General Prologue, Canterbury Tales,II
Chaucer's modification and interrogation of form
In Chaucer's version of estates satire, the placement of his characters within the Prologue suggests that his society isn't such an orderly hierarchical arrangement as contemporary social theorists might like it to be. (People won't stay in their places!)
The GP's subtle positioning of the pilgrims
Chaucer uses telling juxtapositions and contrasts to make subtle points. Note the poet's use of small, significant details and his command of numerous technical vocabularies, e.g., medicine, law.
The poet's literary persona (Latin: "mask")
- In the General Prologue, the narrating "I" is not necessarily absolutely coterminous with the poet who has created him: Chaucer the poet versus Chaucer the pilgrim.
- Compare the poet's manipulation of the narrating/describing voice with perspective of the (relatively) uncritical Chaucer the pilgrim.
- We should be aware of the "question-begging" nature of Chaucer-the-pilgrim's descriptions of some of his fellow pilgrims (his dubious superlatives).
- The poet creates certain semantic gaps, uncertainties, ironies, which the active reader may penetrate.
Portrait of the Prioress
- Note the gentle satire which works not through direct criticism but via misplaced or question-begging PRAISE.
- We are given the portrait of a perfect ladybut is this the same thing as a perfect nun?
- What remains UNSAID modifies or complicates our view of the Prioress.
- Note the slipperiness of the language used to describe the pilgrims; it isn't always transparent.
- Probe the implications of this apology for the indecorous language Geoffrey must sometimes use if he is to report faithfully all the things the pilgrims said and did (see lines 727-44).
- Note the paradox of the fictional speaker's insistence on his unwillingness to use fiction, feigning, misrepresentation in transcribing their words.
- Note his exaggerated insistence on the authenticity, the privileged truth status, of what he's offering us, encouraging us to forget that he himself is part of Chaucer's larger fiction.
- Question-begging nature of his declaration that "The word must be the cousin to the deed." Does language always reproduce a material reality "out there" with perfect fidelity? Is the relationship between a linguistic sign and its signifier always perfectly stable?
- Note that in the rest of the GP, the language that represents the pilgrims doesn't necessarily represent the truth of them transparently.