Wife Of Bath
The Feminist Point of View for Wife of Bath
In the Prologue of “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer, The Wife of Bath gives a complicated picture of a medieval woman to the readers. As it explains how the Wife of Bath is shameless about her sexual exploits since she makes use of her sexual power to get what she wishes. In other words, it is a way of doing exactly these matters as she is confirming the horrible stereotypes about ladies by proving that ladies are both deceitful and manipulative. Even though, her movements may have first appeared to be a rebellion against the male-dominated side of society in “The Canterbury Tales”, there is very little that she does that is besides a doubt of revolutionary or empowering for the female society of her time.
Based on her introduction in “The Canterbury Tales’, it appears from the onset that the Wife of Bath truly makes use of her sexual attributes for non-public reap alternatively of trying to exhibit her equal status in society. In general, this lady stereotype is supposed to be considered as a parody of sorts on account that she embodies a range of terrible girl features together with arrogance, deceitfulness, and lewdness. Although, she places once more at men, it is in fact, no longer for any deeper motive other than for non-public profit. As it appears that in the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale, Chaucer desires his readers to chortle at this persona as a choice rather than to admire her for her pro-feminist stances on existence and marriage. Even if the Wife of Bath is a persona that is intended to shatter a misogynistic stereotype of women in their society, one might think about what would have happened if an interaction of an enlightenment conversation with some of the members of her party would have done. However, the closest she came to this is by providing her alternate perception of the Bible. As she states in The Canterbury Tales: The Wife of Bath, “Tell me, also, why do we have organs of reproduction, and why were we created as we are… I say that these organs are for business and for pleasure of conception” . While it can be placed in the Bible that people want to procreate, it is well worth noting that she prefaces this declaration with a few phrases about how she interprets the Bible.
Moreover, she compares herself to guys who are viewed as most splendid in society. While defending herself, she appears to be living on occasions an antifeministic life-style as she has all the characteristics that a lady now in today’s society has and not by the accordance of a lady in her society. On the other hand though, the outspoken female tries to justify her existence with her open and ahead speeches as she questions the frequently happening instructing of the church and the society. While the Wife of Bath ignores the authority, she defends her rights and she even deconstructs the Christian doctrine as well. In her prologue and tale, she is shown as being successful to triumph over discourses and portrays herself as a dominant figure. With the major intention to analyse from the feminist standpoint, the personality questions and deconstructs the grand narratives of the medieval times.
The Wife of Bath is claiming that she is successful in doing things her way and that the text is no longer beyond her reach. Still, the hassle with this is that she is not proving anything about her intelligence, she is merely trying to verify or justify her free behavior with the phrase of God. More important than this, in her prologue, the Wife of Bath uses Chaucer by trying to exist herself as a female capable of independent ideas and action because she is simply using the Bible, as text related to the male authority, to back up her assertions. In other words, to express in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue inside the “Canterbury Tales”, she is clearly working within the patriarchy in an alternate way instead of outside of it, which only confirms the poor stereotypes about women, especially since the insights she gives are twisted, misunderstood, or honestly wrong. For instance, at one point she talks about the Bible again, saying, “Apostle said that he had no rules for it. People may advise a woman to be a Virgin, but advise is not a commandment”, he is absolutely justifying bad conduct with the Bible and her botched misinterpretations of it and this makes her appear silly alternatively than educated. It confirms the stereotype of women in medieval instances that women are not as capable at grasp the deep meanings and mysteries of the Bible and that if they are given some schooling about it, they would solely use it to justify the lewd or sinful conduct.
Overall, the Wife of Bath stood for women in a way where they took control of their body on whether or not they decide to give up their special gift of virginity. As she clearly believed that she was in charge of her body and mind from any of the men that have crossed her way. She didn’t have to prove anything to anyone since all she had to prove something to us to herself. The Wife of Bath stood up for women during her time in ways that they probably didn’t even notice it they had thought was strange and not following the rules. Even though some of her ideas were always right, she still tried her best in being her own periods even if it defied the societal standards of a lady. Wife of Bath can therefore be considered as a small version of a feminist.
The Wife of Bath by Geoffrey Chaucer: Analysis of the Two Contradicting Personas of the Wife
Ganim asserts that the Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was “deeply implicated and interested in the burning issues of his day” and Oberembt builds on this by stating that “we must, of course, affirm the omnipresence of misogyny in the Middle Ages and the anti-feminist bias of many great minds of this era”. However, in the Prologue of The Wife of Bath, the conflicting opinions voiced by the Wife complicate the reading of the text as an attempt to shed light on the inescapability of the patriarchal society as the Wife’s attempts to subvert male supremacy is drowned out by her own internalisation of female objectification.
In the characterisation of the Wife as both a subservient wife and an aggressive resistor of male dominance, a paradoxical narrative voice is constructed. And through this duality of the Wife’s voice of expression, as she appears to both resist and affirm female roles of inferiority, the satiric tendencies of the text are challenged. Moreover, by characterising the Wife as an exaggerated caricature of a loose woman, and empowering her through the use of direct first-person narration, the Wife seems to selfishly uplift herself rather than to serve as a representative voice of the females in her society. This portrays the Wife’s true intention in a confusing manner, questioning the Wife’s intent in subverting or following the patriarchal society. The ambiguity of the Wife’s characterisation through her contradictory actions and voice could thereafter suggest the imposing nature of society as any attempts at escaping societal expectations appear to be futile. In Chaucer’s the Wife of Bath, the Prologue acts as a space for the Wife to voice out her dominance over men. But yet, in her attempt to assert power over the two listeners of her tale, the Wife is characterised as a crude and coarse woman by the way in which she speaks. She recounts her past experiences with multiple husbands to her male listeners, Friar and the Pardoner and is granted a chance to teach the two young men of her experiences whilst presenting her husbands in a derogatory manner.
As Friar and the Pardoner follow her storytelling intently, wanting the Wife to “telle forth youre tale; spareth for no man, and teche us yonge men of your praktike”, she speaks of how she had subdued her three elderly husbands and had them “maad his raunson unto me; thanne wold she suffree him do his nicetee”. As she describes the transaction of sex and riches, the Wife presents her past partners as subservient, raising her to a position of power over the men in her life while portraying herself with an air of authority. In ridiculing her husbands’ inadequacies in bed, she outwardly expresses how her husbands “broghte it so aboute by her wit, That they moste yeve it up, as for the beste. For thogh he loked as a wood leoun, Yet sholde he faille of his conclusioun” in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. The Wife makes light of her husbands’ possible insecurities and lets Friar and the Pardoner, who are mere strangers, in on the personal problems faced in her marriages. This public exposé of private and personal matters in her marriage suggests the crude and insensitive nature of the Wife as she selfishly sacrifices the reputation of her husbands in order to empower herself. This is supported by both Mead who envisions her as a “pushing, noisy woman, much like any commonplace shrew” and Slade who describes the Wife’s speech as “adult, aggressive, matter-of-fact, and sexually pre-occupied”. And in examining the explicit manner in which the Wife speaks of her sexual encounters and desires without the use of euphemisms, it is exemplified that the Wife’s effort to raise herself to a position of power is contradictory as she unknowingly degrades herself into an image of a selfish shrew through her speaking of her husbands.
The ambiguity of the Wife’s true stance on the male dominance in her life is also highlighted in her personal internalisation of females as a mere object of desire of men. As the Wife takes pride in how her appearance and sexual prowess had attracted men to “bringe me gaye thinges fro the fayre”, she unknowingly objectifies herself and acknowledges her identity as a woman recognised only for her ability to please men. The depiction of herself by stating that her “housbondes tolde her, she hadde the beste quoniam mighte be” establishes how others only valued the Wife for her physical body and not for her wit or intellect. And by following her declaration of herself as a descendant of Venus because of her “prente of Sainte Venus seel” with the affirmation of her physical beauty, it is suggested that the Wife was proud of her ‘best quoniam’, and not ashamed of her body being objectified.
