The narrative function of the Host

Chaucer uses his figure of the Host to play some games with our expectations about the author: games which have major effects on the kind of experience reading Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales is.

Representations of the author figure

The following characters represent the author's role:

  • The unnamed character (‘I'), who is sometimes labelled ‘Chaucer the Pilgrim'
  • The Host, Harry Bailly
  • The Knight (the most upper-class member of the pilgrim group). Like the Host, he often arranges what happens next. Usually the Host takes the lead in directing matters, but at times the Knight steps in if things get out of hand
  • The pilgrims, or groups of them, also try to sway the way the story-telling goes. 

So Chaucer fragments the way the author's power is presented in the fiction by apparently dispersing it to several different figures. The people this device actually empowers are his audience / the readers.

The interjections of the Host

Chaucer's Host is depicted as a dominant character:

  • He is not intimidated by anyone, though usually respectful to the upper classes and the more virtuous of the clerical characters (like the Prioress)
  • He is bold and can be rude and aggressive
  • He is archetypically ‘masculine' in his behaviour (though at one point admits to being bullied by his wife)
  • He makes quite edgy jokes at the expense of the celibate clergy, suggesting in some cases that they are highly sexed
  • His potentially offensive behaviour also includes certain types of swearing (swearing by aspects of Christ's crucifixion) which were regarded as both vulgar and blasphemous. 

For more on the character of the Host, see Characterisation > The role of the Host

How the Host shapes the narrative

These aspects of the Host are demonstrated by his interventions before and after the Pardoner narrates:

  • Verbal aggression - interjecting with oaths (287-8) as soon as the previous tale (by the Physician) has ended; attacking the Pardoner at the end of The Pardoner's Tale
  • Confidence - offering his own interpretation and judgements on the previous tale (287-302)
  • Bossiness - dictating who shall tell the next tale and what its mood should be (316, 319)
  • Masculine anxiety? - does Chaucer suggest a hint of homophobic fear in the hyper-masculine Host in the wording of 947-55? The image of cutting off the Pardoner's genitals can be read as hyper-aggression or as the Host being anxious about the Pardoner's sexuality (and his own?).

Thus, the Host's speeches in the Link passages are examples of how Chaucer frames his tales with a variety of impressions. 

Conflicting expectations

Unlike in Boccaccio's The Decameron or Ovid's Metamorphoses, Chaucer avoids stating beforehand what the theme of The Pardoner's Tale will be. (See More on Boccaccio and Ovid). He uses the fiction of the varied pilgrim group and its wishes and reactions, to tease his audience with two commands:

  • The Host orders the Pardoner to make the next tale amusing: 

‘Telle us som myrthe or japes'

  • Alarmed that something improper is about to be presented, the upper-class people demand 

‘som moral thyng' (325), 

that will teach them something clever, and which they will enjoy listening to. 

Consequently there are two expectations as to what the ensuing tale will be: something very amusing (even naughty) or seriously moral? This question will continue to exercise the reader's judgement:

  • For one thing, can a wicked man tell a tale that helps to make people morally better?
  • And what's the effect on us of the Pardoner's need for drink?

Ambiguous impressions

The juxtaposition of words like ‘drynke' and ‘honest', ‘japes' and ‘moral' in lines 32-42 suggests ambiguities which make us curious about what sort of tale is going to unfold. It also signals a reading experience that is, itself, going to be full of contradictory directions.

  • A tale by a wicked man which points hearers in the right direction morally
  • A tale about evil and death which is also clever, witty and ultimately truthful
  • A tale of deceit which is full of honesty
  • An exposé of ecclesiastical corruption which nevertheless preaches very virtuously.

The text provides mixed messages so that, when The Tale starts, Chaucer's audience do not know what to expect. There are other places where the text presents us with a puzzle, rather than imposing one simple message. Chaucer is particularly likely to present intriguing, ambivalent effects, leaving it up to his reader to interpret. To read his text becomes a very active, lively experience.

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