Thesis: The Miller, Wife of Bath and Pardoner in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, are not mere reflections of England in the 1400s, but allegorical representations of modern society.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales has been celebrated as his most prolific work. The way he brought social commentary together with poetry; using rhyming couplets through iambic pentameter as he allowed the use of fabliaux throughout the tales to show his mastery over irony, allegory and humour has been cause for debate in academia. Though his “individual sketches of knights, priests and peasants” are common in medieval literature, and the” allegorical writings of the age both sacred and secular abound in personified types”(French, p.203). In his review of Chaucer’s work Miller stated that “there are three estates and in his own way everyone in the world lives under them” (p.1) It is therefore reasonable to deduce that The Miller, The Wife of Bath and The Pardoner in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, are not mere reflections of England in the 1400s, but allegorical representations of modern society. The traditional offices or classes of distinction conferred by society on certain ideals is what Chaucer sought to expose in the Canterbury Tales, and in so doing the audience is able to conduct introspection and identify those politically correct notions upon which our society were built and continue to esteem in some respect even to this day. It is said that the best way to get one’s point across is to show rather than tell, and this is precisely how the characters mentioned were used to show a reflection of society.
The story opens up with the general prologue in which Chaucer sketches each character through the use of irony. Cunningham in his review of Robert Dudley’s interpretation of the work further postulated that “his use of irony is not a function of local voice since it wavers in and out throughout the tale. It is in the general prologue that he blends individuality and variety of behaviour, posture and discrimination and detailed clothing” (p.1) to present the characters with some element of eccentrics attached. The prologue can then be seen as a mask which the author dons to engage in criticism of how each person is segmented into the established estates and how society propagates this cycle throughout the ages. David suggests that Chaucer uses the frame story help him escape his morality as a poet (p.162). The themes of religion, greed, love and mortality feature dominantly in the tale; but other issues by societal construct have been explored too. In several ways, the themes the focus characters have been used to explore intertwine: The Wife of Bath is used in the exploration of love, femininity and power, The Miller’s is used to explore love, foolishness and folly, power, as well as religion and finally, The Pardoner is a lesson in greed, power, religion, mortality and death.
The Miller’s tale is representative of that general section of society that is regarded as crude and uncultured. The Miller himself is portrayed as one who is unattractive and menacing in stature (p. 17). This is evidenced in how Chaucer describes him; he was menacing in stature and could crack a bone with his skull, was compared with a pig and the hairy wart on his nose with his black nose was nothing that would make him likeable. The fact that in a puritanical society he was given to drunkenness and harlotry cements this frame as a reject that draws the ire of society since he refuses to observe what society would consider to be good and decent. In his tale of cuckoldry, he seems to take delight in scandal of those who he perceives to be dancing to the tune of society’s music. His tale is a complaint which levels scorn at the establishment of marriage and the idea of love. In much the same way in modern society, The Miller exists, angry at those who have status, scoffing at love as he feels it reduces men to foolishness. Rather he chooses to embrace folly by flouncing societal conventions of manners and etiquette.
Pugh suggests that Chaucer used The Wife of Bath to express his own dislike for the medieval Arthurian type of romance. If this be the case, one can see why his description of her is so distinct. Not only was the prologue used to portray her as a raucous person, but more so as a wild card to disrupt the order of society’s preconceived notion of what a woman ought to be, and the identity it etched out for women in general and more so women of position. The Wife of Bath does not fall into step with the cult of womanhood that delights in magnifying the woman as vulnerable and needing the approval of a man to validate her. Her appearance is something of refinement, as the general prologue introduces her as a “worthy woman” whose clothing bettered that of Ypres and Ghent, which were the locations where the King’s designers would draw his wool from. She was still formidable in her senior or more mature years and her broad hips mentioned, lend to the imagination one who had been shapely.
Martin highlight that Chaucer uses a classic trademark in his pieces by investigating how experience resists authority and how authority shapes experience (p.29). This is evidenced in how she spoke of how it might be if there were no authority on earth except her own experience, stamping her on seal of approval on her experience and affording herself agency. While she feels that “marriage is a misery and a woe” (p. 258), she reckons that her five marriages sanction her sexually expressive nature and sees no reason for her to be judged for exercising in the marital art. She brings about crudeness to love; a raw passion that would be more harshly criticized if she didn’t have the social standing that she enjoyed. She is seemingly the direct opposite to The Miller in social standing but somewhat similar in her love for topics that seem to promote harlotry or lasciviousness.
