The Canterbury Tales: Similes & Metaphors

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

Similes and metaphors are examples of figurative language that make descriptions more vivid for the readers. In this lesson, we will examine Geoffrey Chaucer's use of similes and metaphors to describe characters in 'The Canterbury Tales.'

Definitions and Background

''What are little girls made of?'' is an old nursery rhyme that compares young girls to 'sugar and spice and everything nice' using metaphors. Similes and metaphors are similar literary devices that compare two things that are not usually considered similar but share a similar trait. In this case, little girls are sweet as sugar. The difference between a simile and a metaphor is that similes use words, such as 'like' or 'as' to make the comparison, while metaphors are more direct. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer incorporates several literary devices as a group of people encounter each other on the journey to Canterbury and have a contest to see who can tell the best story. Let's look at some examples of simile and metaphor from this collection of stories.


In the prologue, the narrator provides a description of each of the characters on the journey. In the description of the Monk, the narrator says, ''He cared not for that text a clean plucked hen Which holds that hunters are not holy men; Nor that a monk, when he is cloisterless, Is like unto a fish that's waterless; That is to say, a monk out of his cloister.'' In other words, when the monk is not in the monastery, he is like a fish out of water in that they are both out of place. This is an example of a simile because the word 'like' is used when comparing the monk to the fish.

In his description of the Miller, the narrator says, ''His mouth was like a furnace door for size.'' In other words, the Miller has a big mouth. In other words, the man is a vulgar, loud-mouth. Once again, this is a simile because 'like' is used when comparing the Miller's mouth to a furnace door.

The Miller's Tale

'The Miller's Tale' is about a man named John who marries a young woman named Alisoun. When they take in a boarder, Nicholas, Alisoun, and Nicholas have an affair. When describing her, the narrator frequently compares Alisoun to animals to play on her animalistic, sexual instincts.

When the narrator says, ''Fair was this youthful wife, and therewithal As weasel's was her body slim and small.'' This is a simile because the word 'as' is used when comparing Alisoun's body to a weasel.

''And songs came shrilling from her pretty head As from a swallow's sitting on a shed'' is a simile comparing her voice to a swallow's song using 'as' when making the comparison.

Another simile is used to describe her dancing, 'Therewith she'd dance too, and could play and sham Like any kid or calf about its dam.' Imagine a calf dancing. Do you think this is a compliment?

The Wife of Bath Tale

The Wife of Bath has been married five times and is looking for her next husband. Her story is intended to justify why a man would benefit from being with an older, experienced woman.

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