Jest And Earnest In Chaucer's Work

3285 words - 13 pages

Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London around 1342, though the details are vague at best, and lived until 1400. Little is known of his early education, but his works show that he could read French, Latin, and Italian, and as such was clearly very well educated, and it is also known that he spent much of his life close to the centres of English power because the first reports of Chaucer come from 1357 as a page in the household of Prince Lionel before he went to serve for Edward III in France, where he was captured and ransomed. His first literary work appeared in the form of `The Book of the Duchess' in 1369, an allegory which grieves over the death of John of Gaunt's wife Blanche. Chaucer wrote many other works after this period but it was not until 1387 when Chaucer began his master work, `The Canterbury Tales.' Two years later, Chaucer's appointments in King Edward's court culminated with his position as clerk of the King's works.

As a result of these elevated positions in society, Chaucer gained a variety of viewpoints of social hierarchy as he met people from all levels of the ladder. It is this idea, Chaucer's knowledge of society as a whole, as well as what we know of Chaucer's good education, that is reflected in his work, and in particular in the `Canterbury Tales'. The tales present the reader with characters from all levels of society and Chaucer uses different characters' positions in society to make comments on other areas of society whilst always distancing himself from the remarks made.

Chaucer comments on society by presenting the reader with a large variety of characters, from the Knight at the very top level of society to characters such as the miller and the carpenter, laymen who are down the bottom level. To present characters' opinions and Chaucer's own opinion to the reader, a narrator is present throughout the tales who we assume to be Chaucer's personification in the story, but it becomes clear throughout the tales that Chaucer the pilgrim is placed in the work as a representative of a normal social member of the time.

The technique of using two voices, Chaucer the author and Chaucer the pilgrim is particularly prevalent in the General Prologue where Chaucer "presents us with an outline of the pilgrims he is travelling with, commenting in a seemingly naïve manner on their positive points and jovial approaches." However, whilst we can view Chaucer's comments as naïve, it becomes clear that Chaucer the author is using these comments to highlight the shortcomings in these characters by drawing our attention, seemingly accidentally, to their particular faults, such as the vanity of the prioress.

Most of the characters presented in the General Prologue are presented through heavy use of satire such as the Miller, but it is those that are presented in a seemingly positive way and can be read in an entirely different way from the author's point of view that are of particular interest. Characters such as...

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