Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales is a wonderful portrait-gallery about which it may be said that here Is God’s plenty. His pilgrims are like twenty- nine portraits hung on a wall. Chaucer, like a true painter. Paints in words their dresses, habits, peculiarities. Likes and dislikes with a remarkable vividness and dexterity. The most striking feature of the Prologue is that here the poet presents a large number of characters, representing their classes, but at the same time endowed with their individualities. These characters are not mere carved images, but living creatures. They strike the reader’s imagination by their variety and diversity.
For his Canterbury Tales, Chaucer selected characters from almost all walks of life. First of all, the knight. The young Squire and the Yeoman are there representing the old tradition of chivalry. The knight is an embodiment of the ideals of Chivalrie- Trouthe and Honour, Fredom and Curteisie. But his individual features make him ‘as meeke as is a mayde’. The young Squire also represents the tradition of his father. But he is after all a young man who was freshen as is the month of May. He can compose songs and sing them too. The Yeoman is a true forester.
The ecclesiastical class is represented by the Monk, the Prioress, the Pardoner. The Summoner and the Parson. The ‘hunting Monk’ has an ultra-modern outlook. For him the teachings of St. Maure and St. Benedict are out-of-date. He does not believe in the rule that ordains the Monk to remain within his cloister and not to: indulge in hunting. In his dress and appearance, the Monk is a worldly man with the finest grey fur embroidered on his sleeves. His hood is fastened with a chain of gold. He is a fat lord with a shining greasy face. The Prioress is pleasant, tender-hearted. But full of affectation in her manners. Her smile is ‘full simple and coy’. She can sing her service divine in a nasal tone. She is very careful about table manners. But, at the same time, she is highly sentimental.
The Pardoner represents that cynical class of exploiters with doubtful qualifications, who speculates and lives richly on popular superstition. He has no conscience and can stoop down to the meanest level for petty gains. The Summoner is even worse than the pardoner. He argues that a man’s soul is in his purse, for it is in his purse that he is punished. The summoner thrives on the misfortunes of others. But the village Parson is an exception in this picture-gallery. In the words of Skeat, “Chaucer. In his description of the Parson. Contrasts the piety and industry of the secular clergy with the wickedness and laziness of the religious order of ranks.” The parson of Chaucer, unlike other parsons, is rich in thought and deed. He shows that example is better than precept.
Besides these ecclesiastical character, there are also the Friar and the Clerk Oxford. The Friar is represented as a cunning beggar who knows the art of inducing the women to give him money and gifts. He likes to have acquaintance with the rich rather than the poor and the sick. But the clerk is a devoted scholar who is not at all materialistic. He shows all the nobility in his behaviour. He would gladly learn and gladly teach.
Then there are portraits of men from various professions. The Miller, ‘a stout earl for the nonce’, is a short-shouldered, broad and a thickly-set person. He can very well steal corn and charge thrice. The Manciple is a careful purchaser, who can befool a number of lawyers. The Reeve is an efficient accountant who can receive thanks and gifts from his lord by lending him his own money. The Doctor is well versed in his science. He knows the cause of every disease and also its remedy. But his works for the benefit of his apothecary. He has a special love for gold and made great fortune during pestilence. The Shipman, wearing a gown of coarse stuff. can draw wine repeatedly and in plentiful measure from the cask while the merchant slept. He is little bothered about a scrupulous conscience. The Cook is an efficient person In his field. The Sergeant of the Law, who has acted as a justice very often, has good knowledge of cases since the time of King William. He knows how to make up a case so that nobody can find fault with his draft.
Among the women, besides the Prioress. there is the portrait of the Wife of Bath. Her picture is quite unforgettable. She is a good cloth-maker. She has visited many places of pilgrimages. In her youth she has had several lovers, and so far she has married five times. She is gap-toothed and has got large hips. She wears scarlet stockings, but carries a heavy weight of kerchiefs on her head on Sundays when she goes to the church.
Thus, it may be observed that Chaucer portrays his men and women with a touch of a painter. The picture-portraits are quite vivid. “He (Chaucer) must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature: because, as it has been truly observed of him, he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales, the very manners and humours (as we now call them) of the whole English nation, in his age, All his pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other, and not only in their inclinations, but in their very physiognomies and persons….Even the grave and serious characters are distinguished by their several sorts of gravity; their discourses are such as belong to their age, their calling, and their breeding, such as are becoming of them, and of them only. Some of his persons are vicious, and some virtuous, some are unlearned, or (as Chaucer calls them) lewd, and some are learned. Even the ribaldry of the low characters is different; the Reeve, the Miller and the Cook are several men, and distinguished from each other, as much as mincing lady Prioress and the broad-speaking, gap-toothed Wife of Bath. But enough of this: there is such a variety of game springing up before me that I am distracted in my choice, and know not which to follow. “This sufficient to say, according to the proverb that here is God’s plenty” (Dryden).