Wife Of Bath
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.
Correlation of the Author’s Voice and the Created Characters in the Wife of Bath
The Wife of Bath’s tale is appropriate to her character, and perfectly complements the description of the Wife in the General Prologue of Geoffrey Chaucer’s late 1300s literary masterpiece The Canterbury Tales. The Wife of Bath creates a heroine through whom it is possible to live vicariously. In the character of the “old woman,” readers find the epitome of a female who gains power through weaving the threads of youth, beauty and desire. In the tale, the boundaries of reality and deceit do not exist. The woman is her own creation. The Wife of Bath, within her mortal limitations, has elevated her own societal position through the same techniques that are exemplified, to such a hyperbolized degree, through the character in her tale. The story’s protagonist, the knight, falls victim to the old woman and cannot evade the trap she has set for him. The knight, then, typifies the nave men of status who are the objects of the Wife’s insatiable desire. The old woman and the knight thus people a story attributed to the most appropriate pilgrim on the journey, the Wife of Bath.
In the General Prologue, Chaucer describes the Wife’s “kerchiefs…of finely woven ground” and her “hose…of the finest scarlet red.” The “gartered tight” hose and “soft and new” shoes revealing ankles combine to create an image of wealth and attractiveness. Clearly the Wife knows how to transform her aging figure into something to be desired. While Chaucer depicts the Wife only in her costumed state, the fact that she has had five husbands reveals that this is not a young woman. However, what nature takes in time the Wife compensates for with flamboyant clothing tactically placed on her body. This woman, with her red hue and massive, bulgingly costumed figure, connotes the tempting apple of Eden, luring in wealthy, nave men. She has reversed the curse of the Original Sin. It is men who fall victim to temptation. The Wife of Bath has the experience of the past “from” company in youth’, the solution for the consequences in the future with “the remedies for love’s mischances,” and therefore her present is occupied with obtaining a sixth husband. What a powerful faade she finds in wealth, and the clothing and accessories it brings her. Like her own tale’s fictitious heroine, the Wife of Bath is her own creator.
Similarly, the old woman in the Wife of Bath’s tale is cognizant of the power of deception. While “a fouler-looking creature…could scarcely be imagined,” when readers are introduced to the woman along with the tale’s protagonist, the creature transforms herself into a beautiful woman after she has obtained dominancy over her husband. Interestingly, the woman chooses not to assume a state of youth and beauty from the start. While the capability for eternal exquisiteness is within the power of this creature, she reserves assuming this desirable state until after she was won the “sovereignty” which she seeks. Should the woman have introduced herself to the knight as a young, fair woman, her fate might have resembled that of the raped maiden. Instead, the creature manipulates the knight into a position of submission. Only then, after she has “won the mastery,” can the couple “live ever after to the end / In perfect bliss.” Both this character and the Wife possess a wit and ingenuity that allow them to manipulate and dominate, supporting the Wife’s previous assertion that “lies, tears and spinning are the things God gives / By nature to a woman, while she lives.” Because the enchantress possesses the ideal powers that coincide with the Wife’s life philosophy, the tale is appropriately paired with this particular pilgrim.
The “knight who was a lusty liver” is another appropriate character who peoples the Wife of Bath’s tale. Here readers find a man forced to wander in search of the answer to the question, “What is the thing that women most desire” as punishment for raping a young maiden. Ironically, the end result of this punishment for forced dominance is submission to the dominance of a woman. The reversal of status parallels not only the Wife’s reversal of the Original Sin curse, but also embodies the core of her feminist philosophy.
The Wife, like the knight, is on a journey with a clear purpose. The imagery utilized to depict the Wife in the second half of the passage describing her in the General Prologue is very masculine. She sits “easily on an ambling horse;” her head is covered with “a hat / As broad as is a buckler or a shield;” under large hips “her heels spurred sharply.” When combined, the descriptions conjure the image of a knight ready for a battle or an important quest. While the Wife is “skilled in wandering by the way” on her own knightly quest for nave, wealthy men, the knight (whose character trait of lust ironically is also a dominant trait of the Wife) finds at the end of his wandering a woman to whom he will be forced to submit. The Wife creates a male victim who demonstrates the victorious outcome for females who insist upon superiority.
In final analysis, Chaucer pairs the vivacious Wife of Bath with a tale that perfectly suites both her character and the feminist philosophy by which she lives her life. The tale’s characters of the enchantress and the knight, as well as their interaction and the concluding status of each in their marriage, embody the outcome of the Wife’s philosophy when taken to the extreme. The enchantress’s ability to transform herself according to necessity, and the knight’s wandering that leads to a trap, would not have suited any other pilgrim’s tale as well as, or better than, the animated “woman from beside Bath city.”
