Traditional Expectations Versus Ambition: From Chaucer to Swift
Geoffrey Chaucer's, "The Canterbury Tales: The General Prologue" and Jonathan Swift's, Gulliver's Travels, embody the tensions of traditional expectations versus ambition. Chaucer is especially effective in revealing this tension through his satire of members of the Church's clergy. Whereas, Swift successfully emphasizes this tension through his satire of the "new science" (Patey 371) and the scientific community through the perspective of his main character, Lemuel Gulliver, in book 3, "A Voyage to Laputa". These satires are observations on the tension of traditional expectations and the opposing ambitions that reveal themselves to be constant in all social hierarchies, in all countries, and throughout history.
The social hierarchy of the Medieval era was composed of "the nobility, ... whose mission on earth was to rule over and defend the body politic; the church, whose duty was to look after the spiritual welfare of that body; and everyone else, the large mass of commoners who were supposed to do the work that provided for its physical needs" (Abrams 210). During the Middle Ages, war and the bubonic plague had laid waste to Europe "wiping out a quarter to a third of the population" (Abrams 10). With the great reduction in the amount of people available to do the jobs needed to ensure the "physical needs" of the hierarchy, there was a great desire amongst the survivors to change their social status. The growing middle class began to have more influence in politics and religion. Many uprisings of the lower classes showed their "discontent" with the hierarchy, which was "oppressive and constricting" (Abrams). Many of the uprisings were
against wealthy clergy of the church and "the church had become the target of popular resentment because it was among the greatest of the oppressive landowners and because of the wealth, worldliness, and venality of many of the higher...