Within each portrait, the narrator praises the character being described in superlative terms, promoting him or her as an outstanding example of his or her type. At the same time, the narrator points out things about many of the characters that the reader would be likely to view as flawed or corrupt, to varying degrees. The narrator’s naïve stance introduces many different ironies into the General Prologue. Though it is not always clear exactly how ironic the narrator is being, the reader can perceive a difference between what each character should be and what he or she is.
The narrator is also a character, and an incredibly complex one at that. Examination of the narrator’s presentation of the pilgrims reveals some of his prejudices. The Monk’s portrait, in which the narrator inserts his own judgment of the Monk into the actual portrait, is the clearest example of this. But most of the time, the narrator’s opinions are more subtly present. What he does and doesn’t discuss, the order in which he presents or recalls details, and the extent to which he records objective characteristics of the pilgrims are all crucial to our own ironic understanding of the narrator.
The Knight has fought in crusades the world over, and comes as close as any of the characters to embodying the ideals of his vocation. But even in his case, the narrator suggests a slight separation between the individual and the role: the Knight doesn’t simply exemplify chivalry, truth, honor, freedom, and courtesy; he “loves” them. His virtues are due to his self-conscious pursuit of clearly conceived ideals. Moreover, the Knight’s comportment is significant. Not only is he a worthy warrior, he is prudent in the image of himself that he projects. His appearance is calculated to express humility rather than vainglory.
Whereas the narrator describes the Knight in terms of abstract ideals and battles, he describes the Knight’s son, the Squire, mostly in terms of his aesthetic attractiveness. The Squire prepares to occupy the same role as his father, but he envisions that role differently, supplementing his father’s devotion to military prowess and the Christian cause with the ideals of courtly love (see discussion of courtly love under “Themes, Motifs, and Symbols”). He displays all of the accomplishments and behaviors prescribed for the courtly lover: he grooms and dresses himself carefully, he plays and sings, he tries to win favor with his “lady,” and he doesn’t sleep at night because of his overwhelming love. It is important to recognize, however, that the Squire isn’t simply in love because he is young and handsome; he has picked up all of his behaviors and poses from his culture.
The description of the Knight’s servant, the Yeoman, is limited to an account of his physical appearance, leaving us with little upon which to base an inference about him as an individual. He is, however, quite well attired for someone of his station, possibly suggesting a self-conscious attempt to look the part of a forester.
With the descriptions of the Prioress, the Monk, and the Friar, the level of irony with which each character is presented gradually increases. Like the Squire, the Prioress seems to have redefined her own role, imitating the behavior of a woman of the royal court and supplementing her religious garb with a courtly love motto: Love Conquers All. This does not necessarily imply that she is corrupt: Chaucer’s satire of her is subtle rather than scathing. More than a personal culpability, the Prioress’s devotion to courtly love demonstrates the universal appeal and influence of the courtly love tradition in Chaucer’s time. Throughout The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer seems to question the popularity of courtly love in his own culture, and to highlight the contradictions between courtly love and Christianity.