Select two or three portraits from the General Prologue and discuss Chaucer’s use of variety of detail in comparing and contrasting characters. It is obvious that what links the friar, prioress and the monk is that they are all members of the religious community and hence should be governed by strict rules of conduct according to their religion. But in all three characters we see their failing to do so. Hence in the General Prologue, they are presented as quite an unworthy trio, all of whom are not what they should be.
Love is a key theme when comparing the trio, as love of themselves, material things and lovers are all hinted at throughout their descriptions. The Prioress’s name is Elgentine, it means ‘wild rose’, and in Chaucer’s period it was a fashionable name taken from courtly romance rather than from a saint. Therefore the name suggests sensual love already suggesting that she is not naï¿½ve but well aware of sexual passions. By not taking a saint’s name she is neglecting the ideal of a Prioress and demonstrates that her mind is not totally devoted to her faith. As the name is fashionable, it reinforces the idea that she is yearning to be admired by others. It seems clear that she has a penchant for the more materialistic view because she should have asked herself ‘what’s in a name’ and it seems that the reply she would have given would have been ‘quite a lot’.
Her looks back up her romantic image as they suggest well-breeding and describe her as attractive, and also by the narrator spending so long on her looks, it makes her seems like the emphasis for her, is how she looks to others. Hence by making amusement of human vanity in her, we clearly see she is more concerned with worldly things rather than the spirit. She wears a rosary that seems too decorated and fashionable to be an aid of worship, and the motto on her brooch is ambiguous to its meaning as it could mean ‘love conquers all’ which suggests secular connotations and hence the love of the material world. It can also be construed as ‘love binds all’ which is indicative of a more religious meaning. But this ambiguous brooch and her name leads us to conclude that she is not solely interested in being the bride of Christ and therefore does not follow Benedict’s Rule exactly. Even less to her credit is that we see she has taken the opportunity to use religion to show off her airs and graces.
As for the Friar, even from the first line we gather a picture of a sexually active man! He is described as ‘wantowne’ and only lines later; ‘He hadde maad ful many a marriage of yonge wommen at his owene cost.’ Which, when put in the context of the Friar’s description highly suggests that he paid for girls to be settled in marriage after he had had his way with them. This unchaste image is again backed up by his cape being full of ‘knives and pinnes, for to yeven faire wives’ and of course, I emphasise only to ‘faire’ married women. To complete the trio even the monk wears a hood which contain a ‘love-knotte’ which could be a love-token, which creates doubt as to whether he is virtuous.
As I mentioned earlier, love of oneself, or rather self-importance is also displayed by all three member of the clergy. A prioress usually came form a upper class family, but even so this Prioress is over concerned with manners – even though the narrator seems to admire her upper class manners-, and by describing them at length her preoccupation which appearing upper-class makes her almost laughable; from her fake French accent through to her nasal singing.
To show that the monk as an even more unworthy character he is alos depicted as someone who finds himself very important but it is displayed in must less subtle way. The monk’s bridal which ‘ginglen in a whistlinge wind als cleere and eek as loude as dooth the chapel belle’ indicates two things. Firstly, his bridal acts as a grand entrance so that people know when he is coming. But also by likening his bridal to church bells which in the medieval paintings were icons for the power of reason, again highlights his assumed power and perhaps the fact that there is no reason he should be wearing the bells, as he is a monk.