The Wife’s overall haughty tone of voice throughout the entire Prologue also builds on the idea that she was proud and accepting of her objectification. Her repeated use of the pronoun ‘I’ creates an air of triumph in the Wife’s tone, suggesting a narcissistic nature as makes herself to be the focal point of the Prologue. This narcissism reflects upon her pride in being seen as an object of desire for men and therefore points at her internalisation of the female identity as a tool of male desire. At the same time, while the Wife’s accepting of female objectification adds to the ambiguity of her stance on male dominance, her speech also serves to widen the gap between the men in her life and herself, affirming the inherent idea of male superiority. In the use of the euphemism ‘quoniam’ by the men in her life to replace the explicit term for the Wife’s body, the voices of the males are portrayed as more refined and subtle. This is a stark contrast from the Wife’s crude descriptions of her husbands in her saying “gode lief, tak keep How mekely loketh Wilkin oure sheep” as she neglects the use euphemisms in describing her encounters in bed and speaks directly of them. This adds to the characterisation of the Wife as a “commonplace shrew”, which Mead attributes to “very loose and coarse” way of speaking and hence undermines the Wife’s attempts at depicting female superiority as she unknowingly raises the status of men through her quoting of their speech. This adds to the confusion in the Wife’s conflicting actions and paradoxical voice as she appears to both affirm her identity as inferior while trying to transcend the imposed female gender role of subservience.
The Wife’s attempt to portray herself as an equal to the male figure by highlighting her knowledge of religion and intellectuals makes the analysis of her character increasingly problematic as the Wife does not appear to empower the female community but instead uplifts herself to the status of a male. While her previous attempts at subverting the patriarchal society relied on the erasure of male dominance, the Wife’s quoting of scholars and biblical references portray herself as more superior to the rest of the females in her community. In quoting the astronomer, Ptolomee, of his proverb “of all men his wisdom is the hyeste, that rekketh nat who hath the world in honde’, the Wife displays her intellectual ability as she is able to understand and appreciate texts. This enables her to subvert the idea of female inferiority as women are typically thought to be illiterate and not well-versed in scholarly proverbs. Similarly, as the Wife quotes the Apostles, she expresses how she enjoys reading the religious text in “al this sentence me liveth everydeel”. Here, it could be interpreted that she is trying to resemble her fifth husband, Janekin, who had quoted the “proverbe of Ecclesiaste” in order to pressurise the Wife into being subservient. Mimicking the actions of men, the Wife upholds the qualities of the male in order to be seen as equal and not inferior to them, erasing her personal inferior female identity. Simultaneously, through the depiction of her knowledge of religion, the Wife attempts to justify her own personal desire and escape the identity of them as “legally inferior to men, and that they were expected to know their place and keep it”.
Longsworth observes that the Wife uses the same biblical texts that Jerome’s letter Adversus Jovinianu references in order to “in order to vindicate her sexuality and marriages” and strengthen her authority. On the pretence that “God bad for us to wexe and multiplye”, the Wife uses to this substantiate her rejection of polygamy as a sin. She then goes on to find loopholes and manipulate the words of the Apostles as she argues “For hadde God commanded maydenhede, thanne hadde he dampned weddyng with the dede. And certes, if ther were no seed ysowe, Virginitee, thanne wherof shold it growe?”. In the expression of her manipulative argument, the Wife makes a parody of poetic structure of religious texts, using rhyme to deliver her speech in a more refined and elegant tone of voice. This facade of refinement enables the Wife to use the words of God to support her own lust and sexual desire, as she cites her openness to the creation of more virgins. Through this, she is then able to defy the set expectations of her as a subservient and loyal wife. However, the need to twist religious references to justify her personal lust and desire also hints at the haunting nature of female oppression, as the Wife fears the consequences of her outward defying of the expected behaviour of a female. This interpretation of the Wife’s fear is supported by Oberembt, who depicts how the Wife does not “acknowledge outright adultery” but instead “delights her auditors to think the worst” as she “confesses to deceiving her old husbands”. Her refusal to directly admit to her sin of adultery highlights her fear of punishment for breaking away from the subservient wife role.
The Wife’s fear thereafter suggests that the Wife is still haunted by the societal expectations of women as property to their husbands, alluding to the entrapment of women in their inferior identities. This dual effect of the Wife’s referencing of religious texts goes on to support the idea of the Wife’s unreliability as her actions seem to both adhere to and subvert the expectation of female subservience. In the problematic characterisation of the Wife as both a subservient woman and a shrew who resists societal patriarchy, the question of the Wife’s true intention remains. Acknowledging that the Wife’s anti-misogynist tendencies “does not silence the misogynists among the Canterbury Pilgrims”, it could be interpreted that the Wife yearns to escape societal expectations but is still tied down by the obligations imposed onto her by both society and her mother, of whom she “folwed ay her dames lore”. And owing to the haunting weight of societal pressure of an individual, the Wife’s character finds it difficult to escape her fate, as she faces the dilemma of whether or not to denounce the idea of female inferiority.
The two contradicting personas portrayed by the Wife through her actions and speech could represent the opposing sides of expectations; the subservient woman and the loud-mouthed shrew. Thereafter, in reading Chaucer’s the Wife of Bath, it could be argued that the construction of the Wife’s shrewd character was not to present anti-misogynist tendencies. Rather, the Wife’s entrapment in the patriarchal society served as an example of the imposing nature of society on an individual in general, accentuating the immense power of societal expectations.
A Medieval Hero in Wife of Bath
The Wife of Bath’s Tale Analysis
“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is a tale written by Geoffrey Chaucer taking place in Britain in the days of King Arthur. In this story, a knight rapes a young maiden; the people of the court find out and want him beheaded. However, the queen gives him a second chance by sending him on a quest with the time of a year and day to find the answer to the question: what do women want the most? He travels receiving different answers, but the night upon arriving back, he comes across an ugly old woman who promises to help him if he helps her. He agrees and the answer is woman want control. He is correct and lives, but has to marry the old woman. After expressing his feelings to her, she gives him two choices: she could be ugly and loyal or pretty and disloyal. Not being able to answer this question, he allows her to choose. In return, she becomes both, pretty and loyal. The central idea is virtue is the highest of all goods. To understand “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” one must know what makes this piece medieval, how the definition of a hero has changed since “Beowulf,” and the development of the characters.
To read “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” the readers must understand what makes this piece medieval. This piece is medieval because of the introduction and explanation of the social classes. Chaucer introduces two out of the three social classes, the peasants and the aristocracy. In the story, the old woman represents the peasants while the knight represents the aristocracy. When the married couple are in their bedroom, the knight refrains himself from her and refuses to have sex. In confusion, the old woman asks the knight why he is acting the way he is. He responds by telling her she is so loathsome, old, and “[descends] from such low born lineage” (Benson 1101). After hearing this, the old woman explains the differences between the riches and the poor. She says the riches speak of nobility which they gain from their ancestors and not from God himself. She continues to speak on behalf of the peasants. She says poverty is a “hateful good” (Benson 1195) and something that makes a peasant realize God and the innerself. The readers get an insight to the major differences between the peasants and the aristocracy. The aristocracy are of higher rank and people of the court/government that are followed due to their nobility. On the other hand, peasants are of a much lower class and are people who know their worth and learn to appreciate the smallest goods.
The definition of a hero differs between “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and “Beowulf.” In “Beowulf,” a hero contains traits such as being selfless and loyal. In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” the knight is the opposite of a hero. He does not take care of his people as he should. He rapes a maiden “by utter force, [taking] away her maidenhead” (Benson 888). A hero like Beowulf has respect for all people, old or young. However, the knight is not very respectable of his elders. For example, after he marries the old woman, he tells her straight to her face that he does not like her because she is old and ugly. Beowulf is the perfect example of how a hero should be, but the knight having different characteristics from Beowulf shows us that he should not be classified as one.
In this story the development of the characters varies. The two main characters, the knight and the old woman, are both developed in their own ways. The knight is a more stereotypical character while the old woman is more complex. In the beginning of the story, the knight is an example of a bad knight. He shows that he does not care for his nobility by forcing himself upon a maiden, being disrespectful, and rude about the differences within each class. Towards the end of the story, the knight proves himself as a stereotype of a good knight. He learns his lesson and learns to respect the boundaries of women. The old woman is an example of a complex character because she is there for a purpose, to teach a lesson. When confronted by the knight about the displeasure she brings to him, she gives him two options, in which he simply says, “I do not care which of the two, for as it pleases you, is enough for me” (Benson 1234-1235). Pleased with the answer, the old woman grants the best of both choices. Chaucer has made the old woman a complex character and the knight a stereotypical one to show the different aspects of each character, where they come from, and the lesson to be taught. If the old woman was a stereotypical character as well, then there would have been no lesson taught to the knight about respecting and protecting a woman’s desires.
