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Humanity is ever-changing and endlessly fascinating. People of different classes, roles, personalities, and appearances combine majestically to form the human race in such a profound and meticulous way. In The Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer portrays humanity with candor and openness when describing all 29 pilgrims he had met on a trip to Canterbury. He tells his tale by incorporating details about their social status, wealth, jobs, and appearances. In Chaucer and the Energy of Creation, a critical response to Chaucer’s novel, Edward I. Condren states, “To view Chaucer as a reformer…is to overlook his evident love affair with the world he creates- a world he neither condemns, endorses, burdens with ideology, nor seeks to improve, but a world he shows as a dynamic, human, endlessly fascinating entity unto itself. ”Accordingly, Condren believes that Chaucer’s intent was not that of reform, since he did not condemn, approve, or try to improve any elements in society, but rather portrayed the world as fascinating, dynamic, and human. Similar to Condren’s argument, Chaucer merely captures the entirety of medieval life by illuminating both positive and negative traits in humans. As a neutral realist, Chaucer does not describe life as glorious, nor does he wish to reform it.
Chaucer exposes negative aspects of life by portraying the corrupt character traits of religious figures among the pilgrims. In lines 235-236 and 253-254, it was stated, “ Therefore instead of weeping and of prayer/ One should give silver for a poor Friar’s care…/But anywhere a profit might accrue/ Courteous he was and lowly of service too…” (108-109). Even though a Friar is normally perceived as religious and considerate, this Friar ironically cared about wealth and his personal gain more than he cared about good will. He helped others in order to earn money, and made a living out of begging.
The Pardoner was also portrayed as unexemplary due to his dishonest actions. In lines 700-703 and 709-710, it was stated, “ In one short day, in money down, he drew/More than the parson in a month or two/ And by his flatteries and prevarication/ Made monkeys of the priest and congregation…/ And( well he could) win silver from the crowd/ That’s why he sang so merrily and loud” (Page 119-120). As the one who sells pardons, a Pardoner should be religious and have minimal sins. Ironically, however, the Pardoner was hypocritical and deceptive. Chaucer exposes the evil and dishonesty in society by stating that the Pardoner mocked the priest and sang loudly in order to earn money. Nonetheless, Chaucer adds positive character traits to neutralize his stance. Chaucer evidently describes negative aspects of society, but balances the negativity with other positive details. For example, when describing the Nun, a Prioress, Chaucer emphasizes her tender feelings and charitable heart. In lines 141-142 and 145-149, it was stated, “She certainly was very entertaining/ Pleasant and friendly in her ways, and straining…/And to seem dignified in all her dealings/ As for her sympathies and tender feelings/ She was so charitably solicitous/ She used to weep if she saw but a mouse/ Caught in a trap, if it were dead or bleeding” (Page 106)
Accordingly, the Nun is a proper image for her role. She is kind, gentle, tender, and considerate. She is also characterized as pleasant, friendly, and sympathetic. Therefore, even though religious figures were described as corrupt, Chaucer balances the negativity with the Nun’s positive traits. Additionally, Chaucer does the same with the Pardoner, whom he earlier described as dishonest and hypocritical. In lines 703- 706, it was stated, “ But still to do him justice first and last/ In church he was a noble ecclesiast/ How well he read a lesson or told a story!/ But best of all he sang an Offertory…” (Page 120). Accordingly, Chaucer is realistic and mentions the exact truth. He has no bias or preference, but rather holds a neutral perspective towards life. Although he adds both negative and positive details about society, Chaucer shows acceptance and does not wish to reform any of the characters portrayed. He does not capture life as glory, nor does he perceive it with contempt.
In lines 35-39 and 721-723, it was also stated, “But none the less, while I have time and space/ Before my story takes a further pace/ It seems a reasonable thing to say/ What their condition was, the first array/ Of each of them, as it appeared to me…/ But first I beg of you, in courtesy/ Not to condemn me as unmannerly/If I speak plainly and with no concealing”(Pages 103 and 120). Here, Chaucer states the purpose of The Prologue. He does not say that he dislikes the way the pilgrims act and wants reform, but rather accepts their state and says that he will tell exactly what he sees. Additionally, Chaucer even mocks himself. In line 742, it was stated, “ I’m short of wit as you will understand” (Page 121). By negatively characterizing himself, it can be inferred that Chaucer generally believes that humanity is diverse and imperfect. He does not describe himself as ideal and therefore does not see the world as ideal. Chaucer characterizes himself in the same way he did with the pilgrims. Therefore if he believed the world needed reform, he would have started with himself. This further reinforces that Chaucer merely states what he observes of the pilgrims and of himself, without intending reform, but with pure acceptance.
Overall, Chaucer’s main intent is to illuminate the human nature using both positive and negative details. He holds a neutral perspective towards life, and captures it in its entirety. Similar to what Condren concluded, Chaucer does not wish to reform it, but rather accepts it. Chaucer also says what he sees with all honesty and truthfulness. He makes readers aware of the different types of people, but does not cynically or pessimistically condemn anyone. Just as Tim Berner’s Lee stated, “We need diversity of thought in the world to face new challenges…”
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