Study Guide

The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath's Prologue Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Geoffrey Chaucer

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Bread

On several occasions, the Wife compares herself and other women to loaves of bread. The first time, she likens virgins to wheat bread and wives to the less-expensive and coarser barley bread. Her point is that like white bread, virgins may be preferable, but that barley bread is equally nutritious.

Also at this moment, the Wife connects bread to refreshment by saying that Jesus "refresshed" many men with barley bread (152), which connects the Wife's bread imagery to sex in her reference to a desire to be "refreshed" half so often as Solomon of the hundred wives (38). The Wife also connects her bread imagery to sex by declaring an intention to bestow the "flour" of her age in the acts and fruits of marriage (119).

Finally, the Wife gets additional mileage out of the bread metaphor when she compares the sexuality of her youth to wheat and that of her age to bran, declaring "The flour is goon, ther is namoore to telle, / The bren as I best kan now mooste I selle" (483-484). Here she plays upon the status of bread's raw materials as market commodities to convey one of her favorite ideas about sex, drawing attention to the way that sex, like flour or bran, is for sale.

Flowers

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 "ageā€¦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.