Study Guide

Chaucer (The Narrator) in The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story

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Chaucer (The Narrator)

Since Chaucer filters all of the action that occurs through his by turns credulous and satirical narrative voice, we learn the most about his character from the way he describes other pilgrims. Sometimes Chaucer seems like an innocent puppy, eager to think well of everyone and everything. This version of Chaucer is most apparent in his more negative portraits. In the Summoner's, for example, Chaucer tells us that he "was a gentil harlot, and a kinde / A bettre felawe sholde men noght finde" (General Prologue 647 – 648). This, however, of a character who bribes people for a living and regularly seduces the parish virgins!

This general lack of penetration coincides well with the picture the Host gives us of Chaucer in his interaction with him in the prologues to Sir Chaucer's tales. Describing him as "in the waast shap as wel as I; / This were a popet in arm tenbrace / For any womman" (Prologue of Sir Thopas 10 – 12) and "elvyssh by his contenaunce" (Prologue of Sir Thopas 13), we get a picture of him as simultaneously fat and precious. The Tale of Sir Thopas is equally precious, maybe even a little bit silly, and the Host accordingly rebukes Chaucer for his horrible rhymes.

Yet this version of Chaucer – the roly-poly naïve fellow unable to put together a decent rhyme or satirize vice when he sees it – does not fit with the smart, penetrating irony we see in the rest of the General Prologue and frame story. Which makes us think that, with Chaucer, as with so many of the other pilgrims, we have a case of someone who's trying to appear to be something he's not.

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