She is not beset by the trappings of society with its puritanical view of morality. Rather Chaucer portrays her as a sexually liberated woman, which is antithetical to her time. She therefore exists as a caricature of the present day liberated woman who is secure in who she is. She has the means to get what she wants and indulges her fancies without apology. Her power is not only in the beauty of her appearance as she adorns herself to draw the affections of men and command the attention of those with whom she comes into contact. Her power goes beyond her means and now also includes her acceptance of the sway she has with her feminine wiles. As posited by Pugh, she fiercely defends her right to be lascivious and she is used to destabilize the audience’s expectation of what women of her stature should be. Her reference to the Bible’s woman of Samaria and other scriptural allusions, underscores her acknowledgement of the religious indictment on her conduct, but she craftily uses her wit to use the very same religious references to sanction her behaviour. This seems a blatant kick in the pants for religious zealots who demand a higher standard of morality for her than they do for men. Ironically, she uses the scriptures to her advantage in much the same way clergymen would twist it to suit their own fancies. In today’s society The Woman of Bath exists in the example of a Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor or a CardiB. She is empowered to speak her mind, walk in her own truth and embrace the power that her femininity allows.
The Pardoner’s Tale is rife with allegory as the character’s stance on moral and political issues tend to reveal criticism of society of the day; exposing society’s hypocrisy even more so as it relates to religious matters (Halverson, p.1). The Pardoner is presented in a way that delivers a scathing criticism of the church and its agents. In the general prologue it is revealed that the clergy engages in the very lascivious and immoral behaviour that it condemns others for. Once more, appearance plays a crucial role in setting the tone for how the character is received.
His description as a gentle pardoner with hair yellow as wax is perhaps symbolic of the angelic glow that one imagines would adorn one who ought to be spotless enough to pardon the sin of others. The driblets of locks which spread across his shoulders soften his look to the point of making him effeminate in appearance. The fact that he doesn’t wear the hood over his head that clergymen of the time wore, is evidence of pride which is a moral vice; hence the irony of him choosing to carry himself in such a manner when he would himself condemn others for being guilty of the sin of pride. His penchant for having his wallet at hand speaks to his always being ready to take advantage of others if there was a profit to be had. The Pardoner’s own tale is an account of what the soul’s journey to damnation is like when one persists in greed and sin. The irony is that even as The Pardoner is the bearer of this most insightful exhortation, he is on the very same to damnation just like those he makes a living off through supposedly pardoning them. The Pardoner’s tale of how the Rioter asks for directions to death so he can acquire the bushels of gold is commentary of how man’s insatiable hunger for material things and pleasure seeking often causes his demise. In his tale the of how the Rioters turn on each other with murderous intent, one is shown how one’s life is spent on vanity; striving for material gain at the expense of losing one’s virtue and eternal soul. In much the same way there is evidence in modern society of this greed and the stone cold hearts that will stop at nothing to fulfil their lust for pleasure seeking and the almighty dollar. From pharmaceutical industry which conducts studies on unsuspecting people to the judges involved in the prison pipeline, pockets with monies that have come by bloodshed and injustice, The Pardoner is evident in modern day society. Even the leaders of churches are not blameless in this regard.
To conclude, the mocking tone of the author which flows through the entire tale is effectively conveyed by the inside man, the sly spectator who in his omnipresent fashion, narrates each account with flourish. In so doing he is, as David suggests, the moralist who calls for judgement yet at the same time retains his position as the artist who refuses to judge (p.36). Each of the three characters explored aided the character in shining the spotlight on a hypocritical society which prided itself on upholding virtues yet made allowances for people depending on which wrung of the social ladder they were on and which of the estates they would be categorized under. Whereas The Miller’s account was used by Chaucer as a complaint against society’s double standards and inconsistency, The wife of Bath’s tale might be seen as a defiant protest of religious strictures, while The Pardoner’s account is an indictment on the religious community using its own standards and in parables as is its practice. In present day society the scathing commentary is still relevant and is evidence that the portraits in Chaucer’s most prolific work, transcends time. It is reasonable to deduce that it would still be relevant in centuries yet unseen.