Allegory in the Wife of Bath
Bestselling American author Orson Scott Card once said, “Metaphors have a way of holding the most truth in the least space.” The Canterbury Tales were written over 600 years before Card made that profound statement, but clearly Chaucer would agree with Card’s assertion. Specifically, in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” one can see the use of metaphors to make broad claims in a relatively short story. For the Wife of Bath, the collection of metaphors in her tale creates an allegory that proves the claims she made in her prologue – an apology of sorts. Through rhetoric used in both the prologue and her tale that follows, the Wife hints at the need for an explanation and defense of her opinions beyond her narration of her marriages in the prologue. Furthermore, one can find numerous similarities between the Wife and the new wife in the tale, particularly in regards to her account of her courtship with and marriage to Jankin. There are several major parallels between the Wife of Bath and the wife of the tale; this analysis will focus on the concept of mystery and magic as well as the coordinating ideas and experiences of “maistrie.”
Before discussing the apology itself, one must understand the desire that drives it. In her prologue, the Wife of Bath unabashedly unveils a number of controversial opinions about sex, women, and marriage. Evidently, she is aware of her debatable opinions; for instance, she consciously amends her prologue saying, “So that clerkes be nat with me wrothe” (125). The Wife’s effort at least to acknowledge this difference of opinion shows that she is conscious of the need to prove her convictions. These tendentious comments of the Wife in her prologue claim to be derived purely from experience: “Experience, though noon auctoritee/Were in this world, were right ynough to me” (1-2). However, when it is to her advantage, she does not refrain from quoting the authorities she claims are unnecessary. For instance, the Wife quotes Ptolemy’s Algamest in the prologue. Likewise, in her tale, she goes to great lengths to use Ovid’s story of Midas and his wife to prove her point about women not being able to keep a secret. Clearly, while the Wife believes experience to be superior, she still knows the power and importance of traditional, written authority.
The Wife’s frequent allusions and quotes are not the only factors that illustrate that the goal of her tale is apologetic. She references Ptolemy, saying, “Whoso that nil be war by othere men,/By him shul othere men corrected be” (180-181). Clearly, The Wife is bringing the audience’s attention to the idea of learning from another’s experience. The experience to which the Wife refers cannot merely be the experiences she shares from the story of her five marriages; she begins this digression in the prologue by saying, “my tale is nat bigoone:/ Nay, thou shalt drinken of another tonne/Er that I go” (169-171). The Wife does not merely say that her prologue might change the listeners’ minds; she says her “tale” will do so before she goes. Evidently, the Wife means her entire speech, not just her accounts of the five marriages in her prologue. One might object to the conclusion that this Ptolemaic idea proves her desire to explain herself; this is because in line 192 of the Wife’s prologue she says, “For myn entente nis but for to pleye.” However, when considering the contrary evidence observed so far, this statement seems more like an attempt to cover herself in case anyone is offended by her attempt to sway them in such a radical direction. So, due to the obvious need to prove the validity of her statements beyond her own experience, the Wife uses the story as an allegorical apology that demonstrates her authority on the matter of courtship and marriage.
The allegorical part of the Wife’s apology is found in the metaphors that connect the Wife’s prologue and her tale. One such parallel between the Wife of Bath’s prologue and her tale is the use of mystery and magic, or, more simply put, tricks. The mystery aspect is seen in the prologue when the Wife is discussing her courtship with Jankin. According to the Wife’s account, one of her first encounters with Jankin was in a field: “That Jankin clerk and my gossib dame Alis/And I myself into the feldes wente” (548-549). This aspect of “pleye” in nature is seen again the Wife’s tale. First, the Wife sets the scene of the magic that lies in mysterious nature, or at least what used to be there before “the grete charitee and prayers/Of limitours and othere holy freres” (9-10). Nature again plays a role when the Knight first meets the woman who, unbeknownst to him, would soon be his wife: “And in his wey it happed him to ryde,/In al this care, under a forest syde…No creature saugh he that bar lyfe,/Save on the grene he saugh sittinge a wyf” (133-134, 141-142). The magical, mysterious way of nature acts as the catalyst in the Wife’s tale of the Knight and his new wife while serving a similar purpose in the story of the Wife and Jankin.
The magic of nature lies not only in the “elf-queen with hir joly companye” (4), who the Wife claims used to live in the forests; the new wife also uses the magic of the forest to lure the knight into its depths. While the knight is riding by the forest, he sees many ladies dancing: “Wher he saugh upon a daunce go/Of ladies foure and twenty and yet mo” (135-136). As he approaches, however, they all seem to disappear; by the time he arrives at the place where he saw the group of dancing ladies, all but one has mysteriously “vanisshed” (139). The only one left, of course, is the old woman who will soon be his new wife. She knows he would not come to talk with her if she is the only one sitting the in the forest, as she is very ugly and old. The Wife describes the new wife saying, “A fouler wight ther may no man devyse” (144). So to ensure that the Knight will come to her, she uses the mirage of dancing women to get his attention. The rhetoric in this scene implies some magical trickery at hand, like the use of “vanisshed” (140).
