Chaucer is one of the first English short story-teller and the greatest humorists in English literature. In “The Prologue toe the Canterbury Tales”, humor is all-pervasive. Humor in the Prologue appears chiefly in the shape of irony and satire, though we do have some examples of pure humor which means fun and laughter for their own sake. Chaucer is perpetually showing the humorous side, not merely of his emotions but his interests, his knowledge, his beliefs, his everything.
The Prologue offers plentiful illustrations of Chaucer’s sense of humour. His characterization of almost all the characters is, indeed humorous. It has at the same time to be pointed out that Chaucer’s humour is mostly ironical and satirical. For example, we laugh at the Squire’s love-insomnia, the leanness of the Clerk of Oxford and of his horse which is compared to a rake. In Chaucer’s treatment of characters, satire has generally a corrective motive.
Irony is one of the chief weapons of Satire. Chaucer is not out to reform people but he surely finds amusement in the absurdities, affections, and some of the minor vices of the people he deals with. Chaucer’s use of irony and satire is neither malicious nor cynical; but his satire is always mild and gentle. His humour is thoroughly delightful, being free from the taint of ill-will, cynicism, and pessimism. His whole point of view in dealing with human life and human beings is that of a humorist. The poet paints the character of the Clerk of Oxford with kind and patronizing humour.
Chaucer’s humor has a great variety. His humor is all pervading and pervasive. Its omnipresence holds a perennial charm to us. But it is not without pathos. He mingles the comic with the tragic. Smiles and tears find here equal. Besides, humor in Chaucer never forced upon the reader. It arises out the situation. No effort is exercised by the author to create humor. It is spontaneous, natural, and inevitable.
Chaucer’s use of irony to build up a satirical portrait and to make us laugh is clearly seen in his presentation of the Prioress. The Prioress speaks French fluently. According to the School of Stratford-at-Bow, this is an ironical reference to the Prioress’s aristocratic breeding. Her dress and her fashionable manners are also ironically described. Her charitable nature is depicted in such a way as to amuse us.
The Monk too is portrayed satirically. He is fond of hunting; he keeps a large number of fine horses in his stable; he finds the rules of monastic discipline to be old and therefore out of date; he does not wish to drive himself made by studying too much; and so on. The worldliness of this Monk is clearly exposed by ironic means. Irony is employed in the portrait of the Friar, too. Here are the most ironical lines:
‘Unto his ordre he was a noble post’
Thus we find that humour is the most prominent ingredient in Chaucer’s characterization of the pilgrims in “The Prologue”. This humour lends a most distinctive quality to his character-sketches.