Can a Married Couple Be Happy: The Wife of Bath
In the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer presents two characters’ conflicting views on marriage and whether or not marital happiness can be achieved. Both Franklin and the Wife of Bath emphasize the importance of power in a relationship, but disagree on how that power should be divided. Franklin stresses the importance of equality as he believes that humans desire liberty above all, thus a spouse lacking freedom would be perpetually dissatisfied. He states that the spouses must obey each other, working as a unit rather than as rivals. In contrast, the Wife of Bath proposes that the woman overpower the man and use “cunning or force” (269) to assert their dominance. She believes that marital happiness is ultimately unattainable as Venus and Mercury, gods who represent the different genders, cannot peaceably coexist; instead they have an inverse relationship where only one can be satisfied at a time: “So Mercury is desolate when halted in pieces, just where Venus is exhaled/And Venus falls where Mercury is raised/And women therefore can never be praised” (277). She appears to be adamant in her belief; however, she contradicts herself when recounts her five marriages, expressing her unhappiness in the marriages in which she held the upper hand. Instead, she finds marital happiness when she opens herself up to change. She is able to accomplish this in her final relationship in which the spouses act as equals. The Wife of Bath unknowingly supports the teaching of the Franklin by illustrating that equality is essential in order to achieve marital happiness.
The Wife of Bath’s descriptions of her first three marriages are collectively an argument against her philosophy, and serve as an example of Franklin’s solution for marital happiness. She acts in accordance with her belief that the relationship between spouses is doomed to be inverse and sees no reason to “then take trouble to provide them pleasure/unless to profit or amuse my leisure” (268); however, her experience reveals that neither individual can be content so long as one attempts to control the other. She insists to her husbands that women must hold the upper hand: “One of us must be master, man or wife, since a man is more reasonable, he should be the patient one” (270). Consequently, her husbands become the recipients of constant criticism and manipulation, and lack the sense of freedom that Franklin stresses is so important to human happiness. The correlation between freedom and marital happiness is evident when she states that her “first three troubled husbands were undone” (270) . Despite her dominant role in the relationships, she too remains unhappy. Her ideas about power and a desire for control are what impede her from finding love as neither spouse is satisfied with the relationship.
In her fifth and final marriage, the Wife subconsciously begins to adopt Franklin’s ideas about equality as she finds herself caught in a power struggle with her husband. He was the only man she married for “love not wealth” (272), but she is eventually placed on the receiving end of the same sort of treatment she gave to her previous husbands. Described as critical and disdainful, he echoes many qualities that she possesses and prides in herself. Finally lacking freedom, she becomes frustrated and confesses to the pain this treatment caused her. Since she loved him the most he was able to cause her great suffering: “many a blow/He struck me still can ache along my row/of ribs, and will until my dying day” (272). Still, he was always able to win her forgiveness through manipulation: “Though he had beaten me in every bone /he still could wheedle me to love” (272). The two are a well-made match and constantly provoke each other and attempt to establish control. They both begin to understand that in order to find happiness both spouses must have freedom, so they learn to obey one another. In doing so, they are both able to feel power and of dominance: “I’d mastered him, and out of deadlock/secured myself the sovereignty in wedlock” (280). With some trial and error, she discovers that Franklin’s theory is in fact accurate. She unconsciously contradicts her initial statements by establishing equality in her final relationship, thereby achieving marital happiness.
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