Knowing what makes a piece medieval, the difference of a hero in “Beowulf” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” and how a character is formed need to be understood when reading this piece. Different social classes and understanding them allows the readers to know more about the characters. Once the social classes and characters have been established, readers will better understand “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.”
Female Repression and Female Authority in Wife of Bath
The Wife of Bath’s: Is it Feminism or is it Identity?
“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales addresses topics of female repression and also female authority. The Wife uses heavy citations from the bible, naming important male figures of which she compares her experience with in order to justify her many husbands and sexual experience. If one addresses the contradicting nature of what male authority inflicts upon female expression many layers of power dynamics between men and women would surface. The Wife of Bath’s response to these dynamics does not characterize her as a feminist in the militant sense neither does it reduce her to female submission like is expected from religious contexts. But actually, the female authority, through Chaucer’s interpretation, is allowed to speak in the same fashion that male authority has dominated the culture and texts during middle ages, allowing the Wife to be labeled neither feminist nor submissive, but as a woman who has the same authority to express and detail her experiences just as any other male representations.
To characterize The Wife of Bath’s as one recognizable label of feminist or experienced female would take away the impact of her authority, according to Ruth Evans and Lesley Johnson in “The Wife of Bath and ‘Al hire secte’: Medieval Feminist?” this labeling takes away the power that the wife possesses, “To think about how a voice like the Wife of Bath’s might constitute a point of resistance is to move away from naïve readings of her as either a militant feminist or as trapped in the prison-house of masculinity ideology, towards a strategic exploration of how medieval subjects, female and male, are caught up in systems of power relations,” ( Evans, Johnson 2). This concept is further explained with evidence from cultural and historical theories such as the way the term feminism was described during this middle era. Feminism was depicted as something group of women did in response to male oppression, but when examining “The Wife of Bath’s tale” there is no direct evidence to portray any sense of feminist group activity rather it is an individual response to her own personal experiences,
“Yet herde I nevere tellen in myn age
Upon this nombre diffinicioun.
Men may devyne, and glosen up and doun,
But wel I woot, expres, withoute lye,
God bad us for to wexe and multiplye;
Through specific word choices and representation of spiritual citations the Wife of Bath’s is clearly answering to only her own individuality, not willing to take on the name of feminism and apply it to her experience. “Men may devyne, and glosen” this language is interesting because it is saying that men only guess or suppose what the female role and experience should be, exposing the faults in this idea Chaucer represents The Wife as someone who is overtly commanding her own authority, and acknowledges the hypocritical nature of scripture and male dominated theories. According to Evans and Johnson femininity during the middle ages was directly tethered to the concept of sexual identity which The Wife of Bath’s challenges and manipulates into her own individual experience.
Theophrastus and Jerome are important counterparts of The Wife of Bath’s experience because she directly mentions Jerome in her narration, which offers another point of view when examining the feminist or anti-feminist nature of Chaucer’s tale. The aspect of religious contexts is a significant part of the tale and it is important to note that these feminist portrayals are still presented by male authority so it is significant to see how Theophrastus and Jerome are challenged by Chaucer through the voice of The Wife of Bath’s in order to further examine the overall female agency depicted in the text. From the article, “But what good is it to keep a careful watch over her? If a wife is unchaste, she can’t be guarded, and if she isn’t she doesn’t need guarding. In any case, the compulsion to be chaste is an untrustworthy guard-the woman really to be called “chaste” is the one who could sin if she wanted to,” (358). Jerome poses this idea of chastity of a woman and gives an explanation of a trustworthy and untrustworthy woman. This is ironic because Jerome states that the woman who chooses not to sin is the one that deserves trust and protection, as if her choice not her compulsion, is what allows her to be valued at something higher than the woman who is not chaste. The Wife of Bath’s chooses her own sexual experiences and marriages, but according to Jerome this is not what allows her to be trustworthy, instead she is a deceptive woman. If one observes this in comparison with the Wife of Bath’s individual sexual identity,
“For hadde God comanded maydenhede,
Thanne hadde he dampned weddyng with the dede;
And certein, if ther were no seed ysowe,
Virginitee, wherof thanne sholde it growe? (76-78).
In this passage the Wife of Bath entertains the idea that if God “commanded maydenhede” he would have condemned all marriage, this challenges the previous idea of a women’s virtue and necessity to fall under the expectations and judgments of man. The Wife gives multiple examples confronting the ideas of Theophrastus and Jerome and even addresses Jerome directly. In this, Chaucer is grappling with the thematic arcs of female agency, but not in regards to femininity as a whole, but rather exploring the female identity, as it is rendered and particular to a specific person, in this case the Wife of Bath’s.
The Wife of Bath, or Alison, is countering the contradictions presented in Jerome’s response to marriage through literal interpretations of scripture as stated in Walter Smith’s “The Wife of Bath Debates Jerome,” “What she offers is far from a “rebuttal of St. Paul” as is sometimes claimed; indeed time and again, she defends the plain sense of the Bible, of the “literal text” in Carolyn Dinshaw’s phrase, and of St. Paul in particular, against Jerome’s sometimes biased and distorted interpretations of Scripture,” ( 130). Where it could be argued that Alison is misusing scripture it is important to note that she is in fact simply stating what is literally presented in the Bible as a way to counteract the skewed interpretations of Jerome, “Are we, then, never to cease from lust, so that we shouldn’t have these limbs to no purpose? Why should a man abstain from his wife? Why should a widow keep herself chaste, if we were born only in order to live like animals? or, What harm will it do me, if my wife sleeps with someone else?” (368). This interpretation of why God created genitals on the human body is an example of the way Jerome dissects aspects of human nature and manipulates it so that it fits into his argument for celibacy. He often compares the sexual desire of those who have chosen to digress from his interpretations of virtue to that of animals. It is interesting that nature in this form of sexuality is valued to that of animalistic behavior and it is carnal even if it is done for the reasons of procreation. Previously in the Jerome readings, he stated the functions of the genitals could be valued to that of excreting excrement’s from the body once again baring the aspects of humanity down to their bare and primal necessity without engaging with humanities complexity of physical desire in both primal and complex forms.
The Wife engages with the question of what is the purpose of genitals in the prologue, but offers a perspective that speaks to her own individual authority and acts as an voice for what a female’s dissection of the same idea would amount too when answering to a male’s distorted perception,
“Why sholde men elles in hir bookes sette
That man shal yelde to his wyf hire dette?
Now wherwith sholde he make his paiement,
If he ne used his sely instrument?
Thanne were they maad upon a creature
To purge uryne, and eek for engendrure. (135-140)
In this passage The Wife addresses the utility of “his sely instrument” allowing for the reader to engage the meaning behind the choice of calling the male gentiles “sely” in regards to how should man make payments to his wife. This is an important passage in the prologue because the male and female dynamics are formulated through a woman voice instead of through the voices of other male interpretations like, Jerome, St. Paul, or other voices presented in texts during the time. Although it is ultimately Chaucer’s authorial congress that is presenting the challenging dynamics, it comes through the opposition of male authors like Jerome, creating the space for an interpretation that could have come from a Wife of Bath’s point of view. In the text, “To purge uryne, and eek for egendrure,” specifically engages with the points made by Jerome, but to the benefit of the Wife of Bath’s argument, which is that, the genitals were created in order to urinate and procreate. The tone of this passage is humorous at first glance, but also imitates claims made by Jerome in order to portray how the same pieces of an argument can be moved around in order to produce different, but justifiable, examinations of the biological functions of the genitals, but also that they are there for sexual experiences as well.
The female as presented in the Wife of Bath’s does rely on the individual experience that is represented through her many marriages, but avoids the tropes of collective “feminism” in the sense that it is a group of woman writing back against patriarchal repression. Instead one must look at the female voice in this text as writing against the contrived writings of Jerome because it is specific to this text. The idea of including a movement within these contexts is counterproductive and allows for many missed meanings when looking at the claims and experiences of the Wife such as, her views on marriage and other men in the Bible,
He seith, that to be wedded is no synne,
Bet is to be wedded than to brynne.
What rekketh me, thogh folk seye vileynye
Of shrewed Lameth and of bigamye?