While there might have been magical devices involved, the new wife’s biggest trick lies outside the realm of magic. The new wife makes a deal with the Knight: she saves his life by telling him the answer to the question of “What thing it is that wommen most desyren” (49) – and, in exchange, he must marry her. Of course, he did not know that would be her request; he only learns this after his life has been spared for finding the answer of “sovereyntee” (182). Clearly, the new wife means to trick the Knight into marrying her. Furthermore, the new wife is proud of the tricky deal she makes with the Knight. While married, the Wife narrates that the Knight “walweth and he turneth to and fro./His olde wyf lay smylinge evermo,” (229-230). Despite the unhappiness of her husband, the new wife never regrets her achievement of tricking this man into marrying her. In the same way, the Wife uses tricks to entice Jankin; telling Jankin that she dreamt of him killing her to make him believe “he hadde enchanted [her]” (575). The Wife seems to be proud of this lie; she admits openly that it “al was fals, I dremed of it right naught” (582). In this way, both the Wife and the new wife of the tale use tricks to lure men to them.
These tricks are only the beginning of another parallel between the stories. The Wife and the wife in the story not only use mystery and magic to play tricks on the men whom they desire; these tricks work just as planned. The wives’ tricks are clearly one way to gain “maistrie,” the answer to the Knight’s quest and one of the major themes in “The Wife’s Tale.” For instance, the Wife’s trick of making Jankin believe he has enchanted her through the story of the dream seems to be one of the key events that leads to their marriage. In the same way, when the new wife in the tale uses the image of dancing women in the forest to lure the Knight to come talk to her, it works. The Knight falls for the trick and rides into the forest, only to talk to the old woman, not the group of women he saw dancing. As previously discussed, the trick that leads the Knight to the new wife is only the beginning; the real trick comes with the deal. The new wife uses her life-saving answer to trick him into marrying her. By observing the corresponding examples in the Wife’s prologue and her tale, it is clear that the Wife advocates this use of trickery to gain power in a relationship.
Tricks are not the only way to mastery; both the wives also use their agedness as a main factor in marriage. The Wife is the older woman in her last two marriages. This detail is especially noted when discussing her courtship with Jankin; the Wife mentions in her prologue that Jankin is half her age: “He was, I trowe, a twenty winter old,/And I was fourty, if I shal seye sooth;/But yet I hadde alwey a coltes tooth” (600-602). The new wife in the tale is also an older woman. The fact that she is “foul and old and pore” is mentioned several times by the narrator, the Knight, and the new wife herself. Her age becomes an obvious advantage when the new wife gives her speech to the Knight. The new wife does not hesitate to mention “ye gentils of honour/seyn that men sholde an olde wight doon favour” (353-354); honor and respect of elders is arguably one form of mastery over the younger person’s actions. If not mastery itself, honor is complementary to mastery and is, therefore, still an important component in this regard. Obviously, the Wife uses these parallel examples to show that being an older woman can have its advantages; especially during this time period, the Wife believes that being an older woman can lead one to the ever-important “maistrie” in marriage.
For both the Wife and the new wife, tricks and age are two factors that pave the path to power in a relationship. However, the similarities do not end with these two aspects of gaining mastery; both wives eventually accomplish their goal of sovereignty after a dispute of some kind. For the Wife and Jankin, it is a physical fight, with fists being thrown from both sides. The Wife concludes this scene by saying, “He yaf me al the brydel in myn hond” (813). Furthermore, the Wife notes that “After that day we hadden never debaat” (822). In summary, the Wife and Jankin fight, but from this dispute, there is peace in the marriage and power in the Wife’s hands. Similarly, conflict arises between the new wife and the Knight soon before the new wife is granted sovereignty. The Knight is highly displeased with the situation, and remarks often on the new wife’s unfavorable characteristics. This verbal beating parallels with the physical beating of the Wife by Jankin. After the Knight explains his discontent, the new wife explains all the reasons that her characteristics are actually good things. Clearly persuaded, the Knight says, “I put me in your wyse governance” (375). After the wife has power, the effect on the relationship is parallel to that of the story of the Wife and Jankin. Speaking to the Knight, the new wife says, “kis me…we be no lenger wrothe” (383). In this way, the new wife, just like the Wife in her marriage to Jankin, secures power and peace after a quarrel.
In the end of the Wife’s tale, all is right because the woman has control; this is the Wife’s version of a happy ending. It could be a coincidence that the opinions and characteristics of the wife in the tale correspond so directly with the Wife’s ideas in the prologue, but the literary clues seem to imply otherwise. By examining the rhetoric and literary devices throughout “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” it is clear that through parallel diction and metaphors, the tale serves as an allegorical apology for the Wife’s tendentious prologue. The distinct similarities regarding mystery, magic, and “maistrie” are just some of the elements that tie the tale to the prologue in such a prominent manner. Therefore, the Wife of Bath does not merely tell a tale; the story of the old woman and the Knight is clearly meant to entertain as well as to make a bold statement in defense of her controversial opinions.
