Chaucer: Why Should We Read Challenging Literature?

Written by abigailporter

Walking into my first English literature lesson of Year 13 I remember wanting to quickly run back. We were given the Wife of Bath to study. Considering the most difficult language I had studied was Shakespeare, I thought I was pretty good at deciphering what a varied version of English meant but boy was I wrong.

Not only did we have to understand the authorial intent, we also had to work out what every word meant. Thankfully we had translations on the page opposite but what was supposed to be a relatively short read turned into a headache and a half.

When I understood the language a bit more however, I started to feel attached to the Wife of Bath’s character. Her lack of conformity to typical female behaviour was a surprise considering its place in history in the 14th Century. In many parts of the tale, Alisoun reiterates that she has been in charge of her husband in every marriage that she has had, both in the bedroom and everyday life.  This kind of female power is definitely something that I look for in works of literature.

I personally think Chaucer is one of the most important writers, not just of his time but generally in history. His wonderful way with words mean that even though it took me half an hour to try to work out one page of the prologue of the Wife of Bath and several days to remember that the word vileynye means evil, they have stuck with me whereas simpler texts seem to drift away.

Chaucer is important to read as it’s written in English. After the invasion by the Normans, everyone was encouraged to speak French with all of those in power doing the same. The Canterbury Tales were written and published in English which now doesn’t seem so impressive but at the time would’ve been a very big deal.

Chaucer’s writing is funny and real. There’s an element of irony and satire behind a lot of the characters too. You would assume the Wife of Bath would be a loyal and meek character – her story being about her obedience. You would expect the Pardoner to be kind and generous, the knight to be bold and strong and the Friar to be honest. But none of these stereotypes are fitting in Chaucer’s Tales. I enjoyed seeing this satire as sometimes with stereotypes the characters get boring. I personally think Chaucer’s use of irony is always correctly timed and enjoyable to read.

Whilst at first the difficult language did put me off, once I persevered I actually enjoyed the themes of the Canterbury Tales. I’m definitely planning on reading a few more tales over the summer.