states that every man should fear the archdeaconís curse of excommunication since it will certainly kill his soul just as absolution will save it. This gluttonous Summoner carries a shield of cake or loaf and his head is garlanded with flowers. There is a consistent strain of moral disgust, outrage and loathing throughout the Summonerís portrait."


The Pardoner

If the Summoner received Chaucerís unmitigated disapproval, the Pardoner is a personification of absolute evil. A Pardoner sells papal indulgences and relics. He preached that Papal indulgences pardoned the sins committed in oneís life and ensured a place in purgatory instead of hell. Pardoners made a commercial business out of sale of indulgences as they made them easily available through payment of money. Chaucerís Pardoner has come straight from Rome with a bag overstuffed with indulgences. He also carries false relics to cheat naïve people. These include a pillow case which had served as the Virginís veil, the piece of sail with which St. Paul went to sea until Christ caught him, and a glass jar filled with pigís bones. He has duped many innocent parsons and his parishioners by selling them false indulgences and relics. He confesses in the Prologue to his Tale, that, he knows the exact method of extorting money from people by preaching against the avarice of money. The hypocritical Pardoner has repulsive physical features. His sparse waxy yellow hair hangs limply by the sides like strands of flax. His glaring hare like eyes, small goat like voice and absence of facial hair indicates that he is a eunuch. He rides Ďdischeveleeí and his hood is in his bag. He wears a vernicle on his cap to indicate his official authority. His special skill lies in singing at the offertory to extract maximum money from the people. The Pardoner does not invite Chaucerís gentle irony but harsh sarcasm. There is an outright condemnation of the Pardonerís mal-practices and moral corruption.

Chaucer

Chaucer is the author of "The Canterbury Tales" and also appears as one of the pilgrims throughout the entire book. He functions as the naïve narrator and the readerís guide on the way to Canterbury and his ironic comments as the poet reveals the true color of this assorted group. Chaucerís cheeky presence as one of the pilgrims lends an air of realism and immediacy to the book and the reader feels that he is reading an eyewitness account. He tells the tales of Sir Topas and Melibee during the course of the journey. He finally identifies himself as the poet at the end in "Retracciouns". The reader first meets him in the "General Prologue" where he describes the pilgrims that he encounters at the Tabard inn. He poses as a naïve first person narrator and claims to be objective in his appraisal of the pilgrimsí appearance but it is seen that he seems to possess the knowledge of an omniscient narrator. The reader thus learns not only about the pilgrimsí physical appearance but also details about their personal lives and careers. Chaucer, the observer and recorder of events as one of the pilgrims, frequently pronounces his judgement as the poet. He openly condemns the corrupt Summoner and the evil Pardoner. This intrusion of the poetís voice does not effect the narrative. Rather it helps the story to achieve immediacy.

The Host

The Host, named Harry Bailey, is not included among the twenty-nine pilgrims who gathered at the Tabard Inn. He is introduced at the end of the "General Prologue". The character of the Host is not fully developed. He appears to be a friendly, agreeable and sensible man. His genial warmth is his most outstanding characteristic. Chaucer comments that the Host is the fairest burgess in the whole of Cheapside and is fit to serve as a marshal in a lordís house. He is frank and forthright in his speech. The Host proposes the story telling competition for the long journey to Canterbury and says that each pilgrim is to tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two tales on the way back. The others will reward the pilgrim who tells the best tale by a supper at the Tabard Inn. The Host then proposes to join the group of pilgrims himself. The pilgrims immediately accept him as the guide, judge, manager and reporter. Thus thirty people set off towards the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury the next evening. The Host frequently provides the link between the various stories and decides the order in which the pilgrims narrate their tales. After each tale the Host provides his opinions and comments which reveal his intelligence. The Host for instance stops Chaucerís Tale of Sir Topas in the middle because he senses that it is mindless rhyming. Critics believe that the Host was modeled on a certain Harry Bailly who actually lived in Southwark in Chaucerís time.

The Guildsmen

The guildsmen are sketchily portrayed in the "General Prologue". The reader learns very little about them apart from the fact that they are wearing fine clothes and are financially well off. Chaucer ironically says that they are able men and worthy to serve as aldermen. They are members of a guild, and wear the distinctive dresses of their occupations. The Guildsmen include a haberdasher, a dyer, a carpenter, a weaver, and a tapestry-maker. Their trade appears to have been randomly chosen by Chaucer and do not have any significance. The guildsmen are treated as a group and no individual importance is given to them. Chaucerís intention seems to be to satirize the self-importance of the guildsmen and their wives who are addressed as Ďmadamí and have their trails carried behind them just as the royalty.


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