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The Bourgeois Social Class In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

5285 words - 21 pages

It is clear that Geoffrey Chaucer was acutely aware of the strict classist system in which he lived; indeed the very subject matter of his Canterbury Tales (CT) is a commentary on this system: its shortcomings and its benefits regarding English society. In fact, Chaucer is particularly adept at portraying each of his pilgrims as an example of various strata within 14th century English society. And upon first reading the CT, one might mistake Chaucer's acute social awareness and insightful characterizations as accurate portrayals of British society in the late 1300s and early 1400s. Further, one might mistake his analysis, criticism, and his sardonic condemnation of many elements of British culture for genuine attempts to alter the oppressive system producing such malevolent characters as the Friar, the Summoner, the Pardoner, and the Prioress. If one believes, however, that Chaucer attempted to in any way alter the dominant social paradigm for the betterment of the lower class victims portrayed in the CT (the Old Widow from The Friar's Tale, or John from The Miller's Tale), one is grievously mistaken. While appearing to criticize the more obvious deficiencies of his society, Chaucer actually endorses the overall structure of the Estates system, merely suggesting a broader definition of the structure to include his own bourgeois class of merchants - thus reinforcing the classist society that gave rise to working class rebellions such as the Peasant's Revolt that paralyzed London in 1381.

If we accept the CT as a portrayal of Chaucer's society (regardless of its accuracy or intent), we must also recognize and explore the obvious and distinct ideological contradictions that pervade his text; for Chaucer's attack on the more conspicuous societal ills cannot be interpreted as sincere if there exists, at any level, an endorsement for ideologies that oppress the lower classes and destroy their ability to resist exploitation. We cannot read the CT as an honest criticism of 14th century English society without examining the entire picture - and this picture includes Chaucer's ideological contradiction. To better understand Chaucer's real message - criticizing the Three Estates system in order to encourage acceptance of his own Estate, the merchant or middle class - I will briefly discuss the Three Estates system and Chaucer's role in the system's shift to include a Fourth Estate (and how this shift influenced the CT). Then I will examine four stories from the CT (The Wife of Bath's Prologue, The Friar's Tale, The Summoner's Tale, and The Pardoner's Tale) in which Chaucer seems to denounce elements of the social paradigm. I will then examine four stories from the CT (The Knight's Tale, The Man of Law's Tale, The Second Nun's Tale, and The Parson's Tale) in which Chaucer contradicts his criticism of his society. Finally, I will discuss how the dominant social paradigm influenced Chaucer's view of the lower classes, and how the classist...

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