Chaucer's Continuing Value
Much time and energy are spent deciding whether or not a given author's works deserve inclusion in the canon of English Literature. Some works merit study because of their historical significance. One of these is Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The Canterbury Tales also bears a relevance to modern life with which it earns a place in college curricula. Through the use of characterization and irony, Chaucer reveals the lessons that carry this relevance. By comparing the narrator's descriptions of the parson and the plowman with his descriptions of the summoner and the pardoner, the reader can uncover truth that is as significant today as the day Chaucer wrote the stories.
Chaucer's narrator speaks with no irony when he calls the two brothers, the parson and the plowman, good men. The narrator tells the reader the parson is a model pastor who teaches by example. Chaucerís plowman is also a model Christian in that "God loved he best with al his hoole herte . . . and thanne his neighebor right as himselve." His narrator goes into greater detail about the parson's virtues. From this description, the reader can see the parson is kindly, diligent, fair, and humble. For instance, he never uses the threat of excommunication to extort tithes from the congregation. Rather than trying to increase his income unfairly, he shares his tithe with the needy of the parish. A diligent and fair pastor, the Parson does not allow the weather or distance to keep him from the members of his flock, "muche and lite" alike. He treats those of high and low estate the same, admonishing both when they need it. Despite his position, he always remains unassuming; "He waited after no pomp or reverence." The reader knows how Chaucer really sees the parson when the narrator interjects, "well ought a priest to set a good example for his sheep." He contrasts the parson with some other churchmen in the group when he says, "he was a shepherde and not a mercenary." They are fine exemplars of the Christian ideal. Chaucer's narrator speaks with great irony when he calls the summoner "a gentle harlot and a kinde; / A bettre felawe should men nought finde. . ." Unlike the parson, who is devoted to serving his congregation, the summoner seems devoted to serving his lusts. The narrator tells the reader this when he says, "Ful prively a finch eek coude he pulle." Again, unlike the honest parson, the summoner is bribable. "He wolde suffer, for a quart of wine, / A good felawe to keep his concubine. . . ." He and the pardoner make quite a pair. Though the summoner is merely corrupt, the pardoner is an outright fraud. When he declares, "Ne was there swich another pardoner," Chaucerís narrator is only partly ironic. Outwardly the pardoner appears to be a Christian of powerful faith. He carries relics, reads the lesson well, and sings a great offertory hymn. However, the relics he carries are really pigsí bones, and Mary's veil is really a pillow case. These "relics" and his oratory are tools he uses to take in more money in a day than a poor parson could raise in a month. Unlike the parson, who has the good of the congregation at heart when he scolds, the pardoner sharpens his tongue to win silver. The description reveals the summoner as a corrupt cynic who "lied right in deed" by teaching people to have no dread of excommunication. It reveals the pardoner as a fraud who "made the people and the parson his apes." These two also can serve, albeit as bad examples.
Chaucer uses irony to make a point about human nature and values that is as valid today as it was five hundred years ago. His descriptions paint very different pictures of these four people. Despite this, the narrator seems unable to distinguish good, hard-working people from con artists. Chaucer's narrator is too broad-minded and nonjudgmental. He seems to express as much admiration for two contemptible people as he does for two who are admirable. This moral blindness is especially significant. If society fails to see the falsehood of people like the pardoner or the corruption of people like the summoner, the quality of life will decline for all. If indivi- duals fail to distinguish an honest man from a fraud, the fraud will eventually make fools of them. The reader must be more discerning and less tolerant than Chaucer's narrator, or he will be fooled.