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Barron's Booknotes-The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer-Free Book Notes
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MAJOR CHARACTERS

NICHOLAS is the sliest character in Chaucerian literature. He is "hende," a word that means "nice" and "pleasant," but also carries hints of "sly" and "handy," in other words, ready for action. He knows all about love, sexual pursuits, and astrology. He's amazingly creative, devising a complicated scheme to sleep with Alison and to make John believe his wild story.

NOTE:

Chaucer's emphasis on the creativity of rogues in his tales is something brand new to the Middle Ages. Before this it was unheard of to grant anything like cunning to any evil character except the Devil himself.

Chaucer's audience would recognize his name from plays about St. Nicholas, who is the mysterious guest at the home of evil hosts. Here, it's the other way around.

ALISON is charming. Some think she's not terribly bright, while others see Chaucer's portrait of her as a wholehearted endorsement of youth. Her description is filled with animal and nature images: her body is graceful as a weasel's, she's softer than sheep's wool, and better to look at than a pear tree. (Remember this image. In the Merchant's Tale the pear tree becomes a symbol of adultery.) She's skittish as a colt, and the apron around her loins is white as morning milk. That sounds sweet and pure, but her eyes are wanton under her plucked eyebrows. The Miller calls her by flowers' names-a primrose and a "piggesnye," which also means "pig's eye." So the suggestion of pastoral innocence is offset by a sense of natural instincts and unthinking passion.


ABSALOM is a real dandy, as anxious as Nicholas to hop into bed with pretty women. But where Nicholas is a man of action, taking what he wants, Absalom does things the polite way, singing songs under Alison's window and following proper ceremony. He's immensely particular about his appearance and his scent, which could explain why he's squeamish about farting. Chaucer's description is more appropriate to a romance heroine than to a man, with his prettily curled hair and rosy complexion. He's not "hende" like Nicholas, he's "jolly," which could explain why he's useless in getting anywhere with Alison. Because he's so exact about his clothes, some see him as a typical small-town lover boy, without intelligence. But he's not unlikable. When you're in love, it's sometimes hard to think of anything but the object of your desire.

JOHN is someone we don't really see, in the sense that he's not physically described. There's a reason for this: he stays in the background while Nicholas, Alison, and Absalom fill the stage. Yet John, even though he's stupid, is a nice guy. He's truly concerned about Nicholas when the schemer is in his "fit," and his first thought is for Alison when he hears the end of the world is at hand. Significantly, his name reminds us of St. John, whose gospel describes the next "flood," or Doomsday. The irony to Chaucer is that the carpenter's knowledge is not true, as opposed to the knowledge revealed in the Bible.

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