Human Nature and The Canterbury Tales
When Geoffrey Chaucer undertook the writing of The Canterbury Tales, he had a long road ahead of him. He intended to tell two stories from each of thirty pilgrims on the way to Canterbury, and then two more from each pilgrim on the way back from Canterbury. Of these, he completed only twenty-four. However, in these tales, Chaucer depicts both the pilgrims and their stories with striking realism. In "The Nun's Priest's Tale," "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale," "The Friar's Tale," "The Reeve's Tale," and "The Cleric's Tale," Chaucer demonstrates his remarkable insight into human nature. By comparing and contrasting these tales, one can see the universality of human nature as shown by Chaucer.
One human trait apparent in these selections is greed. Avarice drives the hearts of many men, whether they may be a common miller or a summoner or a supposedly religious canon, and Chaucer was aware of this. In the tales which contain these three characters, Chaucer depicts the greed of these characters. The Reeve tells his fellow pilgrims in his tale of a miller who "was a thief ... of corn and meal, and sly at that; his habit was to steal" (Chaucer 125). The summoner in "The Friar's Tale" "drew large profits to himself thereby," and as the devil observes of him in this tale, "You're out for wealth, acquired no matter how" (Chaucer 312, 315). The canon in Part 1 of "The Canon's Yeoman's Tale," as well as the Yeoman himself, had been driven by the goal of converting base metals into gold, and "though we never realized the wished conclusion we still went on raving in our illusion" (Chaucer 478). The second canon of which the Yeoman speaks is many times worse than his own canon and master, using his trickery not merely in pursuit of making gold but also of stealing it. The Yeoman explains that this greed, "the single minded pursuit of a trivial object can destroy a man," as it did to himself and his master (Whittock 262). But the second canon is well beyond this point. "In all this world he has no peer for falsehood;" so selfish is he that he "infects" whole towns and robs them; so horrible is his greed that he can only compare with the traitor Judas who betrayed Christ (Whittock 270).
However bad a picture the Yeoman paints of this canon, the Friar creates this canon's near-equal in his own tale. This time the character is a summoner. The summoner is unswerving in his greed even in the face of the devil, and as the Dictionary of Literary Biography says, "[he] tells the devil he may be good at what he does in his neck of the woods, but if he wants to see how it is done, he should watch the summoner at work" (140). The devil of course does watch, and because the summoner will not repent for his lies and stealing, the devil proceeds to carry him off to Hell.
Condemnation does not come in such a dramatic fashion for the miller in "The Reeve's Tale." His trickery against the clerks is repaid by the clerks'...