Character Analysis Of The Sergeant Of The Law In The Canterbury Tales
Chaucer paints a picture of the social structure of his time and breathes life into each of his characters. By analyzing the pilgrims within the story, it can be seen that they are portrayed as positive or negative to create contrast within the poem. Through the observation of the tales and outside resources, it can be concluded that Chaucer portrays the Sergeant of the Law in The Canterbury Tales as negative based upon his use of language, his background, and his physical features.
Throughout the prologue of the Sergeant of the Law’s tale, Chaucer influences his use of language to hold the Sergeant of the Law in a negative light. The Sergeant of the Law prefaces his tale with a monologue that is based on another speech from the time period, De Miseria Condicionis Humanae, that points out the flaws of the rich and the poor. This has a negative connotation in that, while the Sergeant of the Law is praised to have an excellent memory, “[his] memory is selectively defective since [the speech] criticizes both rich and poor” (Scheps 288). While the Sergeant of the Law stays true to the speech by condemning the poor, he manipulates the truth to make it seem as if the less fortunate are the root cause of evil. He does so, “in praise of wealthy merchants, where the original actually condemns wealth” (Thompson 10). This further demonstrates Chaucer’s negative view of the Sergeant of the Law by having the said pilgrim twist words into falsehoods that cast poverty-stricken individuals as, “hateful harm” (99).
In addition to the previously stated, it can be seen that the Sergeant of the Law’s tale shows contrasting behavior that lends itself to his overall negativity. Chaucer paints this image of negativity by having the Sergeant of the Law tell a tale of a Roman emperor’s daughter, Constance, who prevails against her hardships with her faith and belief in God. While the tale itself is based around ideas of faith, spirituality, and holiness, the Sergeant of the Law uses his language to portray a, “materialistic [and] legalistic view of … religion” (Scheps 285). This can be observed in the way that he relays the tale as if he is waiting for the audience to refute his claims.
Chaucer creates this lawyer-like speech by having the Sergeant of the Law ask his audience rhetorical questions only to answer them himself. This further adds to the negative connotation associated with the Sergeant of the Law in that, although he is on a religious pilgrimage, he has an avaricious view of religion that is unbefitting of a true follower of Chritianity that believes in, “the providential hand of God” (Thompson 11). The aforementioned adds to the Sergeant of the Law’s negative portrayal because Chaucer was a “Christian thinker” himself; thus creating contrast between himself and the character (Williams 6). This contrast serves as a negative depiction of the Sergeant of the Law because it creates distance between Chaucer and the pilgrim in question.
With the previous details in mind, through the examination of the general prologue of The Canterbury tales, it is evident that the Sergeant of the Law is portrayed negatively by Chaucer. This is due in part to his given background pointing out that there was, “ No busier person could ye find than he / Yet busier than he was he seemed to be.” (331-332) This demonstrates that the Sergeant of the Law is pretending that he is busier than he truly is which can be considered as a negative portrayal; it indicates that he is not truly doing his job and is only pretending to do so. His pretense of being busy gives way to Chaucer’s negative view of him in that he is not working as much as a man of his station should be.
Tying in to the previously stated, as more of the Sergeant of the Law’s background is revealed, the more negative aspects rise to the surface. It is insinuated that Chaucer depicts the Sergeant of the Law as a vain man within the general prologue of The Canterbury Tales. This can be further observed in the way that the Sergeant of the Law flaunts the land that he has accrued with the money that he makes from being a man of his station. The Sergeant of the Law’s obsession with communicating his rank to the other pilgrims can be interpreted as vanity in that he is overly concerned with how the other pilgrims think of him. Chaucer’s demonstration of the Sergeant of the Law’s conceitedness plays into the negativity of the character by focusing on the Sergeant of the Law’s materialistic tendencies.
In addition to the aforementioned paragraphs, through examining the general prologue of the canterbury tales, The Sergeant of the Law’s physical description lends itself to a negative view of his character. It can be observed that there is an indication that the Sergeant of the Law is negative based on his physical characteristics from the general prologue. This is noted in that he owns many, “fine robes,” (317)which alludes to the Sergeant of the Law’s taste for the refined. Linking to the previous statement, the Sergeant of the Law’s lavish life can be interpreted as negative in that, he uses his money for earthly objects rather than using his vast fortune for other worthwhile endeavors. Chaucer uses the physical description of the Sergeant of the Law to implement the negativity of the pilgrim in question.
With regard to the previous statement, other aspects of the Sergeant of the Law’s physical description impart a negative view of his character. Chaucer creates contrast with the way that the character is dressed and how he accessorizes his clothing. This can be observed in that while he wore a simple multi-colored robe during the time of the narrator’s initial meeting with him, he also adorns himself with lavish accessories. The contrast that exists in the Sergeant of the Law’s physical description can be interpreted as negative. This is aptly demonstrated in that, while he has the outward appearance of a humble lawyer, he exhibits his wealth in a way that is arrogant as opposed to the modest character he is supposed to portray.
Chaucer’s colorful writing style accompanied with his brilliant mind serve to encapsulate his readers in a world from times past. His characters seem to walk off the page and contribute to The Canterbury Tales by contrasting with certain aspects of the poem. It can be seen that Chaucer, “delight[s] in… calling attention to… manipulating language,” which expresses itself in contrast between the characters (Williams 6). Keeping all of the previous statements in mind, it can be concluded that based upon the Sergeant of the Law’s use of language, his background, and his physical features; it can be understood that Chaucer portrays the said pilgrim in a negative light.