Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales (Landmarks of World Literature by Winthrop Wetherbee

By Winthrop Wetherbee

Putting the Canterbury stories within the context of the obstacle in English society within the fourteenth century, this advisor examines the social range of Chaucer's pilgrims, the stylistic variety in their stories and mental richness in their interplay. It emphasizes the language of the poem, in addition to the function of Chaucer in literary culture, and devotes a whole bankruptcy to the overall Prologue broadly studied in undergraduate classes. eventually, the amount contains a chronology of the interval and a useful consultant to additional interpreting. First variation Hb (1989): 0-521-32331-2 First variation Pb (1989): 0-521-31159-4

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Individual portraits range from ideal types, confections of attributes and values with no individuality, to representations couched wholly in particulars of dress, physical appearance, or behavior. Along this 22 THE CANTERBURY TALES spectrum Chaucer associates each pilgrim with a recognizable social role, and invites us to consider how the subject fulfills our expectations for that role. By these means, and while keeping explicit commentary to a bare minimum, the poet and his narrator explore the shifting relationship between the traditional social hierarchy and a random array of occupations whose purposes and standards are more or less self-determined.

The sphere of Venus as depicted on the walls of her shrine is a world of violent feeling, intrigue, and continual restless movement; the love-idealism proper to chivalry is recalled only in a few incidental details. A vast painting in the temple of Mars shows not only the ruin and slaughter of war, but a violence that pervades all life, from the treachery of the back streets to such ordinary tasks as cooking, keeping pigs, driving carts; the work of barber, butcher, and smith. By exposing the sheer unwieldy power of the gods, the two temples express the Knight’s dawning awareness of the complexity of the world he seeks to order, and perhaps also an awareness that his warrior’s vocation has not fully prepared him to deal with the sophistication and diversity of this world.

When we try to extract a clear judgment from a portrait, we usually find ourselves in the uneasy position of having to assume that the narrator’s words mean something other than what they say, or basing our interpretation on what is not said rather than what is. The problem is plain in the opening portrait of the Knight. Ostensibly a paragon of Christian chivalry, he has also been viewed as a cold-blooded professional whose involvement in some of the most brutal fighting of his day is in glaring contrast to his perfect courtesy and honor.

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