But while it is true that he loved the funny side of life, he was also quite genuine and sincere in his purpose to expose the superficialities of social roles. "If we look at the whole corpus of his work, we see his tragic poems all interrupted, unfinished, or transfigured into celestial comedy" (Garbaty173).
Chaucer unlike some tragedy masters of his time was not too concerned with gloom and sadness that prevailed in the lives of some of his characters. Instead he wanted to expose human frailties and societal flaws in a humorist style. According to Bloomfield:
If we can comprehend this tragic perspectivism, we may grasp something of the Chaucerian humor, which hates human meanness and cruelty and which at the same time pities human weakness and affectation and even at times sin. Even though we may condemn it, we should also acknowledge that this attitude comes from a love for life. (Bloomfield68)
Along with the wife of Bath, it is the Prioress that occupies an important place in the Tales. Ridley points out that the prioress "has attracted more critical commentary and controversy than almost any other character in the General Prologue" (803). The Prioress has been criticized for her anti-Semitic sentiments but everything has been done in a comic vein and there is no malicious intent involved E.T. Donaldson feel she is a "romance hero masquerading as a nun" and agrees that her "harsh, un-Christian attitude to the Jews and preoccupation with vengeance... ill accords with a tone of tender piety" (quoted in Friedman121). Hardy Long Frank also supports this view when he states that the Prioress is "a woman of many facets whose weaknesses are simultaneously her strengths, whose courtliness, be it native or acquired, is part and parcel of her professional adroitness." Frank says that, "it is not simply her appearance or her social standing that arouses their respect but the consummate piety and professionalism manifest in her Tale" (232).
The funny elements in the story are many and are obvious right from the description of the outfit to her exaggerated sentiments. In those days, nuns were not supposed to expose their forehead but Chaucer makes an exaggerated point of describing her big forehead, which shows that she was not following the dress code. She is a touchingly naive character and seems completely unaware of her own irregularities of behavior. Albert Friedman argues that, "she seems to have been as blithely oblivious of her irregularities as she was of the delicious ambiguity of the motto on her brooch" (120). There are similar interesting characters in the Tales and each one has something witty and humorous to offer to the entire plot.
The monk for example preferred to live his life on his own terms and in the way that he deemed fit. He had casual disregard for laws and narrator repeatedly tells us of Monk's abhorrence for laws and rules like the ones mentioned by Saint Augustine. He refused to believe that monks who hunted were not good people or that he should spend his time in study and manual labor. The narrator agreed with the Monk. The narrator tells us that the Monk ignored the strict rules of "good St. Benet or St. Maur" and that he had shunned old ways and adopted "the modern world's more spacious way." The Monk was thus a person who believed in his own rights and was assertive enough to disregard laws made by others. Instead he followed his own heart and his own rules since such texts "he held not worth an oyster." Manual labor was scoffed at too as the narrator categorically agrees with the Monk that "Was he to leave the world upon the shelf?/Let Austin have his labour to himself." (p. 24)
The Chaucerian humor has won many hearts and it's a very popular brand of wit even today. The author has defied the traditional norms of comedy by focusing on the real characters with alternative versions of them. Canterbury Tales presents a classic example of Chaucerian humor, which can be alternatively found in some other works by him too. The development of enthralling characters that refused to follow the traditions of the society and instead created a different image of themselves in tandem with their personal values.
Frank Hardy Long. "Seeing the Prioress Whole." Chaucer Review 25 (1991): 229-237.
Friedman Albert B. "The Prioress's Tale and Chaucer's Anti-Semitism." Chaucer Review 9 (1974): 118-129.
Ridley Florence H. The Prioress and the Critics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.
Bloomfield Morton W. "The Gloomy Chaucer." Veins of Humor Ed. Harry Levin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ Press, 1972, 57-68.
Brewer Derek S. "The International Medieval Popular Comic Tale in England." The Popular Literature of Medieval England. Ed. Thomas J. Heffernan. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1985, 131-147.