Characterization in The Canterbury Tales: Indirect & Direct

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  • 0:03 Direct Characterization
  • 0:40 The Canon's Yeoman
  • 1:40 The Friar and the Summoner
  • 2:26 Indirect Characterization
  • 2:49 Physical Appearance…
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Catherine Smith

Catherine has taught History, Literature, and Latin at the university level and holds a PhD in Education.

Chaucer uses both direct and indirect characterization to sketch his characters, often with these two techniques working together to paint a rich picture. However, he leaves room for interpretation so that ultimately, readers must come to their own conclusions about how to interpret these characterizations.

Direct Characterization

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer uses some instances of direct characterization, or instances where readers are told specific things about characters. In this case, Chaucer conveys characteristics via either the narrator or a specific story-teller. These direct forms of characterization occur less frequently than indirect characterization, however. In cases of direct characterization, we cannot be certain how reliable the source is. Most of the information we get in The Canterbury Tales is from individual story-tellers, none of whom are unbiased, omniscient sources.

The Canon's Yeoman

In 'The Canon's Yeoman's Tale,' the Yeoman, a servant, describes his life with the Canon, focusing mainly on the Canon's ineptitude at alchemy, or the practice of turning base metals into gold. The reader is given to believe that the Yeoman is providing a first-hand account of his experiences with the Canon, and we have no reason to think that he is completely fabricating any part of it. In fact, the description of the Canon, who is wearing worn-out clothes and riding a horse that has not been taken care of, lends credence to the Yeoman's claim that the Canon has lost all his wealth in his pursuit of alchemy.

Moreover, the Canon and the Yeoman joined the pilgrims in such a way that suggested they were running from something, which also suggests that the Canon had been up to no good. However, it is possible that the Yeoman is exaggerating bits and pieces of his narrative. There is simply no way to know for sure, since we barely know the story-teller. In this story and others, it's important to take what he tells us with a grain of salt.

The Friar and the Summoner

The Friar and the Summoner tell stories about each other, back to back, each attacking the character of the other as well as their professions in general. These two stories, 'The Friar's Tale' and 'The Summoner's Tale,' can certainly not be taken as fair assessments of friars and summoners, since it is clear that there is a great deal of animosity driving them, and also since the stories themselves are not realistic.

However, we can assume that there is a grain of truth in each, at least insofar as both stories play on stereotypes that Chaucer's audience would have been familiar with, such as the stereotype of corrupt clergy. Again, Chaucer is characterizing them with direct commentary, but through mouthpieces that we cannot entirely trust - particularly in this case, where it's quite clear they're biased.

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