The significance of images

When literary critics talk about images in a text they are referring to:

  • Figurative language in which people / things / abstract notions are conveyed in metaphors or similes as though they were, or were like, something else
  • Visual images, ways in which characters and scenes are realised in the text through subtle, vivid, powerful or careful detail and description.
More on this metaphor and simile:
  • A metaphor states that one thing is another, e.g. ‘Her hair was straw, roughly arranged in pigtails.'
  • A simile uses the term ‘like' or ‘as', and in doing so alerts us to the fact that a kind of comparison is being made, e.g. ‘Her hair was like straw, roughly arranged in pigtails.' 

One view of metaphor is that it tells an untruth in order to create meaning, since it claims what is not e.g. hair is not straw. Another view suggests that in forcing comparisons between things which are mainly unalike but connecting them through one aspect of similarity, it creates a kind of truth that cannot be suggested with such immediacy in non-figurative language.

Figurative language is suggestive and shapes the reader's reaction in specific ways, to which they should be alert. Meaning may be controlled, limited or expanded through metaphor. For example, when the Wife suggests that her aggressive behaviour is like that of a vicious horse, Chaucer is giving us a vivid idea about his narrator's forceful animality.

Visual pictures used by the Wife

In comparison with the figurative language used by the Wife of Bath, there are few visual pictures, so those we have are striking e.g.

  • Jankin's shiny golden hair - l.304.
  • l. 561 -2 Jankin's beautiful legs. 

Both pictures indicate the degree of attraction the Wife feels towards her young lover, although they are not described in much detail. 

In this respect there is a clear contrast between the Wife as narrator and Chaucer as the pilgrim narrator of The General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. The General Prologue gives vivid images through detailed descriptions of the appearance, character and mannerisms of the pilgrims (see The portrait of the Wife of Bath in The General Prologue > The significance of the Wife's appearance).

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