Chaucer's Irony - The Canterbury Tales
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Chaucer's Irony Irony is a vitally important part of The Canterbury Tales, and Chaucer's ingenious use of this literary device does a lot to provide this book with the classic status it enjoys even today. Chaucer has mastered the techniques required to skilfully put his points across and subtle irony and satire is particularly effective in making a point. The Canterbury Tales are well-known as an attack on the Church and its rôle in fourteenth century society. With the ambiguity introduced by the naïve and ignorant "Chaucer the pilgrim", the writer is able to make ironic attacks on characters and what they represent from a whole new angle. The differences in opinion of Chaucer the pilgrim and Chaucer the writer are much more than nuances - the two personas are very often diametrically opposed so as to cause effectual irony. In the Friar's portrait, he is delineated and depicted by riddles of contradictory qualities. Chaucer expertly uses ironic naiveté to highlight the Friar's lack of moral guilt. When the reader is told that the Friar, "knew the taverns wel in every toun" (l. 240), we can take it to mean that he spends very much time drinking, flirting and socialising in pubs.
Chaucer cunningly uses this technique throughout The General Prologue: making the pilgrim miss seemingly obvious character flaws and instead ironically reporting an opposite, contrasting view thereby illustrating to the reader just how unethical his fellow pilgrim is. When a portrait is laden with irony such as this, it reinforces the immorality of the Friar when even the ignorant pilgrim can see that he is a "wantowne" (l. 208) person without a modicum of conscience. Shortly after the Friar, Chaucer makes a curt change in direction to cover the Clerk. Again, irony plays an important part in his portrait and is vital for us to understand what sort of person Chaucer the writer wants to portray. However, the irony used to describe this Oxford scholar is very different to that used to portray the Friar and many of the other pilgrims. This time, Chaucer is not drawn in by the intricate webs of deceit and lies spun by the other pilgrims, but instead makes his own erroneous judgements on the Clerk's personality. Chaucer the pilgrim depreciates him for the over-thin appearance of him and his horse. He expresses disdain at the Clerk's poor-quality worn apparel intending to insult him as though it makes him a lesser person when, in fact, this merely shows that the Clerk is not a hedonistic materialist and devotes his limited resources to more useful pursuits such as enhancing his knowledge.
162), which is particularly inappropriate for a humble, selfless nun. The Prioress is described as "charitable and so pitous" because "she wolde weep, if that she saw a mous/Kaught in a trappe" (ll. 144-5). However, her charity is rather misplaced as noting is mentioned about her work as nun for the poor. She even displays her own ostentatious wealth by flaunting her showy jewels - she wears "a brooch of gold ful sheene" (l. 160). Of course, Chaucer the pilgrim simply sees this as being elegant and sophisticated. Throughout The General Prologue we see how Chaucer the pilgrim has been swayed and convinced by what the other pilgrims tell him. So much so that he reports qualities that are often the opposite of the true personalities of the characters he is describing. This ambiguity reveals a very clever sort of irony on behalf of the writer - while Chaucer the pilgrim is easily drawn in by their deliberate misrepresentations, it is up to the readers to see how wrong he is and draw their own, more accurate, conclusions. It shows many of the pilgrims to be very different people than those symbolised by the ideal qualities they want others to see. This astute technique is particularly effective in pointing out the hypocrisy and corruption in the Christian Church during Chaucer's time. Jonathan Hobbs - 1 - 28/04/2007
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