Story ‘Wife of Bath’: Feminist or Caricature

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

The Wife of Bath’s story from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is among the most studied in English literature courses. Out of the twenty-four respective tales it contains, the Wife of Bath’s sticks out in that it not only boasts radical religious ideology, but a female-centric narrative and moral. She also has a character that many modern readers feel they can relate to, with her abject denial of the medieval era-prevalent portrayal of “wikked wyves” (Chaucer 685) created by male authors at the time, and her outspoken dedication to the concept of female “sovereynetee” (Chaucer 1038). However, when reading her tale, the question is often asked, is the Wife of Bath (later-named Alisoun) meant to be a feminist, with her outspoken tendencies and unabashed rejection of societal norms? Or, is this Chaucer’s way of poking fun at women who dare question their designated role as a female in medieval times? Although some might be quick to shine the Wife of Bath in a positive light, the text suggests the opposite of this to be true. When taking historical context into account, and examining Chaucer’s word choice closely, it becomes apparent that Alisoun is meant to be a mockery of outspoken women.

In order to accurately interpret Chaucer’s intentions in writing Alisoun’s character, it might behoove the examiner to look closely at the speculated sources of inspiration for his writings. James Spisak highlights the similarities between Alisoun’s characteristics and ideas contained within St. Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum, saying “Jerome’s combination of the

Taub 2 magisterial and the low insult provided Chaucer with an opportunity for humor, parody, irony, and good sense that was too good to miss – especially since the subject involved was the ever-delightful problem of women, marriage, and virginity.” (Spisak 151) St. Jerome’s writings were a response to a monk named Jovinian, who analyzed St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in regard to marrying once versus multiple times. Jerome drastically likens such a choice to “an ultimatum to choose good over evil” (Spisak 153). Chaucer takes this idea and spins it in a new way with Alisoun, when she concludes that the bible gives no such commandment.

“Where can ye seye, in any manere age,

That hye god defended marriage

By express word? I pray yow, telleth me.

Or where commanded he virginatee?” (Chaucer 59-62)

In the male-dominated world of medieval literature, the depiction of women has always been akin to “self-indulgent, lustful, treacherous, domineering, greedy, shrewish, prone to sin, and, most importantly considered a danger to man’s salvation…” (Wilson 198). One might not think it upon first glance at the excerpt, but by making such a claim about scripture, Alisoun is filling this role exactly. She is depicted by Chaucer as selfish and wanton in her conquests and is further proved to be outrageous by having the audacity to twist scripture in order to fit her narrative.

Alisoun is also defined by a fixation with sex and its role in a relationship, which she uses in order to gain control of her husbands. Through this, she aptly fills Elaine Hansen’s described mold of “a feminine monstrosity who is the product of the masculine imagination against which Taub 3 she ineffectively and only superficially rebels” (Hansen 35). Alisoun unflinchingly admits to this when she says:

As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke

How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke!

And, by my fey, I tolde of it no stoor.

They had me yeven hir lond and hir tresoor;

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

But sith I hadde hem hoolly in myn hond,

And sith they hadde me yeven al hir lond,

What sholde I taken keep hem for to plese,

But it were for my profit and myn ese? (Chaucer 207-210, 217-220)

This excerpt shows Alisoun as a paragