What Lies Beneath – General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales Essay

Imagine a police officer patrolling the streets dressed as a clown. He meets a priest who is carrying a gun. Is there something wrong with this picture? This is an exaggerated example of how human beings expect certain behaviours from people given the positions they are in. We make assumptions based on what society has taught us to believe, and often deny ourselves the truth. Our assumptions are often false because people often do not possess the qualities we expect them to have in their position in our community. We are easily deceived by false appearances because of our prior belief of the qualities an individual should possess.

In Geoffrey Chaucer’s “General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales,” the realities of the human nature are examined. Chaucer paints a picture of the Knight by describing physical characteristics while also describing his values and morals. The Knight possesses the qualities expected of a knight and is therefore seen as an object of perfection. In contrast to this perfection, the Prioress and the Doctor both stray far from the stereotypical expectations. Chaucer focuses primarily on the Prioress’s appearance, leading the reader to believe that she does not fit the mould of a stereotypical nun.

The Doctor’s actions are Chaucer’s primary focus on this character. He abuses his role as physician in order to maximize his wealth. Through Chaucer’s illustration of the Knight the reader can conclude that he is the object of perfection; he possesses all the qualities expected of a knight. The Knight is a strong, worthy and noble individual. He has proven his loyalty through the many battles he has fought in. The Knight’s primary concern is in the temporal world instead of in the spiritual world.

The community was more important to him than his appearance when “he was late come from his viage/And wente for to doon his pilgrimage”(ll. 7-78). Just as expected of a knight “he was a verray, parfit, gentil”(l. 72). By initially presenting a perfect character to the reader, Chaucer persuades the reader to place stereotypes on the following characters. He wants the reader to form an opinion of the characters he describes based on their personal experiences. This gives him the opportunity to shock the reader when he reveals the reality of the character. This technique is illustrated by the characterization of the Prioress. The characterization of the Prioress is dedicated her appearance.

This is not what we would expect as the description of a nun as her life is supposed to be dedicated to God. Society expects a nun to place her primary concerns in the spiritual world; her life should be dedicated to God. He begins by describing in detail, the way she eats. “She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle… no drope ne fille upon hir brest” (ll. 128, 131). Chaucer then briefly describes her caring nature by illustrating her concern for animals: “She wolde weepe if that she saw a mous caught in a trappe, if it were deed or bleed”(ll. 44-145).

This may cause the reader to draw the conclusion that she is not a caring person. Society places a caring nature as an important quality of a nun. Chaucer chooses to minimize this trait in order to show how the care for others makes up only a small part of the Prioress’s personality. Chaucer then continues to describe her appearance, persuading the reader to believe that she places her concerns in the temporal world: “hir rose tretis, hir yen greye as glas, hir mouth ful small, and therto softe and reed”(ll. 152-153).

A nun represents innocence and purity of the human nature. Chaucer removes this stereotype as he describes the Prioress’s smile as “simple and coy”(l. 119). Chaucer also points out that she wears a brooch that reads “Amor vincit omnia,”(l. 162) which means “love conquers all. ” This is not a quote that would typically be related to a nun, as God should be her primary concern. In contrast to the Prioress, the Doctor is described in terms of his fraudulent behaviour. The Doctor abuses the power and influence given to him by his position in the community.

Doctors are well educated and therefore presumed to be experts in the medical field. The Doctor that Chaucer describes abuses his position by prescribing unneeded medications in order to prosper from the pharmacy: “And yit he was but esy of dispence” (l. 443). He abuses the trust given to him by “kepte his pacient a ful greet deel”(l. 417) so they would not question his prescriptions. He “loves gold”(l. 446) more than the patients he looks after. Chaucer refers to the Doctor as a worthy person just as he did the Knight.

He does this satirically in order to emphasize the differences between the two characters. The Doctor’s physical features are left to imagination of the reader, gently persuading them to contrast the Doctor to their own expectations of doctors. Here again Chaucer has influenced the reader to compare the characters to a stereotypical view of a similar person. Through the examination of these characters, Chaucer is able to indicate to us how complex human nature is. The way he presents the characters to the readers persuade them to form an opinion of the characters before they are described.

He does this in order to illustrate how quickly we place stereotypes on people in our community. Assumptions are a fault within our society. When human beings are placed subject to a new situation, we attempt to prepare ourselves by using our past experience to analyze what may happen. We use our prior opinion of people in similar positions, and judge the new person on this opinion. This is a fault because often our assumptions shield us from the truth. In order to prevent ourselves from being blinded of the truth, it is important to keep our eyes wide open so that we can see “what lies beneath”.