A Pardigm Shift in Literature: Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales.

February 13, 2009 at 3:44 pm Leave a comment

The Canterbury Tales marks a “paradigm shift” in literature. What I mean be paradigm shift is those moments, events or creations in history that mark a development and / or turning point in the way in which we literally see the world. There have been many different paradigm shifts in literature in the past 2,500 years.

Paradigm Shifts and the Course of History

In the general course of history, many thinkers believe there have been three or four major paradigm shifts that have altered the way in which we see and understand the world.

1) Monotheism: the Judaic concept of a single God. Some argue that this begins the birth of individuality.

2) The Copernican Revolution: the joint effort by Copernicus and Galileo that eventually proved, by the seventeenth century, that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

3) Darwinism: the Theory of Evolution that partly proved that humans were not singular creations, but evolved from lower life forms. In other words, just as the Earth is no longer the center of the universe, the human is not the center of existence.

4) Freudianism and the psychoanalytic revolution: The Theory of the Unconcsious partly proved that we are divided within and at odds with ourselves. In other words, just as we are no longer the center of existence, we are also not in control of our own selves.

5) Atomic Age. In the early 1950s, for the first time in human existence, we have the ability to destroy the earth.

Paradigm Shifts and the Course of Literary History

Literature has its own history that is partly self-contained, and partly engaged in the shifts in world history.

Critics tend to veer between two extremes: 1) Literature has its own self-contained history and paradigm shifts. 2) Literature is inextricably bound to history. Usually, like me, one believes that literature has a combination of #1 and #2.

One thing that the Pardigm Shifts in world history shows is that, over the past several thousand years, humanity moves further away from mythological or monolithic beliefs, “world-visions” that see things in terms of the human in relationship to a cosmos.

Literature, too, has developed up until today in this direction. Northrop Frye, a marvelous literary critic, famously claimed that the history of literature reflects “the dying of the gods.”

Major Stages in Literature.

Epic / Myth. The earliest literature — Homer, Gilgamesh, The Bible — is “epic” literature. Ancient literature tends to  be concerned with depicting and explaining the birth / creation of the entire world, and the sweeping events that lead to the present condition. It is a literature that attempts to explain the existence and the reason for everything.

In epic and mythological literature, the human and God / gods is direct. God or the gods have a “character” role in the action.  In many ways, the plot of epic literature depends upon and is controlled by the forces of God or gods. Epic literature, therefore, leans toward the providential, the fated, the fixed, the predestined. Epic literature is also always concerned with origins. Where did we come from? How? Where are we going?

High Mimetic. Ancient Greek drama in particular represents a shift away from the Epic / Mythological stage in literature. The “high mimetic,” or high representation, begins to draw its focus to the human more than the epic. The human becomes more of a character and less of a god or a supernatural presence. There is still a direct relationship between human and God or gods, but the relationship become more severed, distorted. The protagonist of high mimetic literature tends to be a powerful person, someone who is fairly close to having supernatural power, a dominant personage. The protagonists of high mimetic drama are not yet characters who exist on a “normal” level of human existence.

Romance. The medieval development of the Romance begins to mingle the high mimetic with a more “low” mimetic literature. The protagonists (usually a figure like a Knight, a leader, a nobleman) is still the larger than life character, not quite a god, but not quite human either. But the fallibility of the protagonists becomes more prominent. Too, the world of the Romance is interfused with the supernatural. There remains a connection between God, gods or supernatural elements and humans. The world-vision of the Romance remains one in which the world is charged with the presence of God.

Low Mimetic. As the Renaissance (1400 – 1660) progresses, literature becomes represented by the “low mimetic.” In low mimetic literature, there no (or very little) direct connection between the human and God / gods. Usually if there is a supernatural element, it comes in the form of convention or hallucination. The low mimetic represents protagonists as human beings, on a level that most humans can identify. The protagonist might be a powerful, larger than life, heroic character, but he / she is not so in a godly or supernatural sense. As low mimetic develops, in fact, we become much more aware of protagonists whose actions fall beneath our own.

Ironic Mode / Modern Literature. In roughly the past few centuries, literature falls into the “ironic mode.” Generally, the worldview represents a complete divorce between human and God/gods/cosmos. Or, in many cases, literature emphasizes the absence of any cosmic force, such as God. In ironic literature, protagonists are frequently personages beneath us. Often times protagonists and action in the ironic mode is absurd, meaningless or chaotic. The vision of the world is now completely removed from the cohesive, epic / mythological vision of a complete world.

What is pronounced about the development of literature over the course of history is what Frye calls the “dying of the gods.” Or the gradual distance that grows between human and God, or the human and a cosmic or supernatural world. In fact, the birth and development of literary realism, upon which the novel grew as a genre, develops from this divorce and distance between a concrete and supernatural world, the emphasis upon what we can understand.

Some thinkers, like Frye and Joseph Campbell, believe that this few thousand year development is a “cycle” which will repeat again. In other words, ironic literature will tranisition back into epic literature, and the cycle will begin once again. There is some credence, I believe, to this theory. Since the Atomic age in the past fifty or so years, there is a genre growing of apocalyptic literature. There is literature and movies fascinated with the end of the world or the end of an age in which civilization must begin anew. We see this in many forms: as a nuclear holocaust, and the post holocaust world that must rebuilt; a world in which the machine takes over the human, and the human must begin again; a world destroyed by nature because of our harm, and we must adapt to nature and begin again; a world in which technology and a virtual world consumes us, and we must adapt or rebel, ie, begin again.

Where does The Canterbury Tales Fit In to All of This?

I claimed that one should not confuse Chaucer’s narrative poem for realism. The notion of literary realism is the product of an eighteenth century publishing industry and the advance in science that caused people to see the world beyond supernaturalism or superstition.

But, we see a very significant shift in both how the world is seen socially, and how an author / storyteller presents that world.

The Significance of the Narrative Voice and the Presentation and Depiction of Character

Notice first in the General Prologue how there is a distinct narrative voice, bluntly represented by an “I.”

Notice how that “I” makes a self-conscious effort to inform us that he wants to tell us the story, and he wants to tell it straight, with no unnecessary embellishments.

Notice that the “I” emphasizes that he is going to tell us the story in the common vernacular of the English language, not in the formal language of Latin or French.

Notice how the narrator begin his story about a religious event, a pilgrimage, in a “tavern.”  Notice that everyone, all walks of life and social status gather in that one place, and join together on the pilgrimage.

Notice how the narrator does not treat any of his depictions of the pilgrims with any higher or lower value. Each one is presented on a level playing field, from the virtuous Knight down to the sinister Pardoner.

The Shift to a More Level Representational Playing Field.

All of these things reveal a significant shift in the presentation and representation of literature. The narrator of The Canterbury Tales brings himself down to the level of both the reader and the characters he represents. The narrator neither stands above the story with a godly “ominscience,” nor does he present the protagonists as “gods” or supernatural characters.

Final Warning Against Assuming that The Canterbury Tales is Like Modern Realism.

Although this is a marked development toward realism, again, it is not literary realism in the sense that it was developed in the eighteenth century. The Canterbury Tales still owes to the tradition of the Romance, like Sir Gawain, but Chaucer’s shift in narrative voice, and the presentation of an encyclopedia of all walks of life on a level playing field incepts the more “humanistic” literature that would become the hallmark of the Renaissance, particuarly with Shakespeare’s development of human character.


Entry filed under: British Literature.

Questions for Reading, Thinking and Responding to the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales. New Readings: The Wife of Bath and The Pardoner.

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