Answer: By characterization we mean the presentation of a man inwardly or outwardly through the instrument of language. Chaucer is a poet who brings out the different aspects of a character through creating images and these images are linguistic images. Like Shakespeare and Dickens, Chaucer is also a great master of creating characters. In fact “The prologue to The Canterbury Tale” is the best example of Chaucer’s art of characterization. In the beginning of the Prologue, Chaucer himself tells us the purpose of his writing the prologue. This clearly shows that Chaucer wants to characterize a person as what he or she appears to be dressed or in behavior. So the theme of the prologue is the characterization of the pilgrims with special reference to their status, physical appearances and personal behavior. He has drawn them so skillfully that they become alive before our eyes. Keeping in view the range of his characterization, Dryden remarks, “Here is God’s plenty.” Chaucer is the most original in the series of sketches of the pilgrims in “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales.”Chaucer has presented his times through his characters. He is the first great painter of the characters in English literature. Next to Shakespeare, he is the greatest in this field.
Chaucer presents the fourteenth century life as vividly and clearly as Tennyson did later in Victorian Age. Chaucer exhibits his art by describing his characters in full details by comparison and contrast. He brings before us the full portrait of his characters drawn by him. “The Young Squire” has been described as a merry youth of playful disposition in a single line: Chaucer has the Seeing Eye, the, the judgment to select. His keen observation, the minutest details of his characters, their dresses, their looks and their manners enable him to present his characters in detail. They appear lifelike characters and not mere bloodless abstractions. Chaucer’s art of characterization is unique, superb and original. Chaucer’s characters form a picture gallery of the 14th century.
Chaucer’s characters are types as well as individuals. They are types in the sense that they embody the spirit and attitude of a certain class. For example the religious characters of “The Prologue” give us an image and insight into the very condition of Christianity of his Age. The corruption and hypocrisy had crept into the fabric of religion. Hence it was losing its attraction and power. Chaucer’s characters like “The Monk”, “The Prioress”, “The Friar”, “The Summoner” and “The Pardoner” are the typical characters that are corrupt and the cause of degeneration of their class. But at the same time, Chaucer’s characters are individuals also. “The Monk” loves to ride, “The Wife of Bath” is slightly deaf; “The Reeve” has long thin legs and “The Miller” has a wart on his nose.
More over Chaucer builds a great amount of his characterization on the facial colors and expressions of his characters, for example, The Summoner’s face is red that means he is a lustful person. The Friar has a white blot on his neck which is an outer projection of his inner corruption. The Doctor of Physic is interested in gold: Chaucer’s characterization is based upon acute observation. He has a psychological insight into the very person, he is talking about. From the outward appearances of his characters he leads us into their makeup. The dresses of Chaucer’s characters are in accordance with their ranks and professions. So for as, his appearance is concerned, “The Knight” is not in very good shape.
But at the same time his appearance gives us an idea of the committed life he is leading as a Christian .Similarly the dress of the Clerk is a clear objectification of his being a scholar. He refers to the physical features of these pilgrims to give us an idea of their characters. Gap-toothed lady is fond of marriages and traveling. A person with narrow eyes is cunning. Chaucer’s treatment of the character is objective as he believes in artistic objectivity. So he portrays the characters with impartiality and disinterestedness. The characters are so real that they can be easily recognized. Chaucer’s art of characterization is free from personal animosity. In this respect, he is like Shakespeare and Fielding. In fact Chaucer makes his characters speak for themselves in such a way as to unfold their minds and hearts. Chaucer’s objectivity is perhaps the most important aspect of his characterization. A very important aspect of Chaucer’s characterization is that humor and satire are embodied in it in such a way that humor never becomes ridiculous, and satire never very pungent. This proportion is based on Chaucer’s own philosophy of life. Chaucer is a liberal comedian. He, like Shakespeare, depicts the various types of humorous characters. Chaucer was a humorist to the core.
He did not believe in the perfect purity of a man. He believed that man is liable to make mistakes and commit sins. It means that good and evil are the basic components of human being. Hence his weakness should be taken lightly and he should be forgiven for his infirmities. That is why; Chaucer is never harsh in his characterization. Headlights in presenting plain men and women, interested in the normal course of living. His character “The Wife of Bath” is almost a corrupt character from the contemporary criteria of ethics. But Chaucer is never harsh in tone while portraying this character. The purpose of such a twist is to create fun and humor, for example, he praises the “Doctor of Physic” in a very interesting way. Superficially, he glorifies the Doctor’s learning. But he is making reference to his apathy towards the poor. Similarly, he seems to be agreed to the view that a monk should not be confined to his seclusion. “The Prioress” too is a target of his joke, when she behaves like a heroine of Romances.