At first read of a story that is over 600 years old, one may, as myself had, find it surprising that Canterbury Tales contains such frequent use of irony. With knowledge that this story was written during an especially religious time period, one finds it surprising as to the mockery he gives to most characters. In the General Prologue this becomes most apparent with the monk, a man of religious profession who displays qualities on the contra. While much of the initial writing on the monk is satirical, I found lines 169-171 to contain the greatest use of irony. These lines are written in the following way:
???And whan he rood, men myghte his brydel here
Gynglen in a whistlynge wynd als cleere
And eek as loude as dooth the chapel belle.???
As mentioned just earlier these lines seem to contain the greatest use of irony. Although these lines on their own may look pretty standard in describing a man of religious profession, taken in there proper context they are not. Through knowledge of the lines prior to these three, the reader is introduced to a monk keen on hunting, a trait not typical or wanted by a man of the profession. Therefore when the reader arrives at this scene there is already an understanding that whatever is mentioned in accordance with the typical standards of a monk must not be taken literally at first glance. Thus, when the reader comes to the lines mentioned above they encounter a great usage of irony.
To give a general definition of what irony is, especially in regard to its use by Chaucer, it is a type of language to have levels of meaning, that are ambiguous so that the reader is not entirely certain how to interpret a particular phrase. In regards to the Monk this use of irony may not seem as ambiguous in its meaning, yet it still does the job successfully in its effect. In looking at the above lines the ambiguity is made successful in the humorous simile used in line 171. This ironic simile is set up by the prior lines which remark on the monk as he rides on one of his ???deyntee hors???, which would translate to fine horse. The success in Chaucer??™s irony then comes from the ambiguity of his ???brydel??? that ???Gynglen??¦as loude as dooth the chapel belle??? . The success derives from the fact that referencing a chapel belle to describe an action of monk can hold two separate meanings. The first can be that Chaucer is remarking on the piety of the monk and therefore his bridle sound is emphasizing the point of the monk??™s religious fervor. The second meaning, which in the context of the narrative is correct, is that Chaucer is humorously attaching the monk to the chapel he should be overseeing, but is instead doing otherwise. This successful play on words subtly identifies two traits the monk should have but does not have in the common perception of a late medieval monk. The first being that he lives more like lord than a cleric and the second being that monk seems aware of what his duties should be but instead scorns them.
Although Chaucer was not very ambiguous on the irony used on the monk as compared to other characters such as the Prioress, he did place a speculated ambiguity in line 191 that David Scott-Macnab has pointed out. The line is ???Of prikyng and of hunting for the hare???, which seemingly refers to the monks before mentioned hunting prowess. But as Scott-Mcnab points out in his article, ???prikyng can be understood in two discrete sense, the one relating to hunting and the other sex.???(Scott-Macnab, 374) This double entendre adds a certain quality that heightens the character of the monk and also adds an even more controversial nature to the story. That is that there is a sense of rising individualism among them. While the ideals of the dedication to a traditional Christian communal society are still clearly there, it is equally evident that for the monk, as well as the other pilgrims, the sense of a communal duty is being eroded by a personal desire for money and the fine things money can buy. This change, at least from my general understanding of late medieval society, seems monumental and enlightening in what Chaucer was able to accomplish in the General Prologue to his Canterbury Tales.