Chaucer's style

A complex writer

Chaucer's rich and varied background is probably one reason why he rarely writes simplistically or dogmatically. Yet he must have been unusually open to, and curious about, a variety of attitudes, backgrounds and viewpoints. His work is subtle, full of resonances, nuances, verbal disruptions and surprises, often conveying more than one attitude within a single passage.

Realist style

At the same time, Chaucer succeeds in portraying vivid characters, largely through his skilful use of styles of speaking and with gesture. He is brilliant at capturing the sociological details – clothes, accessories, speech – that convey a particular class of person: the wealthy Franklin, the ambitious guildsmen, and so on. Compared with later realist narratives, Chaucer doesn't create an impression of rounded characters but he does incorporate many touches, in speech, gesture and behaviour that suggest personality. 

Symbolic writing

Chaucer lived before the heyday of the realist novel of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He is less bound by expectations that he will paint a world of verisimilitude (photograph-like imitation of everyday life with rounded, wholly plausible, characters). Instead he is free, as The Pardoner's Tale illustrates, to use characters who operate as carriers of attitudes and concepts. Their vividness is often that of a brilliant fable or, in modern narrative genres, an animated film, rather than the illusion of reality we find in novels by writers from Dickens to Ian Rankin. There is often an impression that figures in his writing combine both symbolic and realistic traits. 

We see this in The Pardoner's Prologue and Tale:

  • The encounter between the three hooligans and the Old Man is clearly an encounter with a powerful symbol. Chaucer's writing invites each reader to decide what that symbolism might be. Yet it also contains a depressingly recognisable act of rude disrespect from young thugs to a courteous Old Man, that has its parallels in streets today
  • The three youths' drive to murder each other is a gripping tale. It also presents us with a symbolic fable about how love of money is life-denying because it kills the life of the spirit, which is what really constitutes a human being and true reality.
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