The Canterbury Tales

Chaucer's Subtle Critique of the Scholar in The Canterbury Tales

Early in Chaucer's General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, the narrator makes clear how his fellow pilgrims are to be introduced: "Me thinketh it accordant to reosoun / To telle you al the condicioun / Of eech of hem, so as it seemed me, / And whiche they were, and of what degree, / And eek in what array that they were inne" (37-41). In this proclamation, the narrator blurs the distinction between observations of the pilgrims' superficial appearances and assessments of their personal character, a strategy of ambiguity that is used throughout the portraits. Exploration of this strategy is especially illuminating when it is applied to the narrator's portrait of the Clerk, whose emaciated appearance appears to be emblematic of his sacrificial lifestyle of scholarship, but whose true character is shown to be not so noble. By marrying the physical and internal aspects of the Clerk, the narrator is able to convey a critique of the Clerk and of scholarship itself that is subtly disguised in what on the surface appears to be a compliment.

First, the narrator implies that the Clerk's chosen lifestyle of poverty is not as honorable as it may outwardly seem. The narrator writes, "But al that he might of his...

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