The Age of Chaucer

Chaucer’s Art of Characterization in “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”

In literature, characterization is an essential element that brings the characters to life. The art of characterization requires a keen observation of human nature and a writer’s ability to translate that into their written work. One such writer who excels in characterization is Geoffrey Chaucer, who has been celebrated for his works in the Middle English period. In particular, “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” is a masterpiece that showcases Chaucer’s exceptional talent in characterizing people. This article explores Chaucer’s art of characterization in “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.”

Chaucer’s Depiction of the Characters

Overview of the “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”

Before delving into Chaucer’s art of characterization, it is crucial to understand the “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.” The prologue introduces the readers to a group of pilgrims journeying to Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury. The narrator, also a pilgrim, provides vivid descriptions of each character, social status, and personal qualities. The diversity of the characters reflects the medieval society of England.

Chaucer’s use of physical description

Chaucer’s art of characterization lies in his ability to create a vivid picture of each character in the reader’s mind. He achieves this by providing physical descriptions of the characters. For instance, Chaucer describes the Knight as someone who has “fought in many battles” and “seen a great deal of the world.” Such a description gives the reader an idea of the Knight’s bravery, experience, and strength. Similarly, describing the Prioress as someone who speaks French with a good accent and has a little lapdog helps the reader visualize her as an upper-class woman who is well-educated and affluent.

For example, Chaucer describes the Knight as follows:

“A Knight there was, and that a worthy man, That from the time that he first began To riden out, he loved chivalrye, Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye.”

This description tells us what the Knight looks like and about his personality and values.

Chaucer’s use of social status

In medieval society, social status played a significant role, and Chaucer portrays this accurately in his characters. Each character in the “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” has a different social status, reflected in their behavior and language. For instance, the Knight’s polite and courteous language reflects his high social status. In contrast, the miller’s coarse and vulgar language reflects his lower social status. Chaucer also provides insight into the characters’ professions, further enhancing their characterization.

Chaucer’s use of irony

Chaucer’s art of characterization is broader than the characters’ physical descriptions and social status. He also employs irony to provide a deeper understanding of the characters. For instance, the friar is described as someone who is supposed to be poor and humble but instead is fond of company and enjoys the company of wealthy people. Such irony in the description of characters adds depth and complexity to their personalities.

For example, Chaucer’s description of the Prioress includes this passage:

“At mete wel y-taughte was she with-alle; She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle, Ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce depe.”

This description is ironic, as it presents the Prioress as a refined and delicate woman, even though she is supposed to be a religious figure.

Chaucer’s use of characterization to reflect society

Chaucer’s art of characterization is more comprehensive than just creating a realistic portrayal of individual characters. He also uses his characters to reflect the society they live in. Each character in the “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” represents a particular social class, occupation, and mindset. Chaucer’s characterization of these characters gives us a glimpse into the medieval society of England, its values, and its flaws.


Geoffrey Chaucer’s art of characterization in “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” is an exceptional example of his literary talent. His ability to create realistic and vivid characters by employing physical descriptions, social status, irony, and reflection of society is a testament to his mastery of characterization. Chaucer’s works continue to be a source of inspiration for writers and readers alike.


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