The Power of Monarch in The Wife of Bath
Literature in the fourteenth-century brought about numerous characters, both major and minor, that presented allegorical issues pertinent to society. Characters that audiences have come to love (and hate) were featured in (fourteenth-century) works such as The Divine Comedy, Katherine, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Along with these works, one of the most recognizable pieces of literature to have come out of this century was Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Within this anthological text, there are a plethora of diverse characters who all have a common reason for being united in one setting; a pilgrimage. Chaucer depicts many social and societal issues through the actions of his differing characters. One of these characters, the Queen, is introduced in the tale of “The Wife of Bath” and her character sparks much action in the story. While her role may be considered small compared to other main characters in all the stories conveyed in The Canterbury Tales, her personality/actions speak for themselves through the poetic creations of Chaucer. Her power and ranking in the social hierarchy scale helps to establish her character. While Middle English audiences popularized “The Wife of Bath,” tale, it should be reminded that the Queen took part in distinguishing this story from others. If one were to examine the Queen’s power in a different literary period, such as the nineteenth-century Victorian Era, one will discover that the Queen’s character would be viewed in a pessimistic point of view. While fourteenth-century audiences accepted the Queen, nineteenth-century audiences were believed to have not been as accepting of this character of the Queen due to the large amount of power that this woman held in this society.
Middle English literature encompasses one of the first big advertisements of the English language. Much of the literature in the fourteenth-century was designed for educated readers who were were fluent in the English language and unable to speak Latin or French. Anthologies became popular in this time period since French works could finally be translated into English. The organization and collection of stories in The Canterbury Tales mimics the structure of an anthology. The Middle English “Wife of Bath” tale incorporates much history and tradition in its lines of text. While the Middle English style was inspired by the French, the themes in the story were inspired by everyday life of fourteenth-century English citizens. Society, during this time period, held many concerns about sex, war, and disease. Illegal activities such as rape were viewed as a crime and had very serious consequences such as death. War and disease (like the Black Death) swept the fourteenth-century people making these two topics big subjects of focus in Middle English literature (Simpson & David 13-15). In “The Wife of Bath,” there are many instances were sex is addressed by the main character of the story. Geoffrey Chaucer was a fan, however, of Latin literature. His inspiration helped him form his pose in his works. In terms of the development of his story, Chaucer supposedly: drew upon a centuries-old tradition of misogynist writing that was particularly nurtured by the medieval church. In their conviction that the rational, intellectual, spiritual, and, therefore, higher side of human nature predominated in men, whereas the irrational, material, earthly, and therefore, lower side of human nature predominated in women,” (Simpson & David 230). Chaucer’s exploration into misogynist writing with helped to inspire the main character’s backstory of “The Wife of Bath,” yet he gives a minor character, the Queen, high power. Yet, this story (within a series of stories) was accepted in society. By creating a character that is able to lead a land that is full of so much havoc and death, it helps to reaffirm just how much authority and power the Queen must have. Under her rule, it shows how society was accepting of females as rulers.
In the “Wife of Bath” tale, the Queen punishes the knight’s rape crime in the story by making him solve a very simple, yet difficult question. The knight in the tale serves as an allegory of men who valued sex in the fourteenth-century. By giving the knight a very difficult question, the Queen is viewed as assertive and powerful since she is one of few people who hold the answer. She uses her power and authority to send him on a difficult quest as a means of punishment to find the answer, instead of killing him. The Queen tells the knight that, “I graunte thee lif if thou canst tellen me What thing it is that women most desiren: Be war and keep thy nekke boon from iren. And if thou canst nat tellen me anoon, Yit wol I yive thee leve for to goon a twelfmonth and a day to seeche and lere” (Chaucer 250). On the knight’s journey, he has twelve months and a day to figure out the one thing women desire most. The author uses the knight to reveal to audiences the major things on women’s minds during the fourteenth-century. He learns that riches, honor, pleasure, flattery/attention, trustworthiness are all things that please women, but not the true number one thing women desire most. Towards the final moments of his journey, he finally discovers the true answer that is given to him by a woman. Sovereignty is what women desire most. The fact that Chaucer has a woman answer one of the hardest questions in the fourteenth-century demonstrates how he believes females are capable of being knowledgeable and powerful enough to know something men do not. The knight’s quest in the story is an example of romance literature, which is when person is seeking out a question/action to be fulfilled, and poetic devices such as iambic pentameter are inserted in this text (Knapp). Knowing that the principle of sovereignty is what women desire most, Chaucer tells his audience that women aspire to have more power in society. All of the events (pertaining to the knight) in the “The Wife of Bath” were all thanks to the Queen and the power she implemented.