I woot wel Abraham was an hooly man,
And Jacob eek, as ferforth as I kan,
And ech of hem hadde wyves mo than two,
And many another holy man also. (60-64)
The Wife’s view on marriage has to address the men in the bible that she feels are justified in a way that her own marriages and experiences are not. This is another expression of her own individual female identity that focuses on the, “shrewed Lameth and of bigamye,” specifically addressing the multiple wives that these “holy men” such as Abraham and Jacob had in the same passage as a known bigamist, Lameth. The language also reveals another satire because of the use of the use of “hooly” and “bet is to be wedded than to brynne.” The overall tone of this passage illuminates another aspect of male contradictions and misconstrued scripture which is portrayed in the Chaucer Review by Walter Smith who examines another passage in which the wife challenges Jerome and other theologies on polygamy and multiple wives, “Alison’s comments mock those who, like Tertullian and Jerome falsely read into John 4:17 a condemnation of polygamy—a meaning which she doubts Jesus intended. All such speculation about the meaning of “numbers” is part of the wasted effort of men to “devyne and glosen” over small details in texts,” (134). The Wife’s expression of self is identified through her comparisons between her own experience and of other male authorities while dissecting the contradictions in the arguments of Jerome, “First of all Lamech,who was a man of blood and a homicide, divided one flesh into two wives; the same punishment of the flood destroyed both homicide and bigamy (Jerome means by this marrying a second time]. ‘I- ‘I- “. The holiness of monogamy is illustrated by the fact that a bigamist cannot be chosen as a priest,” (364). She doesn’t completely reject his entire authority, but rather she is obtaining the freedom to express ideas and opinions that are often ignored or denied to females. This expression of her female authority should not be compared to speaking as a mouthpiece for all women, but rather showing the justifications for The Wife and only for her personal experiences. Smith states that The Wife is equalizing the marriages of Jacob and Abraham so that they are the same as the eight marriages of The Wife. According to Smith she does this by comically exploiting Jerome’s stance on marriage because after the first there is no difference as to how many marriages follow.
It is important to examine the way her marriages and husbands are described in the “Wife of Bath” because that is the basis for experience and authority over her own individuality. Her husbands become her rebuttal against Jerome’s belief on marriage, “Jerome argues that virgins who have consecrated themselves to God are guilty of incest if they marry. Marriage is a short-term prospect, for it ends with death. He demonstrates the spiritual distinction between a virgin who thinks only of God and a wife whose thought is on how to please her husband,” (365). Jerome’s stance on wives is a grouping of all females together in what Evans and Johnson would call a “secte” this is important to note because it is from this where the “feminist” misconception is formed from those viewing The Wife’s response as a polemic for rights for all women. If one were to examine the husbands and her experience with each, it would illuminate the concepts of The Wife’s individuality and Chaucer’s portrayal of one person’s response to another’s idea.
Ye woot wel what I meene of this, pardee!
As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke
How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke.
And, by my fey, I tolde of it no stoor,
They had me yeven hir gold and hir tresoor;
Me neded nat do lenger diligence
To wynne hir love, or doon hem reverence, (206-212)
This passage portrays the relationship between husband in wife as a give and take between the marriage, “They had me yeven hir gold” shows the idea of The Wife’s husband gave her “tresoor” and riches. The Wife later says how she no longer needed to “wynne hir love” like other women do because her husbands gave her everything. This passage is important to the overall identity verses femininity because it intentionally separates The Wife from other women and simultaneously is revealing the specific details of her marriages that are particular to The Wife alone. Perhaps this is the textual evidence leading to the debate between The Wife and Jerome also with Theophrastus detailing of what a wife needs from a husband, “We always have to be noticing her appearance and praising her beauty, in case she thinks we don’t like her if we ever look at another woman. She has to be called “Madam”…” (358). Comparatively the tone of The Wife’s passage is indicating a stance that directly opposes Theophrastus’ claim by saying that she does not need her husbands “diligence.” The differences in perceptions of womanhood speak to the way Chaucer has depicted The Wife of Bath’s and her experiences, which offer more of a focalized viewpoint than Jerome’s broad perception of marriage.
Walter Smith examines the debts a husband pays to his wife through the texts of both The Wife and Jerome who offer ideas about sexual “debts” that are to be paid between husband and wife, “The Wife’s insistence and the husband’s need to pay a sexual debt to his wife is consistent with the provisions of medieval canon and civil law, which put a wife on an equal footing with her husband in regard to the conjugal duty. Alison’s stress on the husbands need to pay his debt reflects or parodies a preoccupation of Jerome,” (141). Smith acknowledges the satire in Jerome’s response to The Wife’s claim that Husbands are in sexual debt to their wives, but also it is interesting that even with the satirical tonality The Wife and Jerome are in somewhat of a mutual agreement although the difference is within their tones and context which is reflected in Jerome’s response, “And at the same time the meaning of the words must be taken into account. He who has a wife is regarded as debtor, and is said to be uncircumcised, to be the servant of his wife, and like bad servants to be bound. But he who has no wife, in the first place owes no man anything,” (141). Again, Jerome’s stance while it is anti-feminist it cannot be ignored that he is also speaking against marriage as a whole. Jerome is speaking about a husband’s servitude to the wife where as The Wife of Bath’s is developing a relationship between the husband and wife, which further portrays her circumstances and views on marriage.
Although the Wife is responding at some points, humorously, to Jerome it is important to note the passages in the prologue that speak to The Wife’s fifth husband who was at first her servant. In the text the Wife discusses her fifth husband but also how she “enchanted” him when he was a servant,
“I bar hym on honde, he hadde enchanted me, –
My dame taughte me that soutiltee.
And eek I seyde, I mette of hym al nyght,
He wolde han slayn me as I lay upright,
And al my bed was ful of verray blood;
But yet I hope that he shal do me good,
For blood bitokeneth gold, as me was taught-
The word choice in this section becomes vivid and the use of metaphor illuminates the more carnal aspects of desire, which The Wife often depicts in some of her marriages. She is also being elusive, “I bar hym honed, he hadde enchanted me,” making it appear as if she is using deception to enchant this servant. This use of imagery, “bed was ful of verray blood,” and “blood bitokeneth gold,” becomes a source for The Wife to express another aspect of her stance on sexual desire and ultimately what she was taught “soutiltee” or trickery from her mother who “taughte me that soutiltee.” It is interesting to see how another woman has influenced the Wife’s actions which gives another dynamic to her own individuality, and the idea that Chaucer created a woman who is in authority over her own identity.
The Wife of Bath’s individuality is weaved in-between the challenges and responses to male authorities such as Jerome and St. Paul. Although Chaucer is directing the voice and tone of The Wife she is providing another perception of female identity that is belongs to her. Through the debate again Jerome, other themes of marriage, love, and desire are presented by a voice that speaks of her own “auctoritee” revealing one woman’s personal identity.
A Female Point in the Wife of Bath’s Prology
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue: Literacy and Gender Wars
Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is adored for her outrageous demeanor and actions in The Canterbury Tales, making her a valuable component of a poem written in this time period. At the time of the Middle Ages, church was the most influential factor of how the community functioned. Traditional medieval church’s beliefs largely affect gender stereotypes such as the idea that women are inferior to men when it comes to reason and authority. As a result, men are typically educated when it comes to reading, whereas women are not frequently offered the opportunity to attend schooling. This, in turn, leaves women to gain knowledge through experiences. As the Wife of Bath tells her prologue, it is aimed to grab the attention of the clerks by explaining how she, though she may not be completely literate, is able to use her feminine qualities and men’s weaknesses to gain dominance in marriage. Because a man’s control in marriage was so common at this time, her prologue establishes a gender war that shuts down the formal idea that male “auctoritee” determines sovereignty over women. Being literate may seem to have the upper hand in the battle of the sexes; however, women’s experience in manipulation creates power over a man’s intellectual abilities.
From the beginning of the prologue, the Wife of Bath makes it shamelessly clear that her five husbands have provided her with many sexual encounters. Throughout her first few husbands, she is able to pick up a few very deceitful tricks in bed that ensure complete control over her husbands: “In wifhood wol I use myn instrument / As freely as my Makere hath it sent” (154-155). The “instrument” she refers to is the use of her vagina. This explains that the Wife of Bath is in control of her own body and uses it as a tool to manipulate her husbands. For example, the wife is able to pretend that she desires intercourse, however, she is really using it as an economic exchange to gain wealth:
As help me God, I laughe whan I thinke
How pitously anight I made hem swinke;
And by my fay, I tolde of it no stoor:
They hadde me yiven hir land and hir tresor;
Me needed nat do lenger diligence (207-211)
The Wife of Bath cleverly uses her “instrument” as a way to sexually displease her husband. The husband may think she wants to have intercourse, but in reality, she reels him into a trap where sexual pleasure is exchanged for land and riches. She also highlights the fact that she no longer has to work hard to reach her goals of being dominant due to her experiences with her first three husbands. Even though she was not literate like her husbands, the Wife of Bath uses her sexual experiences to control the entirety of the marriages.
