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Value of the Ordinary

This semester, I am taking a year-long course on Chaucer's literature and we were assigned to read the Canterbury Tales for the spring term. We are now at the Miller's Tale from the first fragment, but I found it quite difficult to appreciate the value behind these medieval comedic stories, where its narration of the ordinary people and their lives are filled with jokes (and sadly I do not find it funny in anyways), adulteries, and superficial horseplays. The style of Medieval conversations for the lower class uses plenty of coarse and even "bawdy" language in their dialogue and storytelling.

Canterbury tales mural by Ezra Winter. North Reading Room, west wall, Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C.

Canterbury tales mural by Ezra Winter. North Reading Room, west wall, Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C.

During this week's office hour, I asked my professor "what is the value of comedy beside serving as a satire and reflecting the state of society at the time? It seems that tragedy has more 'literary value', because the themes in tragedy are eternal and more weighted to humanity." My professor then replied, "the value of comedy lies exactly on the narration of the ordinary. Comedy reflects the social convention at the time, the thoughts, the emotion, the constraint, and the dialogue of the average people, the 'invisible' population from heroic or epic stories. The experience of the ordinary people may be a 'truer' reflection of the society in the history, as opposed to the exciting and heroic stories of the knights and kings. The ordinary has its own unique value, although it is not so easy to appreciate and resonate with what they cared about at the time." I quietly agree and I think because the value of the ordinary is often "invisible" and "not-so-exciting-to-recount", it is often undervalued and out of sight.

In our modern society, along with our limited attention and mental resources, it is the wisest to put our focus to the more "significant" things and events, rather than spending time on the more trivial and mundane. With this mindset, it is great that we can act more efficiently, by attending to the most important and the most "valuable" aspect of the world. But with this focused and "filtered" mindset, we are also vulnerable to overlook the value of the ordinary, the "not-so-significant" events, and the trivial every day life that occupies a huge portion of our daily experience. A hundred years from now, the part of our experience that does not fit into the category of having "historical significance" may be forgotten and become irrelevant for the future, just as how we may find it difficult to appreciate the mundane life of the average medieval people narrated by Chaucer.