Characters as Nonpareils in Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories, at the end of the fourteenth century. The collection includes a prologue, in which the characters gather together at an inn before embarking on a pilgrimage. The innkeeper challenges the travelers to a story-telling contest along their journey. What follows is not just a group of stories from the different members of the group, but a critical analysis of the social and religious fabric of fourteenth-century England.

In Canterbury Tales, Chaucer fashions his characters as nonpareils as a means of providing social commentary. Literally meaning "peerless," a nonpareil is a character that can be considered the ultimate embodiment of that which he or she is supposed to represent, for example certain professions, personality types, or categories or elements of society.

The Canterbury Tales can be read translated or in Chaucer's original Middle English-- the vernacular close enough to modern English that most readers can decipher it with the aid of an appendix.
The Canterbury Tales can be read translated or in Chaucer's original Middle English-- the vernacular close enough to modern English that most readers can decipher it with the aid of an appendix.

On the one hand, the use of nonpareils makes for a story full of stock characters-- cliched characters lacking in complexity or depth. In such cases, the purpose of the text becomes less character-driven, and the characters themselves only serve as vehicles to propel another primary purpose of the work such as a theme, event, or message. In general, the use on nonpareils makes us look beyond the character or story to consider the intent or message of the author. Nonpareils are also common in fairy tales and folklore, which exist to advancing messages about morality, or to give advice or instruction.

Yet contrary the notion of stock characters is the fact that although these characters are peerless, they are not always what one would typically expect. For example, the prioress, while unparalelled in virtue and goodness, also reads as unparalleled in manners and other more "courtly" virtue. The cook is a nonpareil, yet he is suffering from syphlis.

Ultimately, Chaucer reconciles some of the limitations of using nonpareils by using some deviation from the formula. While these characters can be by and large considered paradigms of what they are supposed to represent, at the same time they serve to highlight certain inconsistencies which might not necessarily be noted if the characters were more ambiguous or dimensional. Such contradictions, the faultless or peerless character seen as frail, fallow, or inconsistent helps to draw to the fore elements of hypocrisy and double-standards within this very society that creates and even idealizes these paradigms.

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Comments 7 comments

FloraBreenRobison profile image

FloraBreenRobison 5 years ago

I am very familiar with The Canturbury Tales. I love this work-and yes, the characters are extreme stereotypes of what they represent. My favourite -a lot of people love her, I expect-is The Wife of Bath.


Anaya M. Baker profile image

Anaya M. Baker 5 years ago from North Carolina Author

She's my favorite too!


dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

I read some of the Canterbury Tales in a Literature course back in what my grandchildren would think of as the middle ages.I find your insight here interesting as I was not very sophisticated in literature at that time. It was jsut a chore to dig through the old English.


grinnin1 profile image

grinnin1 5 years ago from st louis,mo

Love the timelessness of the characters in Canturbury tales. Chaucer brought to life the "realness" of people living in the 14th and 15th centuries. Gave us a glimpse of a time and people with all of the virtues and vices we struggle with today. Thanks for your insightful hub.


Nelly 23 months ago

I'd venrute that this article has saved me more time than any other.


Caelii 23 months ago

This arlitce is a home run, pure and simple!


Cindy 23 months ago

If you wrote an article about life we'd all reach enelthtinmeng.

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