Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue & Frame Story Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Symbol: Springtime

The pilgrimage begins in the spring, "whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote" (General Prologue 1 – 2). Since this is the beginning of the poem, and the beginning of the pilgrimage (which itself is the beginning of repentance), it's likely that springtime here is a symbol of beginnings. And the beginning of things is exactly what the poem emphasizes in its description of springtime, talking about how the wind spreads the seeds that peek their heads above the soil as they begin to grow into crops, and how birds begin their mating season.

This brings us to another thing that springtime symbolizes: sexuality. You see it in the way April is piercing March "to the roote" with his showers, watering things and causing them to grow in the same way a penis "waters" the ovum and causes it to grow. In its masterful opening, the poem links springtime and sex in the way that they both cause new life to begin.

The poem might start this way in order to remind us how pilgrimages are also a start of new beginnings. See, the idea of a pilgrimage is that you start on a journey of repentance, beginning a new life, one free from sin. In the beginning of the poem, then, the springtime is a symbol of the new beginnings and the creation of new lives the pilgrims are about to undertake.

Symbol: Physical Features

The practitioners of medieval physiognomy thought that it was possible to learn things about someone's personality from their physical characteristics. For this reason, various physical features in the pilgrim's portraits are symbols of certain character traits. The Wife of Bath's gap teeth are a symbol of sexuality, as are the Miller's red beard and hair. The Pardoner's beady eyes and long, limp hair are symbols of duplicity or deceitfulness. Broad, earthy features like the Miller's symbolize lower-class status. Since these symbols were a part of their culture, a medieval person would likely immediately have recognized the significance of the physical traits in the pilgrims' portraits.

Symbol: Clothing and Hairstyles

The portraits of the pilgrims use their clothing as a symbol of the personality traits of the wearer. The Wife of Bath's red stockings probably symbolize her lustful nature, and her large hat represents her love of fashion and luxury. Some characters, like the Merchant or the Pardoner, reveal their concern with the latest fashions in the way they dress and style their hair. Most often, pilgrims' clothing symbolizes their possession or lack of money in how fancy or simple it is.

Allegory: Pilgrimage from London to Canterbury

It's probable that the pilgrims' journey from London to Canterbury represents another journey that was very important to a medieval person: the journey from Earth to Heaven. As the journey begins, we have a sinful group of pilgrims, many of whom are hiding various vices and dirty secrets. Their pilgrimage is meant to be a journey of repentance, so that by the time they reach Canterbury, they will be fully cleansed of these sins. Thus, in this allegory, the tavern represents the sinful life on Earth, while Canterbury represents the sin-free life in heaven all people are trying to reach.

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