Select two or three portraits from The General Prologue and discuss Chaucer’s use of variety of detail in comparing and contrasting the characters.
In your answer you should consider the following aspects:
* The nature of the characters presented
* Different kinds of emphasis in the descriptions
* The sense of a varied medieval society
The knight, the prioress and the doctor of physics are three characters presented very differently in the General Prologue. The knight is defined in terms of his virtues and actions to defend the faith, far more than by his appearance and words. He has fought honourably both for his earthly Lord and for the Lord of all Christians campaigning along the whole frontier- “Ful worthy was he in his Lordes were. ” It is interesting to see that Chaucer has begun with the pilgrim who has the highest social status, and is the top of the hierarchy.
Despite of his prowness and his undefeated record, he was humble and had an idealised moral standard- “Truth and honour, freedom and courtesy. ” He is a character who is skilful and decent as he respects the laws. He is well-mannered and upright- “To riden out, he loved chivalrie. ” He never spoke fowl language about any person and thus was good-natured- “He never yet no vileynie. ” He behaved himself very modestly- “and of his porte as meeke as is a maide. He dressed in a sombre fashion- “Of fustian he wered a gipon al bismotered with his habegeon” which in turn portrayed his genuine dedication on going on the pilgrimage for repentance for killing at war. His reasons for going on pilgrimage showed that he was a very honourable man.
Chaucer produced an idealised portrait of the Knight – “verray, parfit gentil knight. ” The Prioress in contrast is described using heavy irony. The fact that she is even going on a pilgrimage is quite strange in itself, as one would imagine a Prioress to stay in a priory. Chaucer tells the reader of her “smile, which was ful simple and coy. From just the second line we can see that his nun is not a typical nun, as why would a nun be smiling in a “coy” fashion? Thus we are led to believe her interests are diverted when it comes to her profession, as immediately one is aware that her main objective was not devoting herself to God but rather to “Seinte Loy. ”
He is a representative of courtesy, thus we can see her mind is not wholly focused on God. We can perceive her as a friendly character who is worthy of respect – “anf ful pleasant, and amiable of port, and peyned hire to countrefete cheere of courte, and to been estatlich of manere. It is ironic that Chaucer should name the nun “Eglatine,” as this name is associated with courtly romance. We would imagine a conventional nun to be pious, but to the reader she seems vain. Like most prioresses in the Middle Ages, she has the manners of the upper class, which the narrator appears to greatly admire. Since courtly table manners were hardly surprising- “she let no morsel fall from her lips. ” She was warm-hearted woman, who cared a great deal for animals- “she wolde wepe, if she saugh a mous kaught in a trapp, if it were deed or bledde. ” The society lady’s devotion to pets is an enduring comic stereotype.
She devotes a lot of attention on dogs- “Of smale houndes hadde she that she fedde with roasted fleshe, or milk and wastel-breed. ” Her tenderness to dogs, and that ambiguous motto on her rosary, suggests some diversion of interest, on the part of one who has dedicated hereslf a bride of Christ. She spoke French, which is quite unusual, as it is not necessary to speak French for a nun. Chaucer implies that she cannot speak the language very fluently “for French of Paris was to hire unknowe. ” The fact that she speaks French, a language that is notorious for being romantic, insinuates she is not a typical nun.
Chaucer uses a great deal of visual imagery, which portrays how self-conscious the nun, is about her looks and this highlights the heavy irony Chaucer utilises. The nun had her wimple “pinched,” a nun ought to have a plain one. This shows that she is very conscious of her looks, rather than being modest in the way we would perceive a nun to be. The Doctor of Physics, similarly to the Prioress raises the theme of food and drink in his description. Like the Knight he is a “verray, parfit” example of his kind, but in this case this involves the conspiracy with the apothecary against the patient.
We can see he is very health conscious and eats a moderate diet- “But of greet norissing and digestible,” which we would expect of the best doctor in the world. The descriptions then moves immediately on to his dress which is very lavish, costly and fashionable, in contrast to the knight- “In sagwin and in pers he clad was al, lined with tafata and with sendal. ” From this we can see he has lots of money, but as shown in line 443 he is not a spend thrift, and rather he keeps his money tight. The doctor’s neglect of the Bible follows this line, which suggest he is an atheist.
The last two couplets destroy the Doctor’s character as to him the Black death had brought gold, in which he was not going to pass on to others- “He kept that he wan in pestilence. Fot gold in phisik is a cordia, therefore he lovede gold in special. ” Thus we can see that there are stark contrasts between these particular three characters. This gives rise to the idea of a varied medieval society. Chaucer highlights these differences between pilgrims by varying the techniques of his descriptions. Dress, physical appearance and personal habits provide the most immediate index of individual character.
References to personality are reinforced by an account of the pilgrim’s past experiences and profession standing. For instance, the portrait of the knight consists largely of a detailed list of the crusading wars in which he has spent most of his life: a record of self abnegation for which Chaucer shows respect by saying little about the knight’s personal appearance. Similarly, the Doctor of Physics is described in terms of his professional qualifications and practice than through personal features. Whereas the prioress was described in terms of dress and physical appearance, suggesting a diversion of interest.