While fourteenth-century audiences were intrigued and entertained with the characters of “The Wife of Bath” in The Canterbury Tales, nineteenth-century audiences (of the Victorian Era) may not have held the same belief. Middle English literature contains different messages for Victorian audiences since the work is predated five centuries. The Victorian period occurred throughout the 1830s to early 1900s. Literature of these years can be described as a mixture of romance and realism. In the beginning stages of this time period, poetry was one of the most popular forms of literature that audiences read. Collections of poems were popular, but not so much as the anthologies that were in Middle English times. Victorian literature flourished, the scientific innovations of the printing press and distribution of serialized novels.
The nineteenth-century was crucial to history since scientific advancements were beginning to make people question the legitimacy of the church. Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution made people think twice about what the church had to offer (Dinscore 197-199). Along with this religious debacle, one of the most notable characteristics of this time period that is how women were treated. They were given little, if any, power to do the things they wanted. Men of this time frame were the leader of the house and leader in their work environment. This is reminiscent of the misogyny that Chaucer once researched in preparation of The Canterbury Tales. Also, within the Victorian era, characters in stories put much weight into what society thought about them. Their social standing was important to them (Dinscore 198). While there may have been progression in technology, there was more regression in terms to gender stratification. Ultimately, this style and content of writing strongly disagrees with principles of the Middle English era.
Chaucer’s story of “The Wife of Bath” contrasts with many of Victorian era literature due to fact that it was meant for Middle English audiences. Since power was such a huge part of Victorian life, one would think that Chaucer’s power demonstrated in “The Wife of Bath” would please audiences, but this is not the case. The type power that Victorian literature described best was in regards to a character’s social standing, unlike the Middle English’s monarchial power described by Chaucer. The Queen would have disturbed audiences since she has monarchial power over the land and is not afraid to do what she thinks is fair for her people. The Queen valued justice, unlike how Victorians valued social standing. Victorians would have had trouble trying to relate to a character that disregards what people think of her. Contemporary critics of “The Wife of Bath” claim that, “the queen’s judicial power in the tale is appropriated and fundamentally illegitimate, that she maintains a false pose of sovereignty when she assumes control of the sentencing” (Thomas 88) and it would not be a stretch for nineteenth-century audiences to agree. Victorians would have criticized this woman (the Queen) for not only ruling, but demanding a man to go on a quest. Scholar J.R. Watson claims that, “Women, with some exceptions, were thought to be less capable of the required intellectual effort” (Watson 12) thus supporting the notion that men are more capable of leading and demanding. There could have also been discontentment for nineteenth-century audiences since the Queen gave the knight such a long amount of time to complete his quest. Victorians might have criticized how long it took to travel since they lived in an age with better transportation and resources. Male readers especially would have questioned just how stable the sovereignty could be under a woman (referring to the Queen). They might have also questioned whether or not the rape crime that the knight committed was really a crime and actually a misunderstanding. These audiences would have liked to know where the king was in the story. Grammatically speaking, it would have been a challenge for Victorian readers of “The Wife of Bath” to also understand the language and poetic style of Geoffrey Chaucer. Words were spelt differently and the way he writes some of his female characters as being contributors to society might have frustrated Victorians readers since men were deemed the superior sex. When the knight learned about the (incorrect) things women supposedly loved most in life, all the things he learned made it look as if women are doing more demanding rather than meeting their demands. All in all, the Queen’s power would have troubled the Victorian audiences since they believed men should make all the rules and demands, not the woman.
In conclusion, the tale of “The Wife of Bath” is an effort by Geoffrey Chaucer that embodied many allegorical characters in the nineteenth-century and also highlighted on what women wanted during that time period. The characters, especially the Queen, all work with one another to establish the idea that women are capable of leading and being capable of doing things with positions of power in place. In regards to the nineteenth-century’s view of the Queen and her power, there is high probable cause for audiences to dislike the story’s depiction of the Queen in power since their society’s views deemed men more fit to lead in positions of power. While this all may be speculation, past critics and research on the nineteenth-century provide this best possible defense. Literature is a looking glass of perception and observation. The different literary periods, whether it be Middle English or Victorian, do have one thing in common with one another; a devotion to characters in dramatic settings.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath.” The Canterbury Tales, edited by Julia Reidhead, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013, 231 – 258.
Dinscore, Amanda. “Victorian Literature and Culture.” Association of College & Research Libraries. N.p., Apr. 2010. 197 – 199. Web.
Knapp, Shosana. “September Notes.” Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg. 8 Sept. 2016. Lecture.
Simpson, James and David, Alfred. “The Middle Ages”, edited by Julia Reidhead, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013. 13-15, 13-15. Print.
Simpson, James and David, Alfred. “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale”, edited by Julia Reidhead, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013. 230 – 258. Print.
