THE ELEMENT OF SATIRE WITH RESPECT TO CHAUCERS CANTERBURY TALES
It is human nature to laugh when an event goes wrong or to make a mockery of an all too serious person. But what if authors had the power to use this instinct within humans to drive a point across? In fact they do and they call this literary toolsatire. Many authors have used this tool as a backbone in their writings; others have only managed to throw in elements of satire here and there. However, there was one author who had mastered this literary tool, and who could use it to the extremes. He had the ability to use it as playfully and lightheartedly as if to just tease. But, in an instant, he could use it to denigrate a person and ruin all that was left of their self-dignity. His name was Geoffrey Chaucer and his weapon of choice, satire.
Satire is one of the most effective ways of writing. It allows the writer to use his imagination to the fullest and be as malicious as he deems necessary, yet not cause the reader to leave in disgust (Highet 242). Satire is a form of literature that readers expect to find some form of profound ideas. However, with satire comes a variation of the truth. While satire is grounded in truth, it is a tainted form. Distorted by the writer as a way of expressing an idea (Highet 234).
It is not quite certain where the origins of satire started, but most believe that it was the Romans to first coin the term satire (Highet 24). Satura, meaning dish of mixed ingredients (HTTP://WWW.GALENET.COM/SERVLET/DC). Two men that could be credited with the title of The Grandfathers of Satire are the Roman poets Horace and Lucilius who wrote volumes of poetry, which included their own views on world politics, social fads, and the characters of their friends (Highet 24).
Now, one must ask oneself why would an author choose to write in satire? Possibly it was personal grudges (Highet 238). Or another reason may be to state an ideal. In this case, the satire is not just to belittle a particular idea, but also to send a warning as an example (Highet 243). Other reasons for a satirist include, their personal feeling of inferiority or the desire to better society (Highet 240-241).
Chaucer was as straightforward as a man can get (Wagenknecht 72). He saw the world as a down to earth fellow who was regarded as sweet (Wagenknecht 141). Being the son of a vintner (victuallers were the peace party), he did not approve of war except that with a religious cause (Wagenknecht 56).It is said that Chaucer would naturally take and present the most unfavorable view of the clerical body, and a correspondingly favorable one of the military (Wagenknecht 56). This is why he is so critical of the Pardoner and Summoner who represent the church. This also explains why he holds the Knight with such high regard.
Even though Chaucer wrote with much vulgarity towards the church it is important to note that Chaucer was indeed religious and a Christian at that (Wagenknecht 130). This becomes more evident when looking at how he satirizes the Wife of Bath in the following lines:
From the Wife of Baths general prologue
In the whole parish there was not a woman
Who dared precede her at the almsgiving,
And if there did, so furious was she,
That she was put out of all charity. (Wright 27)
These lines illustrate how the Wife of Bath seems to be the first at the altar, and if she is not she becomes jealous of the other women. The Wife of Bath tends to represent herself as a woman who uses sex as a means of taking in husbands then holding them for their money, land, or even titles (Wagenknecht 99). Chaucer sees these faults clearly, and his saturations become a criticism, which hold that of Christian morals and principles (Wagenknecht 99).
Though Chaucer was a man of religious standards he is also a man of tolerance (Wagenknecht 61). He knew all too well that he was, in fact, not perfect. And when he chooses to satirize the Monk he holds this into account. It then becomes clear how Chaucer was a person who saw the faults of people, but was able to look past it if the intent of the character was good:
From the Monks general prologue
I noticed that his sleeves were edged and trimmed
With squirrel fur, the finest in the land.
For fastening his hood beneath his chin,
He wore an elaborate golden pin. (Wright 13)
These lines describe how the Monk was dressed which was very much out of the normal attire assigned to monks at that time. The Monk is a man who does what he wants with no regard for the church in which hes pledged his soul. Chaucer satirizes the Monk rather lightly compared to other criticisms. And what it amounts to would be a slap on the wrist, this is because Chaucer realizes the Monk has done wrong, but he is not hurting anyone.
The Pardoners and the Summoners descriptions are more serious. This is due to the fact that Pardoner and the Summoner are more opportunistic than any other pilgrims. The Friar fits in with them but he is also not nearly as bad. Chaucers satire becomes more insulting and less joking when he writes about the Pardoner and the Summoner. This is to show his extreme disgust for the two.
From the Pardoners general prologue
This pardon-sellers hair was yellow as wax,
And sleekly hanging, like a hank of flax.
In meagre clusters hung what hair he had;
Over his shoulders, a few strands were spread,
But they lay thin, in rats tails, one by one.
As for a hood, for comfort he wore none. (Wright 39)
From the Summoners general prologue
Whose face was fire-red, like the cherubim;
All covered with carbuncles; his eyes narrow (Wright 37).
In both descriptions, Chaucer paints a picture of these men who are less than men, as disgusting as he can conceive. He loathes the two because they work and travel together. The Summoner produces false summons, while the Pardoner sells forged pardons. Chaucer makes them the epitome of all that is evil. His description of the Pardoner and his hair allows the reader to make the connection between him and that of a rat, an animal often associated with being very devious.
Chaucer has endless amounts of satire usage in his works. As if spades up a card players sleeve, Chaucer can play his card at anytime. He truly uses all his imagination developing the characters and their approach to life. It becomes more apparent than not how Chaucers principles and standards affect his writing. Satire is not the greatest form of literature but one of the most energetic and memorable forms (Highet contents: ix). This becomes ever so clear in Chaucers writings. For he has the ability to make the reader laugh and cause him to think at the same time. He did not care for the reviews of others, he wrote
on his own time.He was confident with himself in every aspect (Wagenknecht 72).
Chaucer was a jolly old man who loved to make people laugh.
HIGHET, GILBERT. THE ANATOMY OF SATIRE. PRINCETON: PRINCETON UP, 1962.
WAGENKNECHT, EDWARD. THE PERSONALITY OF CHAUCER. NORMAN: UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS, 1968.
WRIGHT, DAVID, ED. THE CANTERBURY TALES. GREAT BRITAIN: OXFORD UP, 1985.
“SATIRE.” GALE GROUP. DEC. 2000. MERRIAM-WEBSTER’S ENCYCLOPEDIA OF LITERATURE 1995. NOV. 27 2001.