While her first three husbands gave her riches and land because of her sexual ploys, her fifth husband, Janekin, was whipped under her control due to the Wife of Bath’s experience in manipulation and tricks. When the wife finds that Janekin owns Valerie and Theofrase, she finds a way to use the misogynistic book against him. She rips the pages out of his book, knowing that it will anger him to some extent. When he punches her in the ear for tearing his book, she decides to trick him into thinking that she is dead. Janekin, thinking the wife is dead, declares that he would do anything if she would just live. When the Wife of Bath lives, Janekin sticks to his promise, giving her the house, land, and sovereignty over the marriage:
He yaf me al the bridel in myn hand,
To han the governance of hous and land,
And of his tonge and his hand also;
And made him brenne his book anoonright tho.
And whan that I hadde geten unto me
By maistrye al the sovereinetee (819-823)
The wife clearly uses lying and deceit in a manner that gives her pleasure and reaches her aspirations. The Wife of Bath’s past knowledge of sinister tricks and manipulation clearly leads her to her goal of gaining dominance, further solidifying that her husband’s ability to read is heavily outweighed by her experiences.
Although the Wife of Bath typically uses her canny maneuvers to deceive her husbands, she also uses scripture references to outsmart the Pardoner into believing that each of her words is true. Due to the fact that the wife was unable to read the Bible, it is known that each allusion she makes to it is only interpreted from what she has learned by listening. However, other listeners of the story, such as the Pardoner, are put into their place when the wife says:
Men may divine and glosen up and down,
But wel I woot, expres, withouten lie,
God bad us for to wexe and multiplye:
That gentil text can I wel understonde. (26-29)
The wife points out that men are inferior to women when it comes to reading and interpreting, but then quotes the scripture of Genesis to claim that her knowledge of the Bible is just as good as those of men. Because of her several allusions to the Bible, the other men begin to view her as somewhat educated. In doing so, men are actually proving their inferiority to women by being unable to identify the mistakes in the wife’s interpretation of the scripture. For example, the Pardoner asks the wife to “Telle forth youre tale; spareth for no man, / And teche us yonge men of youre practike” (192-193). After the Wife of Bath uses scripture and other readings selectively, she is able to gain dominance over the Pardoner, who believes and wants to follow every word she says. Overall, the wife’s experience in manipulation allows her to deceive the men into believing her outrageous attempts to defend herself with scripture readings.
Experiences and a passion for being sly truly allow women to take control over the gender war, even though men are more literate during this time. The medieval church may have believed that intellect and reason were the stronger values of human nature, but the Wife of Bath uses her passion and materialistic values of human nature to defeat her husbands and many other men throughout her prologue. Although she knows society typically gives all power to the man, she uses her deceitfulness to gain the power, money, and riches of five men. Chaucer is able to develop a female point of view that is worth appreciating, even though the Wife of Bath’s character would be considered extremely heinous at the time it was written. Doing this, however, creates a fantasy for the typical fourteenth century Christian woman. By introducing literacy and gender into The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer satirizes the stereotypes of women and creates an entirely new viewpoint of marriage to the fourteenth and fifteenth century.
The Wife of Bath, Beatrice, and Grendel’s Mother – Examples of Women Empowerment in Literature
Literature tends to give meaningful purposes to its characters through the value of important themes, characteristics, and actions. In some cases, a character is defined as strong due to their physical accomplishments and features provided it is relevant throughout the story. As well as that, a character’s strength can be surmised by their morals and beliefs that also correlate with the story, which is important to a character’s traits since it gives them a sense of realistic virtue. Male protagonists, in particular, are often the backbone to works of writing that keep stories going and are portrayed as powerful in demeanor, accomplishments, and stoicism. Female characters also have distinct features that make them strong in their own rights, as some works of literature go out of their way to provide reasoning through context, experience, and character personality. Although it is mostly assumed that female characters are overall not as powerful as male characters due to the belief of sexism in which one gender proves to have less important values than the other, they can hold their own thanks to said traits as proven in some forms of literature. Women have the potential to strengthen their positions in literature due to the seemingly powerful traits they have that can differentiate themselves with male characters.
Geoffrey Chaucer centralizes a strong character in The Canterbury Tales in the form of The Wife of Bath. She begins the prologue to The Wife of Bath by describing her experience with former relationships she has been in, stating that she has been judged due to her multiple different marriages by other people based on the fact has Jesus Christ has attended in just marriage. She embodies the concept of female empowerment simply based on her already established beliefs. She feels that in a marriage, women should be treated as an equal or as a deliberate stronger individual to their male counterpart and men in general. Because of this, she is the metaphorical symbol of women equality; “Of the tribulation that’s in marriage- about which I’m an expert in my age- that is to say that I have been the whip” (Chaucer 686). In this quote, The Wife of Bath states that she is the dominant figure when it comes to sex, sexual activity, and on the bed with her first three husbands who she claims were serviceable to her through the means of false accusations and refusing sexual pleasure as a means of threatening while her other two were deemed as unpleasant. She is seen as the superior as an overall description of her relationship with them, which goes hand in hand with her stated belief on women equality. Regarded to be overpowering towards her husbands, The Wife of Bath willingly uses herself as a tool for men to humbly oblige her every command. After the prologue, The Wife of Bath begins her tale beginning with a knight who was accused of raping a woman and sentenced to death unless he finds the answer to the question of what a woman really desires. He searches and finds it within an older and rather ugly woman who would give him the answer only if he were to do anything she asks. She claims to want the knight’s hand in marriage after telling him that women want to gain leadership towards their husbands. The knight’s wife is given the choice to become faithful or beautiful but instead becomes both because she was given control over her husband, which is exactly what The Wife of Bath was directly aiming for when she told the story. Her points were established very clearly throughout both the prologue and the tale that the entitlement of more power to women should be a more justified and common trait in relationships.
The afterlife plays a major role in Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, a tale in which the main protagonists are mostly seen in. Dante, the character in the story, is mostly perceived as a troubled person who is torn over by the loss of his loved one, Beatrice. He is greeted by Virgil in Canto II, who is sent to be Dante’s guide through the depth of Hell. Although it is abrupt, he explains that he was sent by a woman to help Dante in search for her; “I fear he may gone too far astray, from what report has come to me in Heaven, that I may have started to his aid too late. Now go, and with your elegance of speech, with whatever may be needed for his freedom, give him your help, and thereby bring me solace. I am Beatrice, who urges you to go” (Alighieri 397). Beatrice is the essential representation of reclamation in Inferno, as she is destined to get Dante’s path straight even while she takes no other role in the story. She also serves as Dante’s inspiration to even continue his pursuit of purpose and meaningfulness so much so that he is dedicated to search her down in Hell since his love for her is so strong. Beatrice’s strength lies within her importance to the main protagonist, as she would be without a distinguishable role if it had not been that; Dante’s love for her drives him to press on with Virgil.
Beowulf once again initiates powerful characters in the form of a female, but compared to works like The Wife of Bath and Inferno, it differs in the sense that it is a rather antagonizing feature to include. The main antagonist, Grendel, is seen as towering, violent, and intimidating in Beowulf after numerous murders committed at Heorot. His presence is so much of a threat that a Danish ruler, Hrothgar, appoints Beowulf to alleviate his presence. Once defeated, the Danes then faces the threat of Grendel’s Mother, who is determined to achieve revenge. She is an important character in Beowulf as a secondary antagonist who is perceived as a stronger and far more challenging opponent to the mortals in the story than that of Grendel. Her strength is proven upon encountering Beowulf for the first time whereas he is unable to harm her with the sword given to him by Unferth. Grendel’s Mother also serves as a motherly figure who is far more experienced and equipped to deal with humans than her son. Although she is killed with her own property with that of a magical sword, Grendel’s Mother still proved to be the final boss of Beowulf’s adventure. “..and I beheaded Grendel’s mother in the hall with a mighty sword” (Beowulf 160). If not for the ancient weapon found in her domain, Beowulf would have surely been slain.
