In the universe of English poetry, Chaucer flourishes the fantastic colors of his words and paints different characters of his age with minute observation. Indeed, he is a great painter who paints not with colors but with words. Undoubtedly, he has: The Seeing Eye, the retentive memory, the judgment to select and the ability to expound. His keen analysis of the minutest detail of his characters, their dresses, looks and manners enable him to present his characters lifelike and not mere bloodless abstractions.
His poetical piece, “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” is a real picture gallery in which thirty portraits are hanging on the wall with all of their details and peculiarities. Rather it is a grand procession with all the life and movement, the colour and sound. Indeed, his characters represent English society, morally and socially, in the real and recognizable types and still more representative of humanity in general. So, the characters in Chaucer’s “The Prologue” are for all ages and for all lands.
Chaucer is the first great painter of character in English literature. The thirty portraits traced by Chaucer give us an excellent idea of the society at that time. The different pilgrims represent different professionals. For example, the doctor, the sergeant, the Oxford Clerk and the Friar represent certain traits which characterize their respective professionals. The war-like elements are represented by the Knight, the Squire and the Yeoman. The ploughmen, the Miller, the Reeve and the Franklin typify agriculture. The Sergeant of Law, the Doctor, the Oxford Clerk and the Poet himself represent the liberal professions. The Wife of Bath, the Weaver, the Merchant and Shipman personate commerce. A Cook and the Host typify provisional trades. Thus, the characters in The Canterbury Tales are types as well as individual, as each of them represents a definite profession or class of society and portrays certain individual characteristics with all their idiosyncrasies of dress and speech.
Universality is another striking quality of Chaucer’s characterization. The characters are not of an age but of all ages. The Squire, the Monk, the Prioress, the Franklin, the Wife of Bath etc., may have changed their names by which they are known, but they are all human beings, having the same desires and passions as are common to all humanity.
Chaucer’s art of characterization is superb. He looks at his characters objectively and delineates each of the men and women sharply and caressingly. His impression of casualness, economy, significance and variety of every detail are examples of that supreme art which conceals art.
Irony and Satire are undoubtedly Chaucer’s most prominent techniques of characterization. Chaucer treats noble fellows with sympathy and love but his treatment of knaves, rogues and rascals either humorous or ironical or satirical. For example, Chaucer calls the Wife of Bath“worthy woman” and then in the very next line ironically qualifies the word “worthy” by commenting:
She was worthy woman all her lyveHusbands at church door she had five
From above discussion it is now evident that Chaucer is a master in the art of characterization, as great as Shakespeare, Fielding or Dickens.