ALTHOUGH WRITTEN IN THE 1300s, the works of Geoffrey Chaucer have endured as classic literature for centuries. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales are particularly memorable because of the characters’ camaraderie and their vivid and witty language. As a storyteller, Chaucer has deliberately created vignettes and settings for each tale and teller that reveal not just a sense of amusement, but also a sense of morality.
From the first scene at the Tabard Inn, Chaucer is our narrative host, welcoming his readers to relax as one of his travelers and enjoy passing the time with telling tales: “The rooms . . . of the inn were wide; they made us easy . . . [I] was soon one with them in fellowship.” Once the stories begin, the mood changes easily with each teller. In “The Pardoner’s Prologue,” Chaucer paints the picture of a flagrant hypocrite. By his very diction, Chaucer is clearly amused. As a church man, the Pardoner describes himself employing just a choice amount of Latin and displaying fake church relics, all lending to the guise of holiness. Chaucer exaggerates the Pardoner’s abilities as he claims that whomever wears a certain holy glove will “multiply his grain” as he sows seed. Most blatantly, the Pardoner broadcasts that his listeners can be freed from greed if they give their money to him. Chaucer persistently replays the Pardoner’s words for emphasis and also humor: “I preach against the very vice I make my living out of—avarice.”
In “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” Chaucer uses the Wife’s free banter to insert humor, irony, and a fair sprinkling of scriptural misinterpretations. The Wife frequently mentions her five husbands and jokes that “God bade us all to wax and multiply,” a purposefully enigmatic command when used by her. She further justifies the number of her marriages since King Solomon had so many wives and jokes that “would to God it were allowed to me to be refreshed, aye, half so much as he!” At all times, the Wife maintains her imperfections and declares that she must always be married. Chaucer seems to revel in the creation of her crude yet jovial monologue.
In the midst of these prologues, though, a sense of Chaucer’s morality becomes clear. He overtly recognizes virtue and vice. The fact that he can make light of religious characters like the Pardoner suggests that in order to ridicule hypocrisy he had to have known truly virtuous religious leaders or sincere believers to contrast them with others who abused the faith or their religious authority. Characters like the Pardoner and the Wife know of religion and apply it for their own whim and benefit though they are, after all, on a pilgrimage. And yet the fact that he describes characters, like the Clerk, who are sincerely religious, does further the idea that Chaucer finds him and others like him admirable, for “a tone of moral virtue filled his speech and gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.”
CHAUCER UNIQUELY BLENDS A SENSE OF HUMOR AND MORALITY WITHIN HIS TALES. He may play with the appearance of sin, and even amorality, in some of his characters, but as for himself, Chaucer asserts in the General Prologue that he is “most devout in heart” as he and the group begin their light-hearted pilgrimage.