The women of these stories are represented far more differently than their Greek female counterparts. Characters like The Wife of Bath, Beatrice, and Grendel’s mom are examples of women empowerment in both the metaphorical and physical sense. The Wife of Bath enforces women equality and involvement in the male affairs. Beatrice is the reason Dante puts himself through Hell to get to her and Grendel’s mother shows to be a more difficult and prominent enemy than Grendel did, being his mother and predecessor. Women are shown to be just as powerful if not more powerful than their male equivalents as shown in the tales mentioned previously.
Looking at the Wife of Bath From a Feminist Perspective
During the time Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales, men viewed women as the lesser of the two sexes. In writing about the wife of Bath, Chaucer draws upon much of the antifeminist sentiment of the time to satirize the idea that women are less than men. When Chaucer creates the character of Alison, he uses her as a foil to the ingrained roles that women serve. Alison, the Wife of Bath, asserts her own views on marriage and the roles of women while contradicting the customs that keep women oppressed. Even though she speaks of women dominating their men, the effect Alison wants to achieve is the balancing of power between men and women.
Alison attempts to prove that her way is better by attacking the shortcomings and double standards of the current gender roles. She calls attention to these disparities in clever ways. The wife of Bath begins her first point by saying the teachings of Christ have “taught [her] by that very precedent/That I ought not be married more than once” (Chaucer 219). She continues:
I know that Abraham was a holy man,
And Jacob too, so far as I can tell;
And they had more than two wives, both of them,
And many another holy man as well. (220)
Through recalling the lives of these holy men, Alison dispels the stigma of women who marry more than once, by stating that even holy men can have more than one wife.
The wife continues by explaining that her marriage to five husbands has given her the experience needed to make these claims. She goes on, explaining, “Three were good husbands, two of them were bad/The three good ones were very rich and old,” and “[t]hey’d given [her] their land and property” (224). The old husbands are best because when they die their riches continue to make Alison comfortable, and through this custom, she shows that women hold their own type of power. When she talks of her fifth and favorite husband, Alison comes to the point of her tirade. The wife explains that her fifth husband is particularly cruel in his assessment of wives by flaunting his education. He reads to Alison from a book about wicked wives, spawning a physical fight. The fight causes the husband to realize he must yield to her, causing their relationship to reach a level of mutual respect and kindness. The husband gave her “[n]ot only management of house and land,/But of his tongue, and also of his fist” (239). Therefore, not only has the wife conquered her husband and taken control of her life, but she has introduced the crux of her tale.
The tale begins with of Arthur’s knights raping a young maid, showing that even during the time of chivalry women are ruled by men. The wife then places the knight’s fate in Guinevere’s hands which sends the knight on a quest to discover what women really want. By putting the knight’s fate in the queen’s hands instead of the king’s, Alison reverses the gender roles by making him reliant on a woman’s mercy. This act places the focus of the story on women’s needs, rather than men’s. The knight eventually finds his answer by promising himself to an old hag who tells him she knows the answer to his quest. The hag requires the knight to marry her, and he relents, giving over his youthful, masculine power to her ancient, feminine wisdom. Alison has the hag reveal that “[w]omen desire to have dominion/Over their husbands, and their lovers too” (245). Once the knight receives his answer and marries the hag, she gives him a choice between her being ugly and faithful or beautiful and treacherous. The knight replies:
Choose for yourself whichever’s the most pleasant,
Most honourable to you, and me also.
All’s one to me; choose either of the two;
What pleases you is good enough for me. (250)
This resignation proves to the hag her dominance over her husband the knight. With her new power in hand, the hag gives the knight the best of both worlds and promises to be beautiful and faithful. By giving the knight happiness in reward for passing his power to the ugly hag, Alison states the moral she wants to convey: if you trust your wife and allow her a say in your marriage, she will make you a happy man.
Chaucer uses his feminist Alison to pass on knowledge that he has learned from his own marriage. The purpose of this tale is to show that women believe the only way to achieve a happy medium is to have the pendulum swing in their favor. However, this is only necessary temporarily because after the men have relented to the powers of the women, the relationships become more fair and balanced. Underneath the wife’s rhetoric and clever reasoning is a sensitive person who understands the value of a balance of power in a relationship.
Logical Inconsistencies in the Wife of Bath’s Tale: A Feminist Approach
In her Prologue and Tale, the Wife of Bath attempts to undermine the current misogynistic conceptions of women. Her struggle against the denigration of women has led to many feminist interpretations of her Tale, most portraying the Wife of Bath as something of a feminist icon. However, through contradictions in action and speech, the Wife proves that she conforms to many of the misogynistic stereotypes she is rallying against and thereby undermines a feminist reading. By exploring the implications of the Wife’s inconsistencies, especially the resultant loss of her credibility, critic David Parker reinforces a non-feminist interpretation of the Wife of Bath in his essay, “Can We Trust the Wife of Bath?”
In anti-feminist tradition, writers accused women of being stupid, obnoxious, oversexed, deceitful, and manipulative. The Wife of Bath makes reference to such literature in her Prologue, such her reference to Eve as “the los of al mankinde” (Chaucer 726), and also her mention of Janekin’s book of “wikked wives.” Throughout her Prologue, the Wife attacks such portrayals of women, but in attacking them, she reveals them to be true. Through her own account of herself, the Wife is exposed to embody most of the flaws that anti-feminist literature serves to accuse women of possessing. For example, the Wife describes herself as sexually voracious, yet contradicts this stereotype with another as she claims that she only has sex to get money: “Winne whoso may, for al is for to selle;/ With empty hand men may no hawkes lure./ For winning wolde I al his lust edure,/ And make me a feined appetite” (420-423). Such an admission invokes images of prostitutes and immoral women who use their bodies to get what they want; hardly the image of the feminist ideal.
In fact, the Wife proudly admits to using sex to bring her husbands to submission: “Namely abedde hadden they meschaunce:/ Ther wolde I chide and do hem no plesaunce;/ I wolde no lenger in the bed abide/ If that I felte his arm over my side,/ Til he hadde maad his raunson unto me; Than wolde I suffer him do his nicetee” (413-418). She shamelessly uses her body as a bargaining chip, teasing her husbands and refusing them satisfaction until they have promised her gifts. The Wife is proud of her manipulative skills, and even boasts that the capacity for treachery is a gift from God given to all women: “For al swich wit is yiven us in our birthe:/ Deceite, weeping, spinning God hath yive/ To yivven kindely whil they may live” (406-408). She does not see her deceit or exploitation as wrong, nor does she explain that these actions are hers alone and are not representative of all women. Instead, she claims that all women have been granted the gift of deceit. The Wife of Bath thus reinforces misogynistic stereotypes and undermines her own position as a defender of women.
In addition, in the opening of her Prologue the Wife claims that experience is her “auctoritee,” for having been married five times, she thinks of herself as quite the expert. Yet, for some reason the Wife then feels the need to go against her own assertion that experience is the only authority she needs and she attempts to cite texts to back up her statements: “‘Whoso that nile be war by othere men,/ By him shal othere men corrected be.’/ Thise same wordes writeth Ptolomee:/ Rede in his Almageste and take it here” (186-189). However, this quote is not even in Ptolemy’s Almagesete, as she claims it is. In an attempt to make herself sound more learned and intellectual, it seems, the Wife merely makes herself look stupid.
In his analysis, English Professor David Parker argues that discrepancies in the Wife’s descriptions of her fifth husband call the veracity of her entire account into question. In her Prologue, the Wife of Bath describes Janekin as a husband who “would beat her and then win her round by love-making” (Parker 55). Even with his abuse, the Wife claims that she loved Janekin the best of all her husbands because he kept her striving for “maistrye.” By her own admission, it was this quest for control in the relationship that kept her marriage so happy: “We women han, if that I shal nat lie,/ In this matere a quainte fantasye:/ Waite what thing we may nat lightly have,/ Therafter wol we crye al day and crave;/ Forbede us thing, and that desiren we;/ Presse on us faste, and thanne wol we flee” (Chaucer 521-526). By refusing the Wife control, Janekin was keeping her interested. The Wife thus portrays not only herself, but all women as fickle creatures who love to be perpetually teased, if not dominated, by their husbands.
