The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Prologue
by Geoffrey Chaucer
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Another figure of speech the Wife uses to describe herself and her sexuality is that of women-as-flowers, a very common way of describing women even today. When discussing her increasing years, for example, she says that "age…hath me biraft my beautee and my pith." "Pith" refers to the part of a flower's stalk that gives it structure, and without which, the flower wilts.
More often than describing herself as a flower, however, the Wife refers to her sex and sexuality in this way. Playing upon the multiple definitions of "flour" as flour and flower, she says, "the flour is goon, ther is namoore to telle" (483). Her reference to bestowing the flour/flower of her age in the acts and fruits of marriage also compares sex to a flower. In using plant imagery to talk about sex, the Wife capitalizes on the connection between plant growth and fertility. One example is when she asks, "And certein, if ther wer no seed ysowe / Virginitee, wherof thanne sholde it growe?" (77-78). With this question, the Wife departs from her usual linguistic habits to describe virginity, and not sex, as a flower. With this figuration she's drawing upon religious writing, which often described a woman's virginity or "maydenhede" in this manner.