On the aisle of English poetry, Chaucer flourishes the fantastic colours of his words and paints different characters of his age with minute observation. Indeed, he is a great painter who paints not with colours but with words. Undoubtedly, he has:
The Seeing Eye, the retentive memory, the judgment to select and the ability to expound.
His keen analysis of the minutest detail of his characters, their dresses, looks and manners enable him to present his characters lifelike and not mere bloodless abstractions.
His poetical piece, The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is a real picture gallery in which thirty portraits are hanging on the wall with all of their details and peculiarities. Rather it is a grand procession with all the life and movement, the colour and sound. Indeed,
His characters represent English society, morally and socially, in the real and recognizable types.
And still more representative of humanity in general. So, the characters in Chaucer’s “The Prologue” are for all ages and for all lands.
Chaucer is the first great painter of character in English literature. In fact, next to Shakespeare he is the greatest in this field. In The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales the thirty portraits traced by Chaucer give us an excellent idea of the society at that time. Except for royalty and aristocracy, on one hand and the robbers or out casts on the other, he has painted in brief practically the whole English nation.
The thirty pilgrims, including the host, belong to the most varied professions. The Knight and the Squire presents the warlike element of the society. The learned and liberal vocations are signified by the Man of Law, the Doctor, the Oxford Clerk and the Poet himself. The Merchant and the Shipman stand for the higher commercial community while the Wife of Bath, an expert Cloth maker represents the traders and manufacturers. Agriculture is represented by the Ploughman, the Miller and the Franklin. The upper servants like Manciple and the Reeve and the lower servant like Yeoman and the Cook represent the town and Country between them. The Monk from his monastery, the Prioress from her convent, her attendant priests, the village Parson, the roaming Friar, the Pardoner and the Summoner sufficiently cover the casual categories of the religious order in those days.
To preserve the distinctions among these typical characters, Chaucer has indicated the differences in their clothes, manner of speech, habits and tendencies representing the common traits and the average characteristics of each profession. These personages, therefore, are not mere phantasms of the brain but real human begins.
These characters represent various types of contemporary society. They are no longer mere dummies or types but owing to their various peculiarities, their arguments and agreement and their likes and dislikes we recognize them as real living beings, true to the mould in which all human nature is cast.
His world is almost freak-free and his characters are perfectly lifelike. Some of them are so modern that they seem to be living today. The old Knight is an example of the chivalrous character which is found in every generation. The Squire is just the typical man of any day.
He was as fresshe as is the monthe of May
The Merchant has all the vanity which comes from the growing of wealth, while the Man of Law like lawyers of all times, is pilling up fees and buying land. We recognize in him the typical lawyer of our own day:
Nowhere so bisy a man as he ther was
And yet he seemed bisier than he was.
There are characters like the Prioress, the Monk, the Franklin, the Reeve, the Summoner, the Pardoner, and the Wife of Bath whom we do not identify at first. But none of them is really extinct. They have changed their name and profession but their chief part is an element of humanity. That is why when we accompany the Pilgrims on their way we feel quite at home and have no feeling of being among aliens.
Chaucer’s art of characterization is superb. He looks at his characters objectively and delineates each of the men and women sharply and caressingly. His impression of casualness, economy, significance and variety of every detail are examples of that supreme art which conceals art.
In fact, there is a different method of almost every pilgrim. He varies his presentation from the full length portrait to the thumb-nail sketch, but even in the brief sketches, Chaucer conveys a strong sense of individuality and depth of portraiture.
Chaucer’s method of portraying characters is a scientific manner by differentiating them by means of their obvious distinctions. It was for the first time in European literature that a writer proved himself clearly conscious of the relation between individuals and ideas. Moreover, Chaucer’s characters are consistent and instead of being static, they grow and develop in the course of the tale, like living human beings. They give their opinions on the stories that have been told and these comments reveal their dominant thoughts, their feelings and the objects of their interests.