Then, further on in her Prologue, the Wife describes the squabble between herself and Janekin which leads to the resolution in which he cedes all power in the relationship to her. Following this, the Wife claims, “we hadde nevere debat./ God help me so, I was to him as kinde/ As any wif from Denmark unto Inde,/ And also trewe, and so was he to me” (828-831). This happy ending contradicts the Wife’s earlier statement, however, and Parker points out that “to have been happy she would have needed, according to her own analysis of the nature of women, to be continually frustrated in her striving for ‘maistrie’”(55). Thus, either the Wife’s earlier assumption about the nature of “maistrye” is incorrect, or she did not in fact win complete control from Janekin. Either way, Parker claims, she has undermined her own credibility. She is untrustworthy as a character, as thus cannot be made the poster-girl for women’s rights. She has cast herself, and all womankind, in a bad light.
Further inconsistencies lie in the Wife of Bath’s Tale. It is easy to take a feminist view of this story of a rapist-knight who must discover what women desire the most: “maistyre.” At the end it would seem that the knight has learned his lesson when he gives up control of the marriage to his wife, who is then transformed into a young and faithful beauty. The moral of the Tale seems to be that all women really want is control and once they have it, their men will be happier for it. However, this reading is undermined by the fact that it is unclear whether the knight really has enough respect for the old hag to let her choose, or whether he just says what he knows she wants to hear. After all, it seems that the knight really has not given up anything, for his wife then “obeyed him in every thing/ That mighte do him pleasance or liking” (Chaucer 1261-62). Herein lies yet another contradiction: the Wife’s “professed beliefs in female sovereignty in marriage…are not finally followed by the heroine of her tale, who obeys her husband” (Parker 53). The Wife of Bath has told her Tale in an attempt to argue for the increased control of women in relationships, but she has unintentionally created an ending which perfectly adheres to an anti-feminist ideal in which a woman is voluntarily subjugated by her husband.
The Wife of Bath is an overtly manipulative woman who uses her sexuality as a tool against men. She conforms to a number of misogynistic stereotypes about the faults of women and even makes it seem as if some of these stereotypes are characteristic of all women. The constant contradictions found in the Wife’s speech and character, as well as the reader’s inability to trust her entire account, completely undermine a feminist reading of the Wife’s Prologue and Tale. Instead, they seem to rather reinforce the anti-feminist views of women as manipulative, untruthful, oversexed, and fit to be dominated by their husbands.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. The Longman Anthology of British Literature: The Middle Ages. Ed. David Damrosch. New York: Longman, 2003. 337-364.
Parker, David. “Can We Trust the Wife of Bath?” Modern Critical Views: Geoffrey Chaucer. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1985. 49-56.
The Analysis of the Wife of Bath
The Wife of Bath is often considered an early feminist, but by reading her prologue and tale one can easily see that this is not true. In Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the Wife of Bath believes that a wife ought to have authority and control over her husband. The Wife’s ideas were indisputably uncommon for her time period and she shocked her audience with her radical opinions, but perhaps that was her intention. One should also note that the Wife of Bath did possess weaknesses towards men despite her air of confidence, and it is likely that her outspokenness is a sort of defense mechanism. Since feminism traditionally denotes a belief in equality between the sexes, it is easy to see that the Wife doesn’t support feminism but instead the manipulation of men for her own benefit.
Both the Wife of Bath’s prologue and tale illustrate her belief that men should allow themselves to “be ruled by their wives” (176) and the Wife, or Dame Alice, repeatedly emphasizes that she has no problem physically and psychologically abusing her husbands. The wife’s first three husbands were old and rich, simple tools. Her fourth husband was like the wife’s male counterpart – promiscuous and stubborn as well – but he did died quickly. The wife was unfazed by her fourth husband’s death and already had a fifth husband lined up. Her fifth husband was the cruelest and most difficult for her to tame, and ironically her favorite of them all. Of course, she eventually had her way with all of them. A widow five times over, the wife openly admits that she “put [her husbands] to work in such a fashion” (157) that they cried out in exhaustion and frustration. She also boasts about her skill in manipulating her past husbands, especially the old, rich ones. The Wife would tell lies to her husbands, making them think that she had heard gossip about an unfaithful act they committed, when in fact she was only trying to “put them in the wrong” (157). After making him feel thoroughly guilty, she could then sleep around without fear of interrogation from her husband.
It is likely that a great deal of the Wife’s apparent impudence is only an attempt to jar her audience. Before the Wife of Bath begins her tale, the Friar claims that he hopes “to have joy and salvation” (168) from the story she will tell and, as if in protest, the Wife begins by making fun of friars. Dame Alice sets the scene by describing a land that used to be inhabited by fairies, but is now filled with friars that “can only do a [woman] physical dishonor” (170). When, in her prologue, the Wife claims that her fifth husband was much happier once she “had gained the upper hand” (168), the reader must wonder how much of her advice is exaggeration or lies.
Over all, the Wife of Bath gives the impression of being a strong and often audacious woman, but Chaucer does not portray her without a weakness. In her prologue, the Wife sorrowfully acknowledges that “age, alas, which poisons everything, has robbed [her]” (162) of her beauty and youthfulness. This, of course, does not stop her from marrying again and again – she even marries a twenty-year-old at the age of forty. Ultimately, the Wife of Bath is trying to mask her insecurity concerning her failing beauty, which has been her primary means of controlling men and thus of having a power in society normally not enjoyed by women.
The Wife of Bath’s tale illustrates her desire for youth as well. The tale is suggestive of a fairy tale, but doesn’t properly follow a fairy tale format. Her tale features a young man that is imprisoned for rape. The fact that the protagonist is a rapist is reminiscent of the Wife’s abusive, younger husbands. The knight is ordered by the queen to discover what it is that women want most, but he cannot find out. Fortunately – or perhaps unfortunately – he finds an old woman in a clearing that promises to tell him the answer if he will do the next thing she requests of him. Wanting to save his own life, he agrees but then is obligated to marry the ugly old woman when she asks it of him. The old woman has magical powers and asks the young knight if he would prefer a beautiful, promiscuous wife or an ugly, faithful wife. When he answers that “whatever [she] likes suits [him]” (176) best, she is magically transformed into a beautiful, young girl. This clearly illustrates the wife’s idea that everything will turn out for the best if the woman is given power instead of the man in a marriage. The transformation also exposes the Wife’s longing to have her youth restored just as the old lady in the story did.
Readers must take the Wife of Bath with her strengths and her weaknesses. Unlike most of the characters in The Canterbury Tales, the Wife is neither satirized nor idealized – she is simply created to engage and intrigue readers. Her character traits are extreme, and it is even hard to tell what Chaucer’s view of the Wife is. She is written as a headstrong and opinionated woman, but her failing beauty and cruelty towards men indicates that she was by no means an idealized character. Though unfair towards men, the Wife of Bath knows how to push people’s buttons and get what she wants.
The Portrayal of Sin in the Wife of Bath by Geoffrey Chaucer and Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford
Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem ‘The Wife of Bath’ and John Ford’s play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’ portray sin and punishment both in contrasting and corresponding ways.
Annabella of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’ is guilty of lust, one of the seven deadly sins, and even commits adultery and incest, which the Catholic Church deem mortal sins. However, in Act Five Scene One, her soliloquy foregrounds repentance, the declarative “My conscience now stands up against my lust” suggesting she is her own prosecutor on trial, the extended metaphor showing that she finds her own “depositions charactered in guilt”. This realisation of her own wrong doing, and the scene’s end-focus on the declarative “Now I can welcome death”, evoke sympathy in audiences, as she goes through Christian reformation, and shows willingness to martyrize herself. Even in death, the exclamatory “Mercy, great Heaven!” presents her as seeking further absolution, and makes her appear somewhat virtuous. Ford was heavily criticised for this by his contemporaries, as in Carolinian England, her sins were amongst the most damning, and therefore the presentation of her as an ultimately good, moral Christian girl was disagreeable to them.