Thomas, Susanne Sara. “The Problem of Defining “Sovereynetee” in the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” The Chaucer Review 41.1 (2006): 87-97. Web.
Watson, J. R. “Ancient or Modern, ‘Ancient and Modern’: The Victorian Hymn and the Nineteenth Century.” The Yearbook of English Studies 36.2 (2006): 1-16. Web.
Analysis of the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
Chaucer opens the “Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales” describing twenty-nine people going on a pilgrimage. It can be recognized from the way people behave today, that they had a distinct personality. In comparison with the other people, Chaucer made The Wife of Bath stand out from the other characters.The Wife of Bath is described intentionally in a way to provoke a shocking response. Chaucer described her clothes, her physical features, and her past in a way that causes the reader to wonder if she fits the rules imposed by Christians regarding womanly behavior.
By their actions, women were categorized as saints or sinners according to Christian tradition. The sinner or the saint were represented by two women. Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ, symbolized purity, while Eve was a sinner because she caused the downfall of all men. The Wife of Bath is a headstrong woman of her time. She wears ten pounds of clothes and a hat, showing off with pride her Sunday clothes. Her clothing symbolized that she isn’t shy and also shows off her expertise as a weaver.
Chaucer chooses his words carefully to describe the Wife of Bath distinctly. Her facial and bodily features description is sexually suggestive. Chaucer’s description of the Wife of Bath should be noticed. In the “Prologue of the Wife of Bath’s Tale”, Chaucer describes her physical appearance describing her cloth, legs, feet, hips, and and the most important her gap-tooth, which symbolized sensuality and lust.
He describes how talented weaver and devoted Christian she is. She goes on pilgrimages often. This seems quite unbelievable for the reader, but later the reader sees that actually, the Wife of Bath doesn’t go on these pilgrimages in due to religion. She just goes because she thinks that every place should be seen. She is a dedicated traveler, a medieval tourist who likes to sightsee.The Wife of Bath is a self-confident woman, she thinks highly of herself and her skills. It is ironic when Chaucer describes that she has a gap between her teeth. In the fourteenth century, the gap between the teeth was symbolic of sensual nature. She’s not interested in anything that has to do with homemaking, she’s interested in love. Chaucer said that she has been married five times: “Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde five”. She knew all the “remedies of love”. One other important element in her description is that she is deaf in one ear.
In both “The Prologue of the Wife of Bath’s Tale” and “The Tale of the Wife of Bath”, she discusses virginity, marriage, and the question of sovereignty. The Wife of Bath is a strong-willed woman, and also a dominant woman who gets what she wants when she wants it. She doesn’t know the term “defeat” no matter what the cost and consequence. She thinks that men should obey her. She doesn’t want to be told by others what to do, especially by a man. She shows her power-thirsty attitude when she says: “In wifhood wol I use myn instrument as freely as my Makere hath it sent. If I be dangerous, God yive me sorwe: myn housbonder shal it han both eve and morwe whan that him list come forth and pay his dette. An housbonde wol I have, I wol nat lette, which shal be bother my dettour and mt thral, and have his tribulacion withal upon his flesh whil that I am his wif”. She uses her body as a weapon, and she says that she owns her husband, who owes her. She thinks that her husband should bow to her because she is his wife.
The Wife of Bath considers that experience is authority, and she was married five time, so that makes her authoritative. She uses the Bible as justification of her behaviour, even though she is not religious. She describes her lives with her five husbands, and also how she had control over four of her husbands saying “I governed hem so wel after my lawe”. Later, she says “For God it woot, I chidde hem spitously”. She says that she is doing this for God. The Wife of Bath is thirsty of attention, sexually and as a person as well. She is upset when her fifth husband is interested more in books than in her.
It seems that her fifth husband excite her because the Wife of Bath likes challenges. She rips pages out of her husband’s book about how bad women are. Her husband gets angry, and he hits her, and she becomes deaf. After, she tries to make him feel guilty pretending that she is dead. She doesn’t try to make him understand he made something wrong, she just tried to achieve power and authority, which she gained.
The Wife of Bath doesn’t care about changing the world for the benefit of other women. She is not fighting for the rights of women, who are subordinate to men, she is not a feminist. She is experienced and she says she knows what pleasures men. She gives men what they desire, meaning sexual pleasure from her. She’s not fighting for the liberation of women. It’s a non-feministic view. She is manipulating men with the help of sex, just as men do to women. She believes in sexual freedom. It goes against feministic beliefs, giving men what men desire. The Wife of Bath has the choice of not giving the men what he desire, but she gives anyway men what he desires, because she experienced sex before and she knows that men enjoy it. It confuses the reader because it goes against feminist way. Firstly, the reader thinks that she is feminist and that she tries to win women freedom. She said that men are suffering because of women. She is selfish, filled with a hunger for sex and control an all men.I cannot relate to her because she is an extremely selfish, power-hungry, and immoral women. The Wife of Bath’s character focuses on craving for sex and impuls to give men pleasures through sex, to give men what men desire. I think that even in our modern society, no one will think that her actions are justified.
