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Old Tuesday, May 31, 2005
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Post Chaucer: Realism

Literature is the mirror of its age. Supreme literary artist is one who becomes a mouthpiece and provides a real picture of his age with its minute details. Chaucer is a perfect representative of his age. He is in true sense a social chronicler of England. His poetry reflects the 14th century not in fragment but as a complete whole.

Realism of Chaucer in “The Canterbury Tales” not gives us the impression that whatever has been described is real in the ordinary sense of the word. Realism is not reality; it is a collective term for the devices that give the effect of reality.

Chaucer represented life in its nakedness.

“What he has given is a direct transpiration of daily life.”

Chaucer's principle object of writing poetry was to portray men and women truthfully without any exaggeration and to present an exact picture of average humanity. He painted life as he saw it, and he saw it with so observant eye that it seems that he was viewing all the events as well as characters through a kaleidoscope. Because of his this quality his epoch, “The Prologue of the Canterbury Tales” has become one of the vivid epoch of history. Moreover he is a man of the world so he mixes with all types of mankind and he observes the minute peculiarities of human nature. “The Canterbury Tales” is not only a long poetical piece but a social history of England. He exposes almost all the aspects of his age as well as of the people along with the detail of their appearance, sex profession, attire and conduct.

Chaucer shed off the influence of the French and Italian models based on fantasies and dreams, upon which he had worked for so long and entered the abundance of his own real self. He worked like a true interpreter or chronicler, relating in a most realistic manner, the stories he had heard, without change of wording or tone.

The setting of “The Canterbury Tales” is highly realistic. A pilgrimage was one of the most common sights in the fourteenth century England. To relate the stories of these pilgrims, Chaucer gives the illusion, not of an imaginary world, but of real one. The more real the world of his setting is, the more his tales by contrast seems like tales, even though some to them deal with real everyday life. Unlike Boccaccio, who in his tales quickly slips back into frank artificiality, Chaucer held consistently to realism throughout “The Canterbury Tales”.

Gifted with an acute power of observation Chaucer sees things as they are, and he possesses the art of printing them as he sees them. He does not project the tint of his likes and dislikes, views and prejudices on what he paints.

“Chaucer sees what is and paints it as he sees it.”

In the portrayal of characters in “The Prologue” he gives us his minute and delicate records of details in dress, behaviour, which makes it a mime of observation as from the portrait of Prioress:

“She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,
Ne wette hir fyngres in hir sauce depe,
Wel koude she carie a morsel, and wel kepe
That no drope no fille upon hir brest.”


In “The Canterbury Tales” Chaucer has blended laughter and tears, the comic and tragic as is found in life with such case and grace, that his story-telling seems like a veracious picture of real life. Though his pilgrimage is remote form our experience, yet we feel that this is what we might see if we could turn the clock back few centuries.

Chaucer as a realist presents before us in The Canterbury Tales the pulsating life of the common people. Chaucer’s pilgrims talk of “their purse, their love affairs or their private fends”. Their vision is confirmed to the occurrences within their parish. This is the typical vision of the common people which is realistically presented by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer’s depiction of the Shipman represents the salient features of the trade. The Merchant is another important figure who signifies the changed conditions of Chaucerian society.

Chaucer has introduced a number of artificial elements, but he does it so skillfully and artistically that the impression of realism he creates, makes us forget them. He is “devilishly” sly, and deceives us as he should with the most innocent air in the world.

In the words of Hazlitt:

“There is not artificial, pompous display, but a strict parsimony of the poet’s material like the rude simplicity of the age in which he lived.”

It would be quite justifiable to call Chaucer as a realist of high rank because his principle object has been to portray men and women trustfully without an acute power of observation. He sees things as they are and describes them as he really sees them.

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