Monday, September 28, 2009

Chaucer's Multiple Personalities

The disparate nature of the Miller’s Tale, Nun’s Priest’s Tale and Franklin’s Tale demonstrate what makes Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales so ingeniously subversive—essentially, deliberate confusion of the reader.  Aside from the old English vocabulary that may be initially unsettling to an unfamiliar contemporary reader, Chaucer creates a veritable plethora of distinct voices to essentially hide behind.  Even the narrator is a character: the tenuously identified Host. Creating such a ragtag medley of individuals essentially undermines the reader’s critical eye by distracting him.  It is a reading experience emotionally similar to stumbling into a booming party filled with strange, unfamiliar yet strangely intriguing new people—the reader may very well forget himself completely in the process of meeting everyone.  Depending on the personality of the individual reader, such a scenario may sharpen or distract the judgmental eye, but ultimately it complicates maintaining objectivity while reading.

            The disparate voices of the characters telling the individual tales are just one part of what makes them so intriguing and their fragmentary book so overwhelming.  The most effective “weapon of mass distraction” lies in the engaging nature of the stories themselves.  The beast fable of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale tickles the funny bone in the inherent ridiculousness of picturing a rooster pimp-figure surrounded by his hen biddies; the Franklin’s Tale features exaggerated characters in magical situations so improbable that they would not be out of place in a daytime television drama, and the Miller’s Tale—well that one pretty much speaks for itself.  Ultimately, these devices may give an intelligent modern critical reader pause for self-reflection.  Do we recognize this as satire for our prior knowledge of Chaucer as a satirist?  Without meeting the author first, would he have a more effective edge in pulling the wool over our eyes, artfully, subtlely, and perhaps fully incognito?


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