The Importance of Values in The Pardoner’s Tale and The Wife of Bath’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer, and Morte D’arthur by Thomas Malory
Values are defined as things that you believe are important in the way you live and work. However, values of those in the middle ages differ from values today. Values such as religion, loyalty, forgiveness, and humility were present during this time period. Literature such as The Pardoner’s Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Morte D’ Arthur, emphasize the importance of these values on the lives of the citizens.
In, The Pardoner’s Tale, author Geoffrey Chaucer uses satire to criticize the middle age value of religion as well as how comfortable many of them was with death and the afterlife. During the middle ages, individuals did not question the authority of church nor its workers. Chaucer satirizes the pardoner in a comedic manner by describing how emasculant his appearance was by comparing him to a castrated male horse. Chaucer also explains how gullible the people were believing the pardoner although he was using fake relics. The text states, “You’ll have me kissing you old Breeches too/And swear they were the relic of a saint” (Chaucer 292-293). The host is upset by the Pardoner’s lies and call to the attention that his relics are fake thus making what he says in believable. People of the time were highly gullible, believing the pardoner will free them of their sins. Thus enabling them to go to heaven. However, the pardoner is not what he is expected to be, he is rather corrupt. Being that he is a representation of the church, this shows the church’s desire for money in order to better their community. However, most of which the Pardoner kept.Religion was an important part medieval society.
Geoffrey Chaucer uses satirizes in The Wife of Bath, to show the importance of the middle age value of religion as well as forgiveness. The church emphasized the importance of chastity. Although very religious, Chaucer’s character, Wife of Bath, would disagree on many ideas of the church regarding sexual actions for wealth during the time period. The Wife of Bath is a very shapely however outspoken women compared to most of the time who were considered property of their husbands. This being essential because she was known as a role model for the “feminist movement” during the middle ages. However, the feminist movement during this period was different from that of the 1800s. During this wave, women strived for equality. However, during the middle ages, feminism was known as having control over one’s husband in a relationship. The text states, And-Jesu hear my prayer!- cut short the lives/ of those who won’t be governed by their wives,” (Chaucer 437-438). These lines present the moral of the Wife of Bath’s tale to the other pilgrims as to the perspective of women during the time. Forgiveness is displayed through her tale of a rather lusty knight committing a crime which should have resulted in death.The text states, “But that the queen, and other ladies too,/ Implored the king to exercise his grace/So ceaselessly, he gave the queen the case/And granted her his life, and she could choose/ Whether to show him mercy or refuse,”(70-74). The queen and other females exercised grace and forgiveness by sending him on a quest to find what women desire most and postponing his death rather than killing him right away. Forgiveness is shown through this, and this aids to the society growing.
In Morte D’Arthur values such as loyalty and humility are present through this literature. The tale explains as to how King Arthur came to power as well as background of some of his knights. When first pulling out the sword from the rock, Arthur displays humility. Following this action, he gains respect from his relatives. The passage states, “Alas, said Arthur, my own dear father and brother, why kneel ye to me?” (Malory 6). After being told he proceeded to ask ‘Why?’ and agreed to pulling out the sword several times following before the community accepted him as their king. Although doubted, Arthur remained humble as well as forgiving to those who doubted him. Another value includes loyalty.After Launcelot steals Arthur’s wife, Sir Gawain goes to war to defend Arthur. Although Launcelot is loved by all and never defeated, Gaiwan stood his ground. The text states, “Where art thou,Sir Launcelot? Come forth, thou false traitor knight and recant”(Malory 2). Although he knows that Launcelot is capable of winning, Gaiwan did not let this hinder his loyalty to Arthur. Forgiveness and mercy are strong values of the time, they are also knightly virtues, key characteristics of an exemplary knight.
Literature such as The Pardoner’s Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and Morte D’ Arthur depict the values of loyalty,humility, forgiveness and religion in the Middle Ages. Although they differ from values today, these values shape the community and exercise their beliefs. These are the beliefs that are important to them and displays how many lived during the time.
Universal Truths in Wife of Bath by Geoffrey Chaucer
Question – The Wife of Bath tells anecdotes of her personal life. Does her tale also concern universal truths?
Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a highly celebrated piece of British poetry of 14th century. A collection of 24 tales, it presents vivid and diverse characters, related to all classes of the society, all on a pilgrimage to the Canterbury, a major pilgrimage site in the medieval ages. Although all the characters are fictional, their tales are tantamount to social documents giving details about the societal conditions of that time. Wife of Bath is one of these fictional creations of Chaucer. Her prologue to her tale is the longest of all the prologues. She is an unabashed woman, who boasts of having been married five times and also having enjoyed sex with strangers. She blatantly presents anecdotes of her personal life and uses, from biblical texts to astrological symbols, to justify her actions and the consequent events. This paper attempts to analyse and elucidate whether her tale also concerns universal truths and in what manner.
