Realism has its own importance in literature. “Canterbury Tales” is considered a portrait gallery because of the realism and realistic images that Chaucer sketched in the 14th century. It is better to understand realistic literature before discussing Geoffrey Chaucer’s realism in “Canterbury Tales”.
The literary movement regarding realism started hundreds of years after Chaucer’s death, however, that did not mean writers were unaware of realism. Poets like Chaucer knew how to present reality in poetry. It is better to say that Chaucer was the first who presented reality in poetry. Nevertheless, realistic literature means literary work that is close to reality. Characters, setting, story and atmosphere seem real in realistic literature. If we closely observe Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” we find it close to reality because everything in it is based on the technique of realism.
Characteristics of Realism:
There are certain characteristics of realism that are:
- Close to reality.
- Instead of the plot, the characters are more important.
- Importance of class.
- No or only believable exaggeration.
- Natural language
- Unbiased opinions
Literature before Chaucer:
Before Chaucer, there was too much exaggeration in literature. It was far away from reality. Most writers used to tell fairy tales. Stories were from the Utopian worlds. Those types of Stories attracted only those people who used to spend most of their time in imagination. People did not find any reality in them, therefore, most of the stories were similar. People wanted to read about themselves. They wanted stories in which people like them should have been portrayed.
Boccaccio was the first who decided to write realistic stories. He created a realistic framework in which he knitted characters close to reality, however, he was Italian. Chaucer was the first English poet that wrote poetry with the technique of realism as evident from his book “Canterbury Tales”. This book contains real characters, real stories, real descriptions of images and real settings. Chaucer tried to sketch everything he saw on his way to Canterbury. Readers also feel the same.
Geoffrey Chaucer’s realism in “Canterbury Tales”:
Let’s discuss Geoffrey Chaucer’s realism in “Canterbury Tales” in view of the definition and characteristics of realistic literature.
Close to reality:
Chaucer’s observation is very minute. He has a unique quality of observing things and remembering them. When he went to Canterbury along with the caravan, he observed every pilgrim very minutely. He observed his clothes, profession, colour and class. He remembered everything and when he wrote “Prologue to the Canterbury Tales”, he mentioned everything in detail. Chaucer is a great storyteller too. As a poet, he had to imitate different things in life yet he did never go beyond the limits of reality. “Canterbury Tales” seems historical event instead of a poetic work due to the illustration of close reality in this book. Geoffrey Chaucer told us a story and we believed in him.
In addition to the physical appearance of characters, we observe their behaviour, dress and etiquette and listen to their stories. Even we believe in the stories, they told each other. We accept that people like “The Parson” and “The Knight” as presented in Canterbury Tales also exist in reality among us. We believe that the world is a mixture of good and bad people. Someone can be as good as “The Parson” and as corrupt as “The Pardner”.
Instead of plot, characters are more important:
It is one of the most important characteristics of realism that the plot loses its importance. In realistic literature, writers focus on their characters. Geoffrey Chaucer too focuses on his characters. “Canterbury Tales” is a story that Geoffrey Chaucer tells his readers in poetic form in order to show the realism of Canterbury Tales but there is no plot in it. What appeals to us is the characters of his books, who are lively creatures. He has sketched every character minutely. He has not left anything to observe.
Every character tells us a story. It is Geoffrey Chaucer’s realism that each story suits the narrator in “Canterbury Tales”. Everyone tells stories based on his own experiences, which adds realism to Chaucer’s book. If one is morally good, he tells a virtuous story. The bad one, on the other hand, tells a sinful story. For instance, “The Knight” tells a noble story, “The Miller” a lustful story and “The Reeve” tells a story based on morality “tit for tat”.
Suffice it to say that Geoffrey Chaucer focuses more on his characters and less on the plot of his story, which we should call Chaucer’s realism in “Canterbury Tales”.
Importance of class:
Chaucer paints at least one character from every class. It is not wrong to say that Geoffrey Chaucer is representative of his age because he discusses the whole English society of the 14th Century in his book “Canterbury Tales” through the technique of realism.
“The Knight”, “The Squire” and “The Yeoman” represent the fighting class. “The Doctor”, “Man of Law”, “The Clerk” and Chaucer himself belong to liberal professions. , “The Ploughman”, “The Miller”, “The Reeve” and “The Franklin” are men of the landed interest. “The Merchant” and “The Shipman” are traders. Crafts are represented by “The Wife of Bath”, “The Carpenter”, “The Weaver”, and “The Dyer”. “The Cook”, “The Manciple” and Host are also there. “The Parson”, “The Summoner” and “The Canon” are from the clergy class. Monastic order is represented by “The Monk”, “The Prioress” “The Nun”, “The Friar” and “The Pardoner”. Hence, we find every class in “Canterbury Tales” which prove that Geoffrey Chaucer focused mainly on realism.
No or only believable exaggeration.
Chaucer did not exaggerate anything. In order to understand exaggeration we may quote an example from Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. In his book, Milton writes:
massive shield flashing far and wide
like a full round moon"
Milton compares Satan’s shield with the moon and his spear with the Mast of a ship. He exaggerates things in order to make his poem epic. Nevertheless, Chaucer never did any type of exaggeration. Instead, he sticks to reality and shows his readers what he himself saw once.
Natural language and Realism in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”:
Natural language also forces us to believe in the technique of realism that Geoffrey Chaucer has used while writing “Canterbury Tales”. Characters talk and tell us stories but they never talk in scholarly language. Their language remain natural. For example, “The Man of Law” knows only a few legal terms and he repeats them every time. Noble class talks in noble manners. Clergy class sticks to ecclesiastical language. Even the stories they tell have natural language. Hence, we believe that Chaucer does not provide their characters dialogues instead they speak their natural language.
Geoffrey Chaucer Unbiased opinions and Realism in “Canterbury Tales”:
“Canterbury Tales” lacks morality as Geoffrey Chaucer did never give a single opinion, perhaps to add realism to it. He portrays pure reality. If we believe that “The Parson” is virtuous, it is not because Chaucer tells us but because we see his virtuous tasks. The Clergy class is entirely corrupt but Chaucer never says it. He just show us. It is to the reader what he decides. An unbiased opinion is perhaps the most important ingredient of realism and Geoffrey Chaucer has added it in “Canterbury Tales”.
In view of the above characteristics of realistic literature, it can safely be concluded that “Canterbury Tales” is undoubtedly a realistic story.