Analyzing symbols in chaucer

Ben Lucas 12/4/06 Paper #3 Chaucer 133 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 Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and they become very evident when reading the text with this theory in mind. When reading the Prioress’ Tale, Chaucer’s 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 Christ’s 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 Parson’s 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 Parson’s Tale was meant to provide a segue into explaining Chaucer’s 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 Monk’s 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 nun’s wimple much differently. It is meant not for showing one’s 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 cloak, which again puts the emphasis on an incidental aesthetic quality actually opposed to the cloak’s anticipated function as a sign of rejection of the world and worldly matters (1). What, to me, is interesting about the Prioress’ description in the General Prologue is the somewhat neutral nature of the tone of the description that she is given by Chaucer. When first starting to read the tale we are not sure weather this is to be an encomiastic portrait, like that of the Knight, or a broad satire like the Monk’s tale later on. Her description during the tale is not overly satirical by any means nor is it a description that the average reader would expect to read about a woman of the cloth. The reader might expect Chaucer to begin with a description of her habit but instead he informs us about how little the nun smiles and how few swear words she uses throughout the course of her day. It is interesting to note that the method of description that Chaucer uses here is exactly opposite of the one that he used when describing the Knight. While commenting on the Knight, Chaucer began by noting the Knight’s knightly qualities: being a worthy man, that he had always loved chivalry, truth, honor, freedom, and courtesy. With the Prioress, however, we begin by noting many qualities that are tangible to the contemplative life, not contributive to the proper behavior of a Prioress. Eventually Chaucer bring us to the Prioress’ conscience but it is not before giving us this long section of outer qualities: Ther was also a Nonne, a Prioresse, That of hir smylyng was ful symple and coy; Hir gretteste ooth was but by Seinte Loy; And she was cleped Madame Eglentyne. Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne, Entuned in hir nose ful semely, And Frenssh she spak ful faire and fetisly…(ll118-124 GP) It is only after this long description that we finally turn away from outer-qualities and worldly descriptions and turn to how the Prioress’ conscience and internal qualities function (1). The examples discussed provide a glimpse into how Chaucer used symbols and descriptions of people to form his characters. While reading the Canterbury Tales I noticed many, many different symbols and small allusions that he used to create a world that was up to the reader. I am sure that the significance of Chaucer’s symbology is much deeper than I have concluded but it is very interesting to note the subtleties that come with noticing his symbols. When I began to understand the satire and the symbols that went along with it, the writing became much more humorous and accessible. Bibliography 1. Herman, John P, Burke, John J. Jr. Signs and Symbols in Chaucer’s Poetry. (Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1981) 2. Chaucer, Geoffrey. Benson, Larry D. The Riverside Chaucer. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987)