Chaucer is coming in medieval age, when all knowledge was held within and propagated by the Church; everything was spiritual. Amusingly, Chaucer gives a contrasting image through his characters. Wife of Bath is undoubtedly a very controversial character, who, with all her pomp and show, overturns all the presumptions and expectations. She is presented, unlike the general notion of a delicate and refined woman, as a realistic and complicated woman who defends her life without trying to conceal it’s ruggedness.
While talking about her life, Wife of Bath certainly touches upon multiple issues of the society which can be considered universal truths, especially those regarding marriage and women. Wife of Bath, in the very first few lines of the prologue establishes that her rhetoric is largely based on experience when she says , “ Experience, though noon auctoritee Were in this world, is right y-nough for me”(lines 1-2)1. It is thus incorrect to conclude that her words are equivalent to universal truths as experience is subjective while truth is objective. But, it is this very notion of objectivity and standards that the Wife of Bath questions through her harangue . She voices not only her opinions but also the opinions of her husbands. She, talks at length about the institution of marriage and the way society thwarts women in any and every way.
It is interesting to note that Wife of Bath is the only character in the book who is referred to by her filial relation rather than occupational standing in the society. It is a direct comment on the way a woman is seen and described in the society. Her identity is only a mere acknowledgement of whose wife, mother, sister or daughter she is, which is a universal truth. However, Wife of Bath emancipates herself from this social chain. She outrightly seeks her freedom as an individual, especially financial and sexual freedom, which women have been denied of, which is again a universal truth.
Her desires to seek financial freedom is very evident from her account of her first three husbands. All of them were rich and old. The characteristic factors, rich and old, worked suitably in her favour because as they were old, they would die sooner and she would directly inherit all their property and money. She very enterprisingly talks about how cunningly she would deceive them by constantly lecturing them using false arguments. She would tell them that in a drunken state they had lectured her about wives being full of folly, using her maid as the false witness (lines 245-249). Hearing this, they would feel guilty about the actions that they did not even commit and would try their best to gain favourable behaviour from her. It is very important to note that the very fact that her husbands are so easily deceived by the Wife of Bath is the indicative of the fact that the influential men of time had propagated the universal truth of wives never being good enough. John Bromyard,a 14th century English preacher, in his the Summa Predicantium, cited that – if a wife is sterile , the husband suffers from having no heir, if fecund, the family will make him poor; if she is fair, she will desire adornment and sometimes become unchaste, if ugly, it will be disagreeable to live with her2 (lines 250- 255). This is also pretty evident from her fifth husband, Jankin’s words who constantly read her anecdotes out of a book which primarily dealt with troublesome wives (lines 715-790).
Also, the fact that she is adamant to ascertain her sexual freedom is time and again presented in the prologue. Especially when she says,
“ Myn housbond shal it have bothe eve and morwe,
Whan that him list com forth and paye his dette.
An housbonde I wol have, I won nat lette
Which shal be bothe my dettour and my thral
And have his tribulacioun withal
Upon his flessh, whyl that I am his wyf.
I have the power during al my lyf
Upon his propre body, and noght he.” (lines 152 – 159)
In these lines, Wife of Bath quotes The Apostle Paul at the end, which said: “The womman hath not power of her bodi, but the husbonde; and the hosebonde hath not the power of his bodi but the womman” (Wyclif’s Bible, 1388). She emphasises on the latter part of the lines and very emphatically says that because she has agreed to marry the husband, he is indebted to her. He is her slave and she has the whole right over his body and to use it for her sexual gratification. This is very exemplary of the subversive nature of the text. Even though she misquotes the Bible to justify her words, this is simply an assertion of how the society only propagates the literal sense of the former lines of the Apostle, giving women absolutely no choice whatsoever over their sexuality. Thus, Wife of Bath in a way questions the normality of only men having such freedom over women, also essentially quoting from texts that propagate and substantiate such truths. Further it also states another universal truth which is the fact that texts like the Bible have been subjective to interpretations, all of which are not necessarily correct or incorrect.
Hence, it becomes interesting to delineate that even though, as earlier stated, Wife of Bath speaks on the basis of her subjective experience, yet her words reverberate the sound of universal truths, thus questioning their authority. Chaucer’s weaving of her character by using multiple threads in order to present her multifaceted personality presents the conflicted state of the society through her life. She is a complex, divided person, living in a society itself divided and shifting on questions that pertain to her. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue is therefore a recognition of the self – destructiveness engendered by the misfit between religious and courtly ideals and the demands of everyday life. Thus, through her telling of anecdotes of her personal life, Wife of Bath, intrinsically concerns herself with the universal truths regarding women and marriage by both asserting and questioning them.