Feminism or Anti-Feminism: Images of Women in Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath”

July 23, 2019 by Essay Writer

Chaucer’s “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” is a medieval legend that paints a portrait of strong women finding love and themselves in the direst of situations. It is presented to the modern day reader as an early tale of feminism showcasing the ways a female character gains power within a repressive, patriarchal society. Underneath the simplistic plot of female empowerment lies an underbelly of anti-feminism. Sometimes this is presented blatantly to the reader, such as the case of Janekin’s reading aloud from “The Book of Wikked Wives” (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale 691). However, there are many other instances of anti-feminism that may not scream so loudly to the reader. This is shown in the disappearance of the rape victim and the happy ending for the Knight. While the overall story is one of supposed feminism shown through women’s empowerment, there are many aspects of “The Wife of Bath” that are anti-feminist in nature.The main character, Alison, or the wife of Bath, is representative of most of the feminist ideals in the work. She is strong, independent, and to be respected as a woman of great courage. Alison has suffered a great deal in her lifetime, indicative of life for women at this time. She has survived five husbands; some of whom beat her, others were unfaithful. She was married off at an early age of twelve and from then on knew what marriage was about: money. “Marriage is the key to survival, and that is what Alisoun seeks and finds” (Carruthers 214), argues Mary Carruthers, justifying Alison’s five marriages. Alison equates money with power. With this power comes respect and honor.A more careful analysis of both the “General Prologue” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale and Prologue,” however, suggest that perhaps the character of Alison is not as autonomous as the reader is led to believe. The General Prologue gives evidence of Alison’s prowess as a weaver: “of cloth-making she hadde swich an haunt/ She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt” (General Prologue 449-450). Despite this talent and position as a business owner, Alison still relies on her husbands for wealth and status. While Alison in her own right is an accomplished artisan, she is rarely seen as her own person. Others on the voyage to Canterbury are referred to by their name and occupation, for example the Clerk and the Merchant, yet Alison is referred to as the wife of Bath. This shows that her importance lies within her sexuality or marital status. She is not a person or even an artisan; she is merely a wife. Another criticism of Alison’s character as one representing feminist ideals is that she gains her power through acting out stereotypes of women as well as violence. The criticism of women began with Eve eating the apple, which caused the downfall of mankind (meaning solely men). Hereby, women were the downfall of men. Wives were thought to be nagging, vicious, and yet in complete subordination to their husbands. In the case of her first three husbands, Alison commands power by acting out these aged stereotypes. She tells the reader: I governed hem so wel after my lawe/ That eech of hem ful blissful was and fawe/ To bringe me gaye thinges fro the faire; They were ful glade whan I spak hem faire, For God it woot, I chidde hem spitously. (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale 225-229)Alison also utilizes violence as a means of obtaining power. While her first three husbands are old, wealthy and easily tricked, her fifth husband is twenty years her junior and has many ideas of what a wife’s role is. He uses violence as a means to control her. Alison testifies to the reader, “that feele I on my ribbes al by rewe/ and evere shal unto myn ending day” (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale 513-514). She responds by using violence against him and in turn, he gives up some of his power. She claims, “he yaf me al the bridel in myn hand/ To han the governance of hous and land” (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale 819-820). Alison is portrayed as an anti-feminist in that she is unable to gain power through methods of intelligence and independence. She instead uses violence and acts out negative stereotypes of women. The ambiguity of the role of feminism in The Wife of Bath is complicated further in the casual manner in which the rape and the victim of rape are treated.And happed that, allone as he was borne/ he sawgh a maide walking him biforn/ of which maide anoon, maugree hir heed/ By verray force he rafte hir maidenheed. (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale 891-894) The language depicts the rape in almost romantic terms. The Knight is portrayed as a very romantic character, one full of charm and grace. He is cast in such a heroic light that it makes it difficult for the reader to perceive his encounter with the maiden as rape. Furthermore, the court treats the rape in the same casual manner as it happens. As one critic argues: Arthur’s ready handing over of the guilty knight to a non-governing court for a trivial sentence seems indicative of the exploitation of an excluded group, the uncompensated female victims of medieval patriarchal society. (Lee 17) As casually as the Knight and the act of rape are treated, so is the victim, the young maiden. After our initial encounter meeting her, she does not again show up in the text. The role of the maiden is encapsulated by one scholar: “the girl is not a member, or not a full member, of this society, and can be ignored until her body is wanted again” (Lee 17). The unnamed exploited woman disappears from the tale, showing the reader that she is not a subject worthy of study, nor does she have much to do with the overall plot.Some readers argue the tale is feminist in nature in part due to the quest of the Knight. While his quest may be interpreted as a lack of punishment, others contend that it is not meant to be a journey of punishment, but a journey of knowledge. He must not only speak with women, but listen to them. By doing so, for the first time in his life he is seeing women as people, not as mere objects. O’Brien argues that the Knight’s life is first in the hands of the female parliament and second in the hands of the loathly lady: “the rapist-knight must embark on a quest whose fundamental purposes are to acknowledge the autonomy of female desire and to learn what it feels like to owe his body to another” (O’Brien 377). In a very metaphorical sense, the Knight is raped through this justice. It is arguable that the Knight is punished and thereby, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” remains a feminist tale. However, I would assert that the rather happy ending assigned to the knight denotes the presence of anti-feminism. The end result is the Knight’s long life of happiness, “and thus they live unto hir lives ende/ in parfit joye” (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale 1263-1264). In this tale the rapist is freed from punishment and ultimately rewarded with a young, beautiful, and faithful wife. The tale of “The Wife of Bath” displayed both intriguingly feminist ideas for its time, and also subtle anti-feminist rhetoric. The main character, Alison, represents the empowered woman. Yet, the portrayal of the young maiden demonstrates the need in medieval times to place women into categories, thereby making it easier for them to be dominated. With the absence of the maiden, the knight is turned into the hero of the tale, with the reader hoping for a happy ending for him. “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” can be seen as both a legend of women’s empowerment as well as a reminder of the struggles women encountered daily. Works CitedAbrams, M.H., ed. Norton Anthology of English Literature, v,1. W.N. Norton & Company: 1993Carruthers, Mary. “The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions” The Geoffrey Chaucer Page. 30 June 2000 Chaucer, G. “General Prologue” 81-100. Chaucer, G. “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale” Abrams 117-144.Lee, Brian S. “Exploitation and Excommunication in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale.’ Philological Quarterly, v74. (1995): 17(19)O’Brien, Timothy D. “Troubling Waters: The Feminine and the Wife of Bath’s Performance” Modern Language Quarterly, v53. (1992): 377(15).

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