Sunday, November 9, 2008

Chaucer and the Human Condition: A Quest

In his satirical[1] The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer takes us with twenty-nine random characters for a little dialogical[2] trip to the shrine of the unfortunately assassinated Thomas a Becket.[3] While the initial motive of these “cats” is to touch the shrine of the martyr-saint, they are challenged to tell some tall tales by the host of Tabard Inn—the place of rest before they begin this “divinely inspired” pilgrimage to an area outside of London. In his prologue to these tales, Chaucer, or the narrator, takes the role of an at once distant and close observer, absorbing details about these idiosyncratic[4] characters whose true colors show not only in their outfits, but in their words and actions as well. It is through such indirect characterization that Chaucer enters into a subtle dialectic[5] with the world, displaying through character and dialogue truths about the human condition.


First of all: re-write the thesis statement and back it up with three developing paragraphs that involve a synopsis of three characters in the prologue and what each “cat” represents as regards the human condition.

Pinpoint any, shall we say, “ironies”[6] in the characters.

For instance, consider the monk’s character (cf. ii 169-211). He is truly a man of great hypocrisy—a type of irony. For a man who is supposed to be living simply and humbly, the monk flaunts an outfit with “sleeves…garnished at the hand / with fine gray fur, the finest in the land, / and on his hood, to fasten it at his chin / He had a wrought-gold cunningly fashioned pin; Into a lover’s’ knot it seemed to pass” (ii 197-201). Such a display suggests contradiction; what he practices is not the austere way of monastic, cloistered living, but “the modern world’s more spacious way” (ii 180). And so it is by way of such subtle observations that Chaucer’s narrator pinpoints a truth of the human condition called, hypocrisy.

[1] Adjective, exposing human folly to ridicule

[2] Adjective, of or pertaining to dialogue

[3] In case you didn’t know, Becket was commissioned by King Henry II in the 1160’s CE to rock the diocese of Canterbury in true shepherd style. However, his friendship with the king was strained by a mutual struggle for power—you know the deal: church vs. state. Apparently, though it is not verified by reliable data, KHII voiced some desire to have Becket killed—a threat voiced in conversation with four of his supposedly noble knights one day. So the four armored men took KH literally and, shall we say, “finished the job,” killing Becket, who, as a quasi-martyr, was canonized a saint by Pope Alexander III in 1173 CE.

[4] Adjective, of or pertaining to idiosyncrasy: a characteristic, habit, mannerism, or the like, that is peculiar to an individual.

[5] Adjective, of, pertaining to, or of the nature of logical argumentation; noun, the art or practice of logical discussion as employed in investigating the truth of a theory or opinion.

[6] Noun, plural: “ies” a technique of indicating, as through character or plot development, an intention or attitude opposite to that which is actually or ostensibly stated.; (esp. in contemporary writing) a manner of organizing a work so as to give full expression to contradictory or complementary impulses, attitudes, etc., esp. as a means of indicating detachment from a subject, theme, or emotion.

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