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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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THE TALES

GENERAL PROLOGUE:

CHARACTERS AND THEMES

The opening of the General Prologue bursts with spring, with new life, and shows that Chaucer is both similar to and different from his poetic predecessors. He uses many images of spring that would be familiar to a medievel audience: the April showers (familiar to us too) "piercing" March's dryness, the "licour" in each plant's "vein," the breezes "inspiring" the crops. It's short, but enough of a description to give us a sense of waking up to new and exciting events. Even the birds sleep with "open eyes" because of the rising sap.

Then, instead of moving from the conventional spring setting to a description of courtly romantic or heroic deeds, as his audience might expect, he draws us into a very down-to-earth world. Spring isn't romance; it's the time of year "when people long to go on pilgrimages." We can all identify with the feeling of "spring fever," when we want to travel and shake off the winter doldrums.


What's more, in case we or Chaucer's listeners are expecting a conventional medieval description of moral allegorical types-Greed, Love, Fortune, etc.- or battles, we're in for a shock. Other poets presented characters for moral purposes or to embody ideals such as courtly love. But Chaucer doesn't deal in types, whether religious or courtly, but in portraits of real people. He even ignores the unwritten rule of the time that, if you're describing someone, you start at the top, very orderly, and work down. Chaucer will start with someone's beard, then hat, boots, tone of voice, and finally his political opinions! (That's just a partial description of the Merchant.) He's not reporting for a moral purpose, but out of love of life and the people around him.

Imagine that you're minding your own business in a wayside tavern and in burst 29 people representing every facet of society. For Chaucer, that meant the nobility, embodied in the Knight and Squire; the church, in the form of the Prioress, Monk, and others; agriculture (the Plowman); and the emerging middle class (the Merchant, Franklin and tradesmen). Rather than shy away from this motley crew, Chaucer the narrator (who is not the same, remember, as Chaucer the poet) befriends and describes them, inserting his own opinions freely.

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