Analyzing Symbols In Chaucer
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Analyzing Symbols and Symbolism in the Canterbury Tales
In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer uses his exemplary writing skills to employ a multitude of symbols and symbolic imagery to exercise his points. He uses symbols and symbolic imagery in many different ways and sometimes they are difficult to identify. Symbols were a large part of Chaucers Canterbury Tales and they become very evident when reading the text with this theory in mind.
When reading the Prioress Tale, Chaucers symbolism becomes evident when we learn of her name, Madame Eglentyne. Her last name is also a name for a sweet briar rose, an eglantine rose. This can signify many things. The name has traditionally been a name for heroines of medieval romances (1).
The Prioress seems to be the mortal parallel to the Virgin Mary. So, the fact that her name is a symbol for a rose, it is not wrong to assume that Chaucer meant for the reader to interpret this the way I have here. But, it is also important to note that this could be interpreted another way. The rose with thorns placed on Christs head while being crucified was said to be the eglantine plant. So with this in mind, the reader has to decide weather the Prioress is named for a heroine of romance or for the Blessed Virgin in terms of the rest of her portrait painted by Chaucer (1).
I am not entirely sure which Prioress Chaucer wanted us to choose, I believe that he intended that the name be equivocal. I believe that Chaucer was playing on the fact that he knows his readers will make a choice, regardless, and our tendency to do this was his motivation for not explicitly clarifying who, exactly, we should believe the Prioress to be. This to me seems true throughout the Canterbury Tales, as Chaucer lets the reader make opinions of his characters.
An interesting passage I found in the Parsons Tale was a passage on pride, a symbol found often during the course of the Tales. Here the Parson distinguishes between inner and outer pride, and he further notes that the outer is a sign of the inner:
Now been ther two maneres of pride: that
Oon of hem is withinne the herte of man,and
That oother is withoute./ Of whiche, soothly,
Thise forseyde thynges, and no that I have
Seyd, apertenen to pride that is in the herte
Of man; and that othere speces of pride
Been withoute./ But natheles that oon
Of thise speces of pride is signe of that
Oother, right as the gaye leefsel atte taverne
Is signe of the wyn that is in the celer. (ll-409-411)
Outer pride is the sign of inner pride, spiritual pride, and the Parson goes on to explain that one typical manifestation of outer pride is an “outrageous array of clothyng.” This example from the Parsons Tale was meant to provide a segue into explaining Chaucers use of clothing in the Prioress Tale (1).
Just as the bush that was used as a tavern sign signified the wine in the cellar not visible to the eye, as well as the fine fur that the Monk displayed on his robe, indicates inner, spiritual pride, only visible through exterior signs or symbols (1).
For the Prioress, these exterior signs are not quite as visible as the Monks lavish fur but they are quite discernable when the reader takes a closer look.
The Prioress wears an item of clothing, like a handkerchief, called a wimple. The wimple is a garment that could be worn by lay folks as well as clerics. A fine example of a Chaucerian character reviling in indulgence is the Wife of Bath who wears a wimple that is extremely bright, expensive, and that would coordinate very well with her new shoes, enormous hat, her many coverchiefs, and her red stockings (1). However, this is not the Wife we are talking about her it is the Prioress, and she is a cleric. So one imagines a nuns wimple much differently. It is meant not for showing ones wealth nor for drawing attention to oneself but in fact it is meant to do just the opposite: to cover up the potentially attractive neck and to minimize the face of the woman who has discarded earthly for heavenly matters. It is clear that the Prioress wimple should be taken as a sign of inner purity, her otherworldliness corresponding to her having taken the veil spiritually (1).
Another symbol that the Prioress is obviously displaying is her black habit. In the Tale, Chaucer seems to be satirizing the Prioress by omitting the use of “black” to describe her. The word “black” is not even used once. Chaucer is using “satire by omission” in that the reader would have every expectation that the Prioress would be in an all black habit. We come across “graye”, “coral”, “grene”, and “gold” but no black, brown or white, the colors we would most expect to be found on a nun in the time of Chaucer, or any time for that matter. As for the actual habit of the Prioress, we get very little description of this at all, and what we get comes toward the later portion of the story. She has, as noted, an attractively pleated wimple, and to this Chaucer adds a “ful fetys” or handsome