Sex As a Thematic Element in Canterbury Tales
Explicit themes such as sex are commonly explored by many authors in English tradition. Due to the topic of sex being considered controversial and taboo, sex as a motif can easily attract and engage a reader. Not only is sex an intriguing and entertaining topic, but the theme can be used as a device to mock a larger issue present in a work. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is a collection of twenty-four short stories that focus on a wide range of issues, presented through the form of a storytelling contest. The stories are presented in this type of framework in order to satirize larger societal issues, as well as mock general human behaviors. Through the tales, Chaucer uses irregular scenarios and comedy as a critique on society. Sex is used as a thematic element in a handful of these short stories, specifically The Wife of Bath’s Tale, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, and The Miller’s Tale. All of these short pieces use sex to criticize societal standards, traditions, and the balance of power between masculinity and femininity.
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue is the first of many tales which mocks aspects of sexual and marital tradition, and questions the power of femininity over masculinity. It is in this narrative that we are introduced to the Wife of Bath (also known as Alisoun of Bath), and given a detailed catalogue of her sex life. Having been married five times, she breaks the traditional role of a progressive woman or wife in Old English society. In her first three marriages, we see Alisoun exercise passive feminine power over her husbands in order to obtain what she desires from them. All three were older and extremely affluent. Obtaining their wealth in exchange for a domestic partnership and their love, she easily found a way to take advantage of them without actually having genuine love for them. Her next two husbands are younger, and Alisoun uses them to feed her sexual appetite. Through her marital journey, she treats sex as a commodity, using it to gain or bargain for what she desired most from her partners.
“And tell me also, what was the intention
Of creating organs of generation,
Where man was made in so perfect a fashion?
They were not made for nothing, you can bet!
Twist it how you like an argue it up and down
That they were only made for the emission
Of urine; that our little differences
Are there to distinguish between the sexes,
And for no other reason—who said no?
Experience teachers that it is not so.” (153, Chaucer)
The Wife of Bath is sexually aware of herself and the power she can harness through sex. She understands that there is more purpose to the genitals than urinating and emission. Chaucer uses her character to satirize the customary “domestic woman,” and to mediate between feminine and masculine expectations. Alisoun’s behavior mocks the traditional standard of sexuality of women, as well as the religious positions women hold in society. The behavior she chooses to embrace is that of masculine power; she is a sexual aggressor, a trait which is strikingly uncommon for a proper woman. She mocks tradition because she takes on the generalized role of a man and is aware that in doing so, she gains agency over the men in her life.
The Wife of Baths Tale, which is also narrated by Alisoun, mocks sexuality in a different way. Alisoun is portrayed as a much older woman in this story, and is not the main protagonist even though the title bears her name. The tale is initiated with rape, a deplorable and aggressive sexual act. The main character of the tale, a young knight, is “punished” for his deviancy by being put on a quest by the queen to discover “what women truly desire.” On his journey, he meets Alisoun who promises him the answer if he promises her his hand in marriage. Her answer is that women want sovereignty over their husbands. When he shares Alisoun’s answer with the queen, his life is spared and he must marry Alisoun. The Wife of Bath asks the knight:
“Choose now, choose one of these two things,’ said she,
‘To have me old and ugly till I die,
And be to you a true and faithful wife,
And never to displease you all my life,
Or else have me beautiful and young,
And take your chances with a crowd of men
All flocking to the house because of me.” (180, Chaucer)
Because the knight allows Alisoun to decide for herself, she transforms into a beautiful young woman. In his decision to allow her the final say, he effectively gave his wife power over him. Even though this tale does possess some of Alisoun’s original qualities, many aspects are undeniably different. From the start of the tale, she already possesses power over the knight because she holds the answer to the question that will save his life. He abused his masculine power through rape, and repenting for his crime, bows down to the woman whose answer can spare him from death. Though the power she possesses over the knight is typical of our feminine hero, there is still another aspect of sex being mocked here: rape. Rape being not only a crime, but a sin, is pardoned by answering a single question. Not only is the knight’s life spared, but in the end, he obtains a wife who ends up physically transforming into a perfect woman. The crime of rape is being satirized in this tale. It is portrayed as heinos crime, but is then minimized to the point of actively rewarding the criminal.
Sex is mocked in a different fashion when it comes to The Miller’s Tale. In this short story, the reader is introduced to Nicholas, a young Oxford student, trying to manipulate his way into sleeping with a married woman. Alisoun, the wife, is a beautiful young girl married to a much older man, John. Nicholas concocts plan in which her husband would be fooled into sleeping in a hanging tub for an entire night, and during his time slumbering, the two would be able to meet for a tryst, unencumbered by John. Unhappy in her situation, she agrees to Nicholas’ scheme and proceeds to commit adultery. Chaucer uses this story to not only explore the topic of adultery, but to also mock the relationship between an older man and younger woman, which is presented as a great power disparity. “Men ought to wed according to their state, for youth and age are often to debate.” (84, Chaucer) According to The Miller’s Tale, a relationship in which the age of the two participants is too far apart will not only create tension between the two spouses, but will also result in one partner cheating on the other. Though this type of marriage is not completely uncommon, Chaucer uses this tale to not only satirize this specific type of marriage, but to also inform people in this situation that cheating will eventually happen. The story suggests that an older person is not an appropriate sexual partner for a younger person, and that eventually the relationship will perish. Alisoun’s affair is almost representative as a punishment for her husband John. “For she was wild and young, and he was old, and thought that she’d likely make him a cuckold.” (84, Chaucer) Even though we are led to believe this act is completely the misjudgment of Alisoun, it is apparent that even her husband is aware of the uncertainty in their relationship. John knows Alisoun is young and he fears her being deceitful from the start. Ultimately, the characters who do this wrong thing are punished in The Millers Tale.
Sex is one of the many institutions Chaucer mocks in The Canterbury Tales, and he does so in order to satirize societal norms and traditions. The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, The Wife of Bath’s Tale, and The Miller’s Tale each satirize sex in different ways. The topics Chaucer chooses to mock are conspicuous issues of society that are either blatantly ignored or made to look normal when they are not. Chaucer uses these narratives to expose to his readers serious themes which are frequently overlooked, such as rape, adultery and the agency possessed by women who are sexually aware. Not only does Chaucer attempt to expose these overlooked themes, but he uses the to make a critique on society as a whole. The Canterbury Tales challenges the traditional standards of marriage, love and standards of femininity and masculinity, especially in terms of sexuality. While the tales are fun and were meant for entertainment, it is obvious why Chaucer wrote them the way he did. He expects his readers to be aware of these issues and understand the satire present in his work. These tales were not just written for the pleasure of the reader, but to also bring about awareness of much greater problems in society.
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