Ironically, however, it is Annabella’s penitence which results in her greatest punishment, as it is arguably the “paper double-lined with tears and blood” which causes her brother Giovanni to descend into his frenzy of “baneful plots”. In Act Five Scene Five, his verse contains death imagery, declaring his own “funeral tears” to be “her mourners” at her “grave”, creating an ominous tone and foreshadowing that he “Stabs her” at the scene’s end. However, his declarative “To save thy fame” indicates that his action is only done in protection of her, as despite the Friar’s absolution, Annabella was not truly freed from penance. In 17th century England, an adulterous woman faced terrible disgrace, as the reputation of Hippolita as the “lusty widow” proved, and she would have fallen out of respect in society. The tragic irony of Giovanni’s attempt to save her “good soul” from dishonour is in his failure to do so. Even in death, Annabella’s repute is tarnished and she is further reprimanded, as evident in the Cardinal’s rhetorical interrogative “Who could not say, ‘Tis pity she’s a whore?” This end-focus on her sexual activity places the blame of all the tragic events of the play in on Annabella, and therefore punishes her indefinitely.
In contrast, it can be argued that Alisoun of ‘The Wife of Bath’ goes largely unpunished for her lust and promiscuity. In 14th century England, common views of marriage corresponded with those of the dominant Catholic Church. It was sacred, a patriarchal institution which enabled men to control women, and be doted on by them. However, Alisoun’s views clearly contradict this, as Chaucer the narrator foregrounds in the ‘General Prologue’ of ‘The Canterbury Tales’, with the declarative “Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve”. Not only did she break the norm of medieval times by remarrying several times, she was unafraid to dominate within her relationships, declaring “in erthe I was his purgatorie”. Making hell a metaphor for herself strongly suggests she was not at all submissive, as expected of a medieval woman, due to the Genesis story, which implied that women existed purely to serve men. Despite her defiance of traditional gender roles and her flaunting of her sins, the Wife is not punished. This is perhaps due to her own conviction that her sexual desires are not inherently wrong, significant when compared with Annabella’s self-deprecating attitude to her sexuality.
Alisoun uses biblical exegesis to justify her thoughts and actions, and it is arguably this willing to fight against “auctoritee” which allows her to evade severe punishment. In the declarative “God bad us for to wexe and multiplie”, she attempts to validate her promiscuity, wilfully ignorant of the fact that the Catholic Church preached that sexual intercourse was solely for the purpose of procreation, and not pleasure, as she chooses to interpret it. Similarly, she calls upon the stories of “the wise king, daun Salomon”, declaring “I trowe he hadde wives more than oon”. A feminist reading suggests that this was a subtle criticism of patriarchal double standards, that men could be allowed multiple partners, whereas a woman would be scorned and shunned for this. However, the comment is highly ironic, as Solomon turned away from God, and had his kingdom taken away as punishment, which the Wife appears to have misunderstood. Therefore, the exclamation that she wishes “To be refresshed half so ofte as he!” is blasphemous, as he was not deemed to be a man of grace. It also would have appalled readers in the Middle Ages, as a woman’s sexual desire in itself was seen as dangerous, so to compare her desire to that of a man who had 1000 sexual partners would have been intensely outrageous. Despite her blasphemy, Alisoun’s boldness serves her, as her verse is persuasively unrelenting.
However, her profane use of the Holy Bible does cause mistrust in the reader, and perhaps too in the other pilgrims, as her manipulation, and occasional plain ignorance, of its meaning proves her to be an unreliable narrator. The declarative “That gentil text kan I wel understonde” is therefore ironic, as she actually thoroughly misinterprets it, to her own advantage. It can be reasoned then that her punishment is in her reputation, as those listening to her are sceptical of her and unconvinced by her argument. From Chaucer’s ‘General Prologue’, readers are aware that the Wife’s status matters to her, as she wears clothes “of fyn scarlet reed”. It was against sumptry laws for a common woman to wear red, as it was very expensive and generally reserved for the nobility; therefore, Alisoun projects herself as being of wealth and rank, showing an interest in this. However, it can equally be maintained that her partaking in the pilgrimage, taken as a social event by people of different social standing in medieval England, is a privilege, as she is able to look for new men to attract. This shows that ultimately, she is unpunished, as she contentedly continues to commit the same sins.
The male characters of ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’ and ‘The Wife of Bath’ on the other hand, manage to entirely escape punishment for their lusty thoughts and actions. Whereas Annabella loses her life and reputation, her male counterpart Giovanni is unscathed by their incestuous affair, his death being caused by his hubris, not by his love for his sister. He is undoubtedly the culprit of their joint sin, as evident in Act One Scene Two. The declarative “I have asked counsel of the holy Church, / Who tells me I may love you” is a lie, manipulating Annabella into accepting their relationship. Prior to this proclamation, she appears reluctant, the declarative “You are my brother, Giovanni” containing an underlying statement that they cannot be together for this reason. However, upon hearing of the Church’s supposed blessing, the stage direction shows that “She kneels”, a motif which is repeated in Act Three with the Friar, and Act Four with Soranzo. A feminist reading of this sees the motif as representative of female submission to male dominance, and it can be argued that this is the key difference between Giovanni and Annabella, and the reason for their divergent fates. Carolinian audiences would have viewed her as weak, and therefore her downfall inevitable, whereas whilst he is unlikable due to his hubris, Giovanni’s status as a man allows him control in the situation throughout the five acts. He does not expect punishment for his lust, the audience do not expect his punishment, and therefore, he evades it.
Similarly in Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath’, the knight is guilty, it being foregrounded in the Tale that he is “a lusty bacheler”. Violent imagery is used to describe his rape of the “maide”, with a lexical set of aggression in the abstract nouns “force” and “oppressioun”, and dynamic verb “rafte”. Despite this, he does not suffer for his sinful action, reflective of the patriarchal order of medieval England. As a man, and a man of status, belonging to the “hous” of “king Arthour”, he is protected, whereas the innocent young maid he attacked is left vulnerable. Chaucer may have been criticising the feudal system, suggesting that power breeds corruption, as Ford does in ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’ when the Bergetto’s murderer, Grimaldi, is received “Into his Holiness’ protection” in Act Three Scene Nine, simply for being “nobly born”. The knight endures “twelf-month and a day” of nearly fruitless searching, but that is as close to penance as he comes. Chaucer’s readers however, may have viewed the knight’s submission to the “olde wyf” as punishment enough. She addresses him in imperatives such as “Plight me thy trouthe heere in myn hand”, and declaratives “The nexte thing that I require thee, / Thou shalt it do”, placing him in her command. That he replies in acceptance with the declarative “Have heer my trouthe…I grante” would have been seen as degrading in the Middle Ages, as men were meant to be superior and powerful beings. As Genesis suggested that women were created to serve men, this was societies’ expectation, and Chaucer’s reversal of gender roles here would have astounded many.
However, it is arguable that his submission is worth it, as the knight is rewarded at the end of tale with a wife who meets all the ideals of a medieval woman. This is evident in her repetition of “bothe”, which has an intensifying effect on the declaratives “I wol be to yow…” and “…fair and good”. The knight’s luck in finding this woman is further emphasised in the declarative “I to yow be also good and trewe” and the extended simile “I be to-morn as fair to seene / As any lady, emperice, or queene”. As the nouns in the latter polysyndetic list hold regal denotations, she is elevating her beauty, whilst the former adjective pairs connote honesty, faithfulness, and kindness. In this, she defies female stereotypes, as she is neither the beautiful seductress nor the hideous but good hearted woman. Therefore, it is indisputable that at the close of ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, the “lusty” knight is unpunished for his sin. It can even be maintained that he is rewarded for his initial display of power.
Geoffrey Chaucer in ‘The Wife of Bath’ and John Ford with ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’ present sin as something to be punished accordingly. However, judgement is not made on the severity of the sin, but on the sinner, which leads to unjust punishment. It is shown that in patriarchal society, both in the 14th and 17th centuries, as well as 17th century Italy, where ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore’ is set, women were more likely to be punished than a man who commits the same wrong, and those who were of a higher rank in the chain of being were often protected by their status. It is notable that Ford does not condone this exploitation, creating sympathy for the punished character of Annabella, but places it in a condemning context, that of a Catholic Italy, which Protestant Carolinian audiences viewed as a highly corrupt state. Chaucer on the other hand, shows an inherent contempt for women, unsympathetic and crude in his presentation of the aggressive, “gat-tothed” Alisoun. However, she is not harshly punished, and so it can be said that he too saw flaws in the misogynistic attitudes in England at the time. The writers both gave punishment for sin where the characters expected it, but were less adherent to the demands of their readers and audiences, in order to challenge their views on the gravity of sins and the appropriate penalties.