The three estates work in theory when each estate acts well. Some of the characters introduced in the General Prologue of Canterbury Tales are meant at first to show the character as the ideal person in their profession. But, when more description is given by the narrator, they reveal that Chaucer is simply satirizing them based on the stereotypes he perceived in the people of his time. By making fun of these stereotypes, he reveals the subtle complexity of the human state. This satire is meant to contrast how these people may look to the general public, to how they actually behave and act. It lets the reader decide if the character is really ideal or deeply flawed. It lets the reader choose to view these characters as simply ideals, or as human beings like themselves. Characters such as the Knight, the Squire, and the Monk all disappoint their original estate with their actions. The transgressions of these characters in relation to their estates depicts a world rife with inner conflict, thus making them in-efficient. These descriptions show that when a character acts outside of their estate, they aren’t ideal and they do not help the society as a whole.
One of Chaucer’s more ideal pilgrims is the knight. The knight displays many traits that seem too good to be true and his character at times is not believable. He has fought many battles to the death, winning them all for his kingdom. He holds his values of chivalry, honor, and respect dear to him and that makes him one of the more likeable characters of the group. He acts almost as if he were a robot: seemingly with no emotion and with a penchant for justice. The narrator begins his introduction with, A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man. That fro the tyme that he first bigan.
To ryden out, he loved chivalrye, trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisye. (Pg 4) This description shows him to be a perfect knight, one that values the code of chivalry like all good knights should. This description doesn’t hold to end, when the narrator gives additional information on the knight by saying, Though he were worthy, he was wys. And of his port as meeke as is a mayde. (Pg 5) These two descriptions could not be farther from each other. In the first, he is described as a worthy, honorable, and chivalrous man. But in the second, his port is said to be as meeke as a maid, which is very far from what a knight is supposed to be. This shows that the descriptions that Chaucer gave earlier may have been comedic exaggerations. Being meek is not necessarily a bad thing, it is a human convention after all. The knight is satirized in the fact that he is held to unrealistic human standards. Society believes that someone so noble should not have these flaws so it draws every extreme ideal description of him into question.
The Knight’s son, the squire, also has these conflicting descriptions that put his character into question. At first, he is said to be, And wonderly deliver, and greet of strengthe. And he had been somtyme in chivachye. (Pp 6) This shows that he has some of the physical potential of a knight. This would be great if he didn’t have all types of other less knightley traits, such as his femininity. He is shown to be a lusty bachelor type of man, who is ultimately concerned about his appearance above all. He wears stylish, but very daring garments that were looked down on by the church. He also always made sure his hair was in perfect condition, With lokkes crulle as they were leyd in presse. (Pp 6) This seems to show that he intentionally curls his hair, just as a woman would do. Another less than desirable trait would be his desire for cleanliness, something the knight did not share with him.
The contrast between the descriptions of the two goes to show this fact. The narrator’s description of the knight is much different than of the squire, saying He was a true, perfect, noble knight. But to tell you of his attire, his horses were good, but his clothes not bright. Of rough clothes he wore a tunic all rustained by his coat of mail, for he’d no sooner returned from his voyage, than he set out to make his pilgrimage. (Pp 7) This is contrasted quite easily with the narrator’s description of the squire, He was as fresh is the month of May. (Pp 6) He is described as being fresh as May, showing how much pride he took in cleanliness, also a quality of a woman of his time. He also places more importance in fighting for a lady’s honor than fighting for his ideals like his father. All these differing qualities in the character of the knight and the squire drives home the point that even though the squire might someday have the physical qualities of a knight, he would not be an ideal knight. He cares too much about womanly things such as appearance while the knight seems to show no such care for it. His vain attitude and selfish outlook should disqualify him from being the ideal knight. His actions show him to be more of a second estate woman than a knight so he is not a helpful character to society.
The monk is not the ordinary religious man devout to his ideals and morals. Instead he is a worldly man who only cares for his personal enjoyment. He has a very cocky, sarcastic attitude not usually found in men of the church, which is the biggest sign that he isn’t the ideal religious man. Monks usually hole themselves into their place of worship, they don’t go out into the world adventuring and hunting like the Monk.
This sets the Monk apart from every other religious authority. The narrator states this when he says, He gave not for that text a plucked hen, that said hunters should not be holy men, nor that a monk when he neglects his vows, is like a fish out of water. (Pp 11) This shows that the Monk took his pleasure from more modern things, and didn’t care for the old ways of the church. The narrator starts his description by calling him a manly man. (Pp 11) This shows that he puts his hunting and other manly activities over being a man of the church. He differs greatly from other church officials as he seems to have no care for his duties as a monk. He takes up hunting, a leisure activity of the second estate, over his first estate duties.
The health of the country depends upon each estate performing and behaving well. The descriptions of these characters show that some of them do not wish to act within their estate, such as the squire and the monk. However, it seems as if these superficial estates do more harm than good. While it is believed that the squire should behave in a noble and honorable way at all times, like most knights, he breaks these conventions by being vain.
This therefore hurts the society as a whole to have someone in the second estate acting like they are in the third estate. The Monk does the exact same thing, not acting as those in his estate. Chaucer seems to be bringing these estates into question; he is evaluating the state of society through the use of literary satire. The people in the first estate are suppose to project good, religious values onto the second and third estate. When a monk is acting as someone in the second estate would, it hurts the society as a whole. They should be setting a good example for the rest, but how is that possible if their estates call upon supernatural ideals unsuitable for a mere human being. Stifling human creativity and vast emotion into a preset list of values is not the winning formula. Just like a dog in a dress isn’t a princess, a man acting like a knight is not a knight at all.
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