Geoffrey Chaucer as a Realist
Merriam Webster Dictionary defines realism in the following words: “Realism is the tendency to view or represent things as they really are”.
Literature is actually the reflection of the age in which it is produced. It gives birth to its own world which always goes parallel with the real world. It was good luck of every golden period in the history of English literature that it got some supreme literary artist who was shaped and moulded by the society of image, his value of life, his religious and political ideas. Chaucer is one such artist. Like Fielding, Tennyson and Pope, Chaucer produced literature according to what he witnessed around him. He can be called a true realist. As a poet, he believes, “Literature is the reflection of life with the help of words.” “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” clearly shows his scholarly and profound interest in the world and its temporal activities. It also shows his human and humane look. He has catholicity and tolerance which are the part and parcel of his realism. He has sharp sight and penetrating insight into different aspects of world. As a critic says, “Chaucer like Fielding could have claimed that he gave the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Now let’s discuss how Chaucer can be called a true realist.
First, Chaucer as a realist portrays the medieval characters. The young Squire is one of these typical characters. He is at home in music, dance, painting and writing. As a representative of Medieval Squires, he is very careful in the selection of his dress. His embroidered garment which he is wearing looks like a meadow full of fresh flowers.
“Embroidered was he, as it were a meede
Al ful of fressh floures, whyte and reede.”
The Wife of Bath cannot be overlooked in this regard. Marriage at that time was totally based on monetary considerations and a well to do woman could marry as many times as she liked. It was also very difficult for a woman to remain single, as a greedy man would compel her to marry him, so that he might own her property. So, we see that the Wife of Bath shows all these characteristics of the wealthy women of that time.
She was a worthy woman al hir lyve:
Husbands at the church door she hadde fyve.”
Similarly, the Sergeant of Law, the Cook, the Doctor of Physik and the antipathy between the Miller and the Reeve all show the prominent medieval features.
Second major point which Chaucer has discussed is the growing prosperity and prominence of the common men. Crafts and manufacturing flourished and brought new wealth. These newly rich persons founded their own corporations. This thing created another evil. These people began controlling the churches by forming parish guilds and later these guilds also became distinguished in the political field. These guilds got great status in society and even their wives were fully aware of the status of their husbands.
“For catel hadde they ynogh and rente,
And eek their wyes wolde it wel assente;
And elles certeyn were they to blame.”
Another important feature of Chaucerian society is corruption in church. In his age, the Pope of Rome had supreme power and the states were under his power. Religion was a force that was shaping and moulding the life of the people but some clergymen were presenting its deteriorated and degenerated aspect. Some orders of Friars and monasteries had become totally corrupt. They had forgotten their sacred obligations and were fond of profligacy and Epicureanism. The Friar in “The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales” totally connives his religious duties. He advises the sinners that they should not offer prayers or weep for the purgation of their sins. In return, he demands a big amount of money to absolve them of their sins.
“Ful swetely herde he confessioun,
And plesaunt was his absolucioun:
He was an easy man to yeve penaunce,
Ther as he wiste to have a good pituance.”
The Monk openly expresses his abhorrence against the monastic rules and the verses of the holy book that censure such secular pursuits like horse-riding and keeping grey-hounds.
“Therfore he was a prikasour aright:
Grehounds he hadde as swift as fowel in flight;
Of prikyng and of huntyng for the hare
Was al his lust, for no cost wolde he spare.”
Chaucer like Wycliff and Langlad does not completely criticize the religious orders. He also portrays the Parson who believes that first a priest himself should follow the right path and then advise others to follow him so that he may become a role model for others.
“For if a priest be foul, on whom we truste,
No wonder is a lewed man to ruste;
And shame it is, if a prest take keep,
A shiten shepherde and a clene sheep.”
Chaucer as a realist does not show any prejudice or partiality in the presentation of these characters.
No doubt, Chaucer is a great realist but if we observe minutely, we find two major limitations in his art as a delineator of the 14th century England. First, Chaucer is having silence about historic events the Hundred Year War, the Black Death and the Peasant’s Revolt. There is a slight touch of Black Death in the character of Doctor of Physik. “He kepte that he won in pestilence.” Second limitation of Chaucer as a realist is that he avoids literalism. The details are very much near reality. “Chaucer is a realist, yet he is not a literal transcriber of reality.”
To sum up, we can say that Chaucer is a realist of high rank with an acute power of observation. He sees the things as they are and describes them as he sees them. We can sum up with the remarks of Hazzlit who observes: “There is no artificial, pompous display, but a strict parsimony of the poet’s materials like the rude simplicity of the age in which he lived.” (Words: 996)