How The Female Characters In The Tale Resemble The Wife Of Bath
Characters are complex constructions shaped by aspects such as personal views, physical characteristics, personality traits and social identity. It is my purpose to illustrate how the female characters in The Wife of Bath’s Tale resemble The Wife of Bath, exploring the aspects mentioned above and thus offering different perspectives for an elaborate comparison.
On one hand, the Queen, the Old Woman and the Wife of Bath, the female characters portrayed in the literary work, share the same view regarding romantic relationships with men, materialized through marriage, by claiming a sense of dominance over them, this claim being supported by both their statements and their actions. The knight is told by the Old Woman that ‘ Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee/ As wel over hir housbond as hir love,/ And for to been in maistrie hym above’ (Chaucer, 1038-40), statement that neither the Queen nor the women present at the court disagree with, thus sharing the same opinion. The Wife of Bath also expresses it by using other words: ‘An housbonde I wol have – I wol nat lette – / Which shal be bothe my dettour and my thral’ (Chaucer, 154-55). Moreover, all of the three characters mentioned above exert their power in different ways: the Old Woman compels the knight to marry her, in return for saving his life, the Queen uses her persuasive nature to determine her husband to leave the rapist at her mercy and the Wife uses her sexual attributes and manipulative nature in order to obtain what she wants from all of her previous five husbands. This way, the females’ influence over their spouses gives the appearance of the dominance they seek.
In addition to what has been mentioned, not only do the female characters resemble one another regarding the illusion of dominance that they actually exhibit, but also regarding the essence of their actions and beliefs. Their idea of power hides their own limitations, their sense of female dominance actually reveals misogynistic ideas. The Wife of Bath considers marriage to be a trade, giving sexual pleasure and receiving some form of appreciation, such as money, attention or kind words, thus being revealed that beyond her confidence and sense of power, she considers her worth to be only of sexual nature, fact that highlights her limited perspective. (Wetherbee, 85-86). Similarly, the Old Woman appears to be the dominant figure in her relationship with the knight. However, after he apparently understands not only what women’s desires are in theory, but also how they apply by leaving to her the choice that will influence his future, the Old Woman’s transformation emphasizes the same sexual purpose of pleasing the male, her perspective upon power within marriage being as limited. The Queen also appears to represent feminine dominance through her apparent creative justice regarding the rapist’s fate. But although her challenge for the knight promotes the value of women’s will, the victim’s voice is absent and her portrayal inexistent, emphasizing a powerful contrast, along with the fact that he ends up in a pleasing marriage, no longer carrying the burden of his crime, the rape victim receiving no sense of actual justice, thus being revealed that her feminine dominance is just an illusion that hides males’ views instilled in women’s minds.
On the other hand, despite the fact that they share the same personal beliefs regarding their purpose in society, the Queen, the Old Woman and the Wife of Bath do not share the same identity, being differentiated through aspects such as physical characteristics and social status. The Queen, although not being physically described, is of the highest rank, being the wife of the King, who holds the supreme authority in the state in the 14th century (Wetherbee, 39). In contrast, The Old Woman belongs to a lower class of the social hierarchy, describing herself as ‘foul, and oold, and poore’ (Chaucer, 1063), also owning no physical qualities before her transformation. The Wife of Bath is a widow and an imposing cloth maker, thus belonging to a higher class than the Old Woman, this fact being emphasized by the quality of her clothes. She is also described as having a ‘red face’ and ‘wide-spaced teeth’, features considered attractive in those times, thus contrasting with the Old Woman regarding the social status as well as the physical characteristics.
In addition to what has been mentioned, apart from social status and physical characteristics, the Old Woman and the Wife of Bath also differ in regard to their personality traits, this discrepancy being revealed through their actions, in reference to their spouses. After her transformation from ugly and old to beautiful and young, The Old Woman’s attitude towards her husband changes completely, her apparent dominance being replaced by total submission: ‘ And she obeyed hym in everything/ That myghte doon hym plesance or likyng’ (Chaucer, 1255-56). Opposed to that, the Wife of Bath, while being in a relationship with her fifth husband, reveals her manipulative nature, romanticizing a violent situation and appealing to his compassion. The conflict revolves around the ‘ book of wikked wyves’ (Chaucer, 685) that he owned. After her violent behavior is reciprocated by him, she appeals to manipulation, displaying a romantic kind of helplessness, asking for an ultimate kiss. Her attitude results in the total obedience of her husband, contrary to the Old Woman’s situation, him actually destroying his volume and returning the properties that she gives him at the beginning of their marriage to her.
To conclude, the female characters developed in the poem partially resemble the character of the Wife of Bath, presenting similarities as well as discrepancies in comparison. However, in my opinion, it cannot be supported that the female characters are the Wife of Bath herself, due to the fact that they do not coincide on every aspect. Nevertheless, their similar perspectives regarding dominance within romantic relationships are the main focus throughout the entire poem to underline the fact that the misogynistic mindset regarding this aspect was preeminent during that period, even though it was portrayed as feminine dominance by women.
- Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. New York: Modern Library, 1994
- Wetherbee, Winthrop. Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989
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