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Character Roles (Protagonist, Antagonist...

Character Analysis


The Canterbury Tales as a whole don't have just one protagonist, since they're a whole
collection of different stories, with different protagonists and antagonists for each one. With
the Prologue and frame story, though, it's possible to think of Chaucer as the protagonist,
since it's through his eyes that we see all of the action. However, if we think of a protagonist
as someone whose motivations and concerns drive the plot, then Chaucer is not one, since
his role is really that of an impartial narrator or observer. Defined this way, many different
characters have their time in the spotlight. These occur most often in their prologues, when
it's their concerns and motivations that are central to the action.


The Canterbury Tales have no single antagonist. There's really no one who's trying to
prevent the pilgrims from getting to Canterbury. However, as different characters have their
time in the spotlight, they also pick up antagonists: the Miller's unflattering story about
carpenters causes the Reeve to be angry with him, making the Reeve his antagonist, and
the same thing happens between the Friar and the Summoner. At one point, the Pardoner
and the Host become antagonists when the Host takes offense at the Pardoner's attempt to
sell fake relics to the pilgrims. As the spotlight shifts from one character to another, though,
these antagonisms fade from view.


The Host definitely plays a Guide / Mentor role in The Canterbury Tales. It is he who directs
the action, proposing the tale-telling game and choosing which pilgrims will continue it. He
also mediates conflicts between the pilgrims, and gives interpretations to the various tales in
his moralizing. Yet if a mentor figure is supposed to be a close-to-perfect role model, the
Host falls short. He starts as many conflicts as he stops, and the morals he attaches to tales
are usually way off-base. The Host is the pilgrims' guide for all the merriment that ensues on
the way to Canterbury, but he's a flawed one.


The Parson vs. the Monk / Friar

The Parson is a religious figure who's actually fulfilling his vows and obligations. He provides
a point of comparison for religious figures like the Monk and Friar, who are not. As the
Parson lives the obligatory life of poverty, the Monk and Friar are living the high life. As the
Parson gives to the poor out of his own meager salary, the Friar takes the last penny from a
poor widow. The Parson pays careful attention to the words of the gospel, applying them to
his own life; the Monk disregards the words of religious authorities, declaring those texts
worthless to him. And so it goes. These characters require each other to have their full effect.

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