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Human Nature and The Canterbury Tales

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Howdy, Pilgrim:
Geoffrey Chaucer, 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' sleeping
with his wife and daughter, as well as by being clubbed by his wife in the confusion
the morning after. His wife clubs him deliberately, not by accident. She is tired of
having a "husband who has been a cheat to his customers and is unworthy of her,"
and she is seeking a long-desired retribution upon her husband" (Balliet 2). These
reasons are added to the fact that "she knows that she has cuckolded him" and by
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knocking him out she may be able to hide her unfaithfulness (Balliet 3). Through
these tales Chaucer shows the universality of greed in human nature.
While in respect to greed these tales may agree, that greed is universal among
humans contrasts with the widow of the "Nun's Priest's Tale." She is described as
poor and aged, and is "living a simple life on her small landholding" (Whittock 230).
She is not caught up in the race for wealth; she is not influenced by greed, but instead
lives "an idealization of honest and contented poverty" (Fehrenbacher 138). Chaucer
shows that it is not just in human nature to be greedy in this tale.
Human nature as depicted in "The Nun's Priest's Tale" contrasts not only with
the greed in some of the tales but also with what is depicted in "The Cleric's Tale." In
the former tale, Chanticleer, a rooster, is arguing with his wife Pertelote over the
meaning of dreams, and in this argument one sees the all-to-real battle of the sexes.
In "The Cleric's Tale," however, Griselda, the wife of the lord Walter, is patient and
tolerant to the extreme of everything her husband does. This does not necessarily
imply that wives should accept whatever treatment their husbands give, but that
"Griselda's patient acceptance of the inscrutable will of her earthly husband may be
taken as a moving example of how the Christian should submit to the Divine will,"
whatever may befall him in his life (Edden 370). "If Griselda showed such patience
to the will of a flawed earthly husband, then what patient submission ought the
faithful Christian to show to the will of a loving and omnipotent God?" (Edden 370).
This seems to be a fitting argument, since this tale is told by the Cleric.
While the Cleric's intelligence may have brought such a moral to his tale,
intelligence is misused or even unused in "The Reeve's Tale" and "The Canon's
Yeoman's Tale." In the first, the two clerks have come to the miller intent on
outwitting him using their superior intellect, so that "the miller couldn't rob them of
half a peck of corn by trickery" (Chaucer 127). The miller however frees one of their
horses and having outwitted them instead, steals from their grain. As Jeffrey Baylor
observes:
But while the two students do manage to regain
their grain, their horse, and have the sexual
favors of the miller's wife and daughter ... the
clerks, who were overconfident of their ability to
outwit the miller, find it necessary to 'lower'
themselves to the level of the miller's crude
nature (17).
In the tale told by the Yeoman, the canon has much intelligence and
knowledge, just as the clerics do. However, he chooses not to put it to good use,
instead wasting it on the vain search for easy riches, to satisfy his greed. In these two
tales Chaucer shows the failure of learning and knowledge.
While many of these tales do show facets of human nature, it is not just the
tales but the purpose of the tales which shows human nature. Many of the individual
tales within The Canterbury Tales are not just told by their respective narrators to
entertain the group of pilgrims but also in response to or in attack of the tales of other
pilgrims or to provoke a response from another. This shows the tendency of human
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nature for one to desire to have 'the last word.' For instance, "The Reeve's Tale" is
aimed directly at the Miller, who had told a vulgar tale of a carpenter, which
offended the Reeve, a carpenter by trade. "The Cleric's Tale" is a response to the tale
of the Wife of Bath, who had spoken of her ideal that women should be in control in
a marriage; the Cleric tells a tale of a woman who accepts anything her husband says
or does. The tale of the Friar is aimed at the Summoner, and before the Friar ended
his prologue the Summoner vows to repay him:
Say what he likes, and when my turn's to come
I'll pay him back, by God! I'll strike him dumb!
I'll tell him what an honour it is, none higher,
To be a limiter, a flattering friar!
I'll tell him all about that job of his (Chaucer 311).
In this way, Chaucer demonstrates his knowledge of human nature not just in
each tale separately, but within the frame of the whole Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer showed the universality of human nature in many ways in The
Canterbury Tales. In several tales, he shows greed as playing a major part in human
nature. But he also shows that human nature is not all greed; in "The Nun's Priests
Tale" he shows an old widow living in simplicity and poverty. Chaucer shows the
relationships between men and women in his tales, as well as the role of knowledge.
Through the whole set of tales, he shows the tendency for humans to have the last
word. Therefore, this shall be the last word; this paper ends here.
Works Cited
Balliet, Gay L. "The Wife in Chaucer's Reeves's Tale: Siren of Sweet
Vengeance." English Language Notes 28.1 (1990): 1-5.
Baylor, Jeffrey. "The Failure of the Intellect in Chaucer's Reeve's Tale."
English Language Notes 28.1 (1990): 17-19.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Trans. Nevill Coghill. Baltimore:
Penguin Books, 1960.
Dictionary of Literary Biography: Old and Middle English. Ed. Jeffrey
Helteman and Jerome Mitchell. Detroit: Sale Research, Inc., 1994.
Edden, Valerie. "Sacred and Secular in the Clerk's Tale." The Chaucer
Review 26.4 (1992): 369-376.
Fehrenbacher, Richard W. "'A Yeerd Enclosed Al About': Literature and
History in the Nun's Priest's Tale." The Chaucer Review 29.2 (1994): 134-148.
Whittock, Trevor. A Reading of The Canterbury Tales. Cambridge:
University of Cambridge Press, 1970.