Chaucer’s Use of Irony in The Canterbury Tales In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer compiles a mixture of stories on a pilgrimage into a figurative depiction of the medieval society in which he lived. Chaucer’s stories have a punch and pizzazz, which, to an average reader, seem uncommon to the typical medieval writer, making his story more delightful. Certain things account for this pizzazz, especially the author’s use of irony. Many of Chaucer’s characters are ironic in the sense that they are so far from what one would expect in the roles they depict, and also the fact that they are larger than life. Every character has his distinct personality with his own behavioral traits. Chaucer also uses irony in his humor, with its unexpectedness and randomness.
The wife of Bath is a prime example of one of Chaucer’s characters who is larger than life. She obviously is not what one would expect of a relatively wealthy woman in her time. Her notorious traits such as not only having five husbands, but also marrying a majority of them for wealth and money stick in the mind with their ironic abnormality and appalling connotations: “˜Johnny and Dame Alice And I myself, in the fields we went My husband was in London all that Lent; All the more fun for me””I only mean The fun of seeing people and being seen By cocky lads; for how was I to know Where or what graces Fortune might bestow’. (273) Chaucer accents her irregular character in this excerpt by portraying her promiscuous actions and her lack of virtue.
The wife of Bath also shows irony in her actions by her need for control over others, especially her husbands. ” “˜So help me God, I have to laugh outright / Remembering how I made them work at night! / And faith I set no store by it; no pleasure / It was to me’ (264)”. Here, the wife of Bath describes her domination and control over her past, old, wealthy husbands. She shows no signs of virtue in her actions to win her husbands, and to literally take their money from them. Because of these ironic, larger than life characteristics of the wife of Bath, she is a character that allows the reader to figuratively develop an intimate relationship with her. She sticks in the reader’s mind, and is a character who is remembered forever due to her unexpected ways and exaggerated traits.
The Friar is also an ironic character in his uniqueness and unexpected traits. Part of this irony is due to the enormous amount of corruption the friar possesses. “He’d fixed up many a marriage, giving each / Of his young women what he could afford her. / He was a noble pillar to his Order (8)”. In this quote, the unexpectedness totally captures the reader by surprise as he finds out that the Friar actually impregnates women and then marries them to men. This is an ideal quote to show Chaucer’s extra pizzazz in his stories, adding to the appeal of the reader. As the friar’s larger than life traits are exposed, a mental picture develops, to almost as if the reader is in the story. “Sweetly he heard his penitents at shrift / With pleasant absolution, for a gift / He was an easy man in penance-giving / Where he could hope to make a decent living (9)”. Here, it is seen that the friar is a very worldly man who puts money at a high priority in his life. Ironically, he took the vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and pathetically breaks all three vows.
One of the most ironically corrupt characters in the book is the Prioress. Throughout her tale and the prologue, Chaucer portrays her as someone completely different from what she should be in accord with her vocation as a nun. First of all, the Prioress’ characteristics and actions make it appear that she is going on the pilgrimage not because of her love and respect for God, but instead to travel and to go on an adventure. “She certainly was very entertaining / Pleasant and friendly in her ways, and straining / To counterfeit a courtly kind of grace, / A stately bearing fitting to her place, / And to seem dignified in all her dealings (6-7)”. This shows that the Prioress is faking her personality, counterfeiting her true purpose of being on the pilgrimage. Also, the Prioress is one of the most hateful characters in the whole story.
In the Prioress’ tale, she constantly states her anti-Semitic view towards Jews, implying that the best Jewish person is a dead Jewish person. The ironic part is that the Prioress should be a caring, loving person, for she is a holy representative of God on earth. Strangely enough, the Prioress becomes terrified at the sight of a hurt animal but could care less about Jewish people. “She used to weep if she but saw a mouse / Caught in a trap, if it were dead or bleeding (7)”. Overall, the Prioress is one of Chaucer’s most ironic characters in his story, and her actions seem unrelated to the vocation of being a nun.
Chaucer frequently and successfully uses ironic humor to add to the punch of the story. Because the humor is unexpected and imaginative, it draws from the reader a yearning and interest to read on. The fable of Chanticleer and Pertelote provides an ideal illustration of Chaucer’s humor. ” “˜For shame,’ she said, “˜you timorous poltroon! / Alas, what cowardice! By God above, / You’ve forfeited my heart and lost my love. / I cannot love a coward, come what may’ (216-17)”. Here, it is ironically humorous to not only have animals portraying human traits, but also to create a situation that is comparable to a married couple sitting down at the breakfast table bickering. The humor is directly exposed to the reader due to the unexpected being brought to words, mixed with a tinge of absurdity of the situation. The hilarious irony is that the married couple is actually a rooster and a hen. By using such scenes, Chaucer adds to his story a new twist that makes it more gratifying and amusing to read.
The randomness of some of Chaucer’s tales also adds to the humor of the story. For instance, it is amusing to think about the randomness of the miller’s tale and the imaginative mind one must have to come up with such a chaotic and hilarious story. The miller’s tale is so intricately laced with puns, sexual jokes, raunchy statements, that it adds an amusing humorous side of Chaucer to the story. Between the stupid carpenter, and the outraged Absolon, dirty scenes are depicted, contributing to Chaucer’s humorous style. All in all, the randomness in Chaucer’s imaginative and unusual comic stories is associated with irony due to the fact that the stories are so unexpected.
The ironic and unanticipated characteristics of some of Chaucer’s humorous scenes make the reader laugh, blush, grin, and snicker. “He lay there fainting, pale beneath his tan; / His arm in falling had been broken double”¦ They told the town / That he was mad, there’d got into his blood / Some sort of nonsense about “˜Nowel’s Flood (105)”. Here, when the carpenter falls from the ceiling in his apparatus to save his life and his wife’s, it is seen how truly random and unexpected Chaucer can be.
Overall, irony adds strength and diversity to Chaucer’s story, making his writings more successful. Irony combined with Chaucer’s imagination, wit, humor, and intelligence makes The Canterbury Tales successful and interesting to the reader. This irony presented in Chaucer’s characters and his humor helps to intensify Chaucer’s writings. Conclusively, the real success of the story relies in the incredible ingeniousness of Chaucer. However, the lack of Chaucer’s use of irony would make the compilation of tales much duller and less unique. Because of this, the irony in the story adds vigor, and it allows for Chaucer to increase his overwhelming success with his readers.
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