Equality and Power: Marriage in The Franklin’s Tale and The Wife of Bath’s Tale
In Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, the Franklin’s Tale and the Wife of Bath’s Tale represent marriage in different ways. The most striking contrast is the role of power in relationships in the two stories, and for the two tellers. The Franklin believes in mutuality, and equality. His wedding ideal is a binding, officious contract rendering the partners equal to each other. The Wife of Bath sees marriage as an inevitable struggle for power. The assumption that one partner in a union will have more control is at the heart of both her tale, and the stories of her own past relationships. These different ideas about marriage match well with their tellers characteristics, as give to the reader in a brief description of the Franklin in The General Prologue, and the Wife of Bath’s extensive discussion of marriage and love in her own prologue. Among countless subtle differences and similarities between the two stories, the ideas about power are clearly important and quite fitting.
The Franklin’s idea of a contract is made clear in many instances throughout his tale. Contracts, agreements, and binding promises are found throughout the tale. The businesslike language used to describe Arveragus courting Dorigen is one example. The words “serve,” (Franklin’s Tale, l.59) “enterprise” (Franklin’s Tale, l.59) and “labour,” (Franklin’s Tale, l.60) all appear in the first lines of the tale, subtly establishing the nature of their relationship. Finally, Dorigen chooses to accept his hand “…namely for his meek [obedience],” (Franklin’s Tale, l. 67) and takes him for “…hir housbonde and her lord” (Franklin’s Tale, l. 70). The courting has come and gone with more language of office than of romance. Later, the Franklin carefully explains the marriage roles with “Thus hath she take hir servant and hir lord–/ Servant in love and lord in mariage./ Thanne was he both in lordship and servage./ Servage? Nay, but in lordship above,/ Sith he has both his lady and his love” ( Franklin’s Tale, l. 124). The repetition used here not only enforces the language of business as the Franklin’s terms, but also neutralizes the power relation by presenting the paradox of being simultaneously master and servant.
The importance of equality in the marriage contract is extremely clear in many other places in the Franklin’s love story. Right away, after Dorigen has agreed to marry, Arveragus names her his equal rather than just the woman he loves. He chooses, “Of his free wil,” to “swore hire as a knight/That nevere in al his lif he day ne night/ Ne sholde upon him take no maistrye” (Franklin’s Tale, ll. 73-75). It is crucial that this statement comes after they are engaged. It is marriage the makes them necessarily equal. The Franklin goes even further in stating the importance of a mutual agreement, by departing momentarily from the plot of his tale to speak of his opinions of marriage:
For oo thing, sires, saufly dar I saye:
That [lovers] [each] other [must] obey,
If they wol longe holden compaignye.
Love wol nat be constrained by maistrye:
When maistrye comth, the God of Love anoon
Beteth his winges and farewel, he is goon!
Love is a thing as any spirit free;
Women of kinde desiren libertee,
And nat to been constrained as a [slave]
And so doon men, if I sooth sayen shal.
(Franklin’s Tale, ll.89-98)
By suddenly inserting the word “I” into his narration, the Franklin draws attention to the lines that follow. He signals to his audience the importance of this lack of mastery in maintaining love for long enough to make it marriage. This is a crucial distinction. It is reiterated later, in the ending of his tale. Aurelius, who did not share mutual love with Dorigen, can never win her heart from Arveragus, her equal.
The Wife of Bath contradicts the Franklin’s representation of marriage in the tale she tells. The most glaring differences are the opposite ideas of the place of “maistrye” in a relationship. In this tale, power is not avoided in love, but instead the one thing universally desired by women. This idea is the central lesson of the tale, and just the opposite of the Franklin’s ideal of equality. The Wife of Bath’s Knight explains the power concept to his Queen as “Wommen desire to have sovereinetee/ As wel over hir housbonde as hir love,/ And for to be in maistrye him above” (Wife of Bath’s Tale, ll.1044 1046). Like the Franklin, the Wife of Bath sets this concept apart. It is proposed as a wisdom strong enough to be worth a man’s life, and also provides resolution to the Knight’s search for truth. Whichever partner gets dominion, a marriage involves power relations more than mutual contracts.
For the Wife of Bath, it is the woman who should hold the power above the man. She fills her story with powerful women, who make demands and state ultimatums. It is the queen who controls the Knight’s fate, and also initiates the tale’s plot (Wife of Bath’s Tale, ll. 901 918). The Knight’s mission forces him to beg something of women, therefore placing each one he encounters in a superior position. His wife has enough control to marry him by her command and against his will. And finally, on their wedding night, she even clearly asks “Thanne have I gete of you maistry…/ Sin I may chese and governe as me lest?” (Wife of Bath’s Tale, l.1243). Marital bliss is achieved directly by the Knight agreeing to this condition. The moment he agrees to defer all power to her, she becomes beautiful and “His herte bathe[s] in a bath of blisse” (Wife of Bath’s Tale, l. 1259). This is a strong and final reiteration of the concept that a relationship only works once it has been realized in unequal terms.
The personalities of the two narrators only serve to strengthen their different ideas. The Wife of Bath’s stories of her life bear the same representation of marriage as her tale. All of her marriages have been unequal in the distribution of power. With her first three husbands, she was in control. She explicitly says that she “…hadde hem hoolly in myn hand” (Wife of Bath’s Prologue, l.217). Although she does not speak of this power with her fourth husband, she has enough that “…in his owene grece [she makes] him frye,/ For angre and for verray jalousye” (Wife of Bath’s Prologue, ll. 493-494). And her fifth husband clearly controls her physically, as she explains “And yit he was to me the moste shrew;/ That feele I on my ribbes al by rewe,/ And evere shal unto myn ending day./ But in our bed he was so fressh and gay” (Wife of Bath’s Prologue, ll. 511-514). She stays with this abusive man because he pleases her sexually. This heightened sexuality is another aspect of her personality that can be found in her tale. Throughout her Prologue, she proves herself to be a sexually voracious being with heightened physical desires and demands. Her tale begins with a rape, and ends in a marriage bed, book-ended by sex scenes. The one aspect keeping the Knight from marital bliss is his lack of desire for his new wife. Love only arrives once he finds her attractive, therefore feeling sexual desire for her. This is clearly a reflection of the Wife of Bath’s own needs.
The Franklin’s representation of marriage also mirrors something in his own personality. His past jobs inform his concepts of love: “Ful ofte time he was Knight of the Shire” (The General Prologue, l.358) and “A shirreve hadde he been, and countour” (General Prologue, l.361). These positions, one as justice of the piece, the next as sheriff, and finally as an auditor (Norton Anthology, notes, p.89) are clearly connected to his philosophy of marriage. The appearance of contracts throughout his story is connected to his officious position as an enforcer of law and justice. He sees marriage as another official agreement that must be obeyed, just as taxes or laws. His past occupations have clearly influenced the strong sense of justice and equality that shape this representation.
The Wife of Bath’s Tale and the Franklin’s Tale are full of differences, just as their personalities appear to be. One similarity between the two is the fantastical and sensual nature of their beautiful love stories. Despite officious language and a sense of legal documents, the Franklin fills his story with gardens, parties, and castles by the seaside. The Wife of Bath talks of fairies, sex, and magical transformations. Beyond their differences is their mutual love of life. The joy-filled endings of marital bliss in both tales betray two optimistic tellers, who understand deeply the power of love in this world. Whether it be a just and fair contract of equality, or a constant struggle for sexual and domestic power, a good marriage is clearly worth working for.
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