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Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
In The Book of the City of Ladies, allegory functions on two primary levels. First, three of the primary characters are allegorical figures who represent abstract notions or imaginative concepts—in this case, Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. They assume the form of noblewomen but are also the embodiment of the qualities from which they take their names. Christine needs to tap into these three qualities if she is to build a powerful and convincing argument. This argument itself becomes another mode of allegory. Christine is not physically laboring to build an actual, tangible city. Instead, she is using the trowel of her pen and the mortar of her ink to symbolically construct this all-female community. The bricks with which she raises the city’s walls are the various and accumulating stories the Virtues offer as evidence of the constancy and purity of the female nature. The city’s building blocks are the qualities, such as goodness and righteousness, that are eternal and cannot be destroyed. In this way, the City of Ladies functions as an imaginative concept, a product of the writer’s mind. It is a “place” that serves to hold and store women’s best attributes and greatest accomplishments.
Christine adopts the form of a traditional philosophical dialogue on which to determine and arrive at the truth. She functions as the student, and the three Virtues are her teachers, using discourse and debate to lead her on the path to insight. In this way, the work functions as a cross-examination in which Christine poses tough questions to the figures of Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Christine serves as devil’s advocate, giving voice to the attitudes and accusations of the opposition, men who hold misogynistic views of women. By using a question-and-answer format, Christine is able to slowly and methodically construct her argument. The solidity of her logic is akin to the sturdy and stable city she has at the end of the book.
Narration and the art of storytelling are central to The Book of the City of Ladies, which is essentially a collection of parables from which Christine draws various conclusions about the nature of women. The work can be viewed as many stories contained within the larger unifying tale of the city’s construction. The three Virtues take on the qualities of a writer by presenting the various plotlines of the women whose lives are related. They become stand-ins for Christine, who loses her “authority,” or authorial voice, when she is plagued with doubts about the nature of women. Just as Christine is assigned the task of restoring the reputation of women, the three Virtues, in turn, work to infuse Christine’s vision, and, by extension, her writing, with the power and insight that such a mouthpiece on behalf of women would require.
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