This lesson can be used separately or as part of a series of lesson on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. In this lesson students use connotation and denotation to identify the deeper meanings in the text. They will understand that often Chaucer's descriptions of a character suggest something more than just what the character looks like. They will work in groups to identify the irony in a character listed in the Prologue.
I had assigned "The Wife of Bath" for homework, and most of the students read her section because it was short, and fairly easy to understand, or so they thought.
I know that the students have an understanding of her physical description and personality, but now I want them to think about the connotations of certain words and how those words can clues students in more deeply as to a characters experience and motivations. This is critical reading and the central questions here are: "What experience does this character have? What does this character want?"
The students understand that The Wife of Bath is an older woman who weaves cloth, who has traveled on other pilgrimages, and has been married five times over. They mention that:
The remedies of love she knew, perchance,
For of that art she'd learned the old, old dance.
I ask them what those two lines might mean, and they think it means she is heartsick a lot, that she wears her heart on her sleeve.
I point out the phrase "remedies of love" and ask them where might a woman go when she is having female troubles. The kids think pregnancy like a mid-wife. "What if it's burning when the woman pees?" I ask. Oooooo, they start to get it. "What are some other remedies a woman might now with regard to love?" "Abortion." someone says. "Sickness during pregnancy." says another.
Suddenly those two likes have a very different meaning. "How did you get that out of those two lines?" a student asks.
"When do we use the verb 'remedy'?" I ask. "When you get sick." someone says. "So what are the illnesses people get when they are in love." I ask. "Could it also be heartsickness?" someone else asks. And I agree that it could mean that. We get side-tracked with a discussion about women's health and the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth and the fact that women really had few options back then.
The point I am trying to make with students here is that Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus didn't invent sex, nor did the internet. That hundreds of years ago, people, women mainly, were concerned about the physical consequences of love in very real, down to earth ways.
Someone mentions that the last line could suggest that The Wife of Bath could have experience with STI's and abortion too, and I don't disagree with that.
This process of questioning and explication leads students toward a deeper reading of a text. I'm training them not to take the words at face value but to question certain words that leave matters ambiguous or uncertain.
I mention that we will come back to The Wife of Bath again, and that here description in many ways foreshadows her story.
But on to The Summoner!
I have to say after The Wife of Bath, the Summoner might be my favorite character in the Prologue. He's as repulsive in looks as he is in actions.
I have a student read the entire description of the Summoner and then I ask students what they think of him. Immediately they don't like him. "He's a drunk"; "He lies" "He's a rapist". Someone mentions that he eats disgusting foods. There is a small lull in opinions, and then one of the kids says with perfect timing, "He's a prick." And I can't help myself. "Why, yes, C---. Yes he is." The kids look at me like I've lost it. "I mean really," I say. "Chaucer has gone out of his way to describe this character as looking like a giant phallus." There is shock now, and snickers. Did the teacher really just say that word? I ask C--- why he thinks the Summoner is a 'prick'. "Because, he lies, and he cheats, he doesn't take care of himself, and he's a disgusting person." Then I have them go back and re-read the description, and they get it, Chaucer has described a character who looks surprisingly like a phallus.
I want students to make a connection that in Chaucer physical traits quite often belie character traits and that to understand the character means reading connotatively.
The students start to clue in on Chaucer's bawdiness and the fact that he is writing about people in a way that makes them snicker.
But why is he doing this? I ask them. I bring them back to the Great Chain of Being and the idea that Chaucer is reinforcing that who you are has some bearing in the way you look and act. I remind them that Chaucer is being satirical, but not very, and that to some extent, medieval writers connected sens with resemblance.
This segways nicely to the next activity where I have students, working in small groups, look at a character.
Now that the students have looked at four diverse characters in The Prologue, I put them into groups of two and three and give them the handout. I have them look for characters with lengthy descriptions like "The Miller", "The Pardoner" and "The Cook".
They filled out the handout identify the character, the character's class, physical appearance, what other pilgrim's think of them, and what they think of the other pilgrims. By following this process I expect them to "unpack" the character, and be able to better see the character's irony.
The students really enjoyed doing this activity and very few of them wanted help.
Most of them were able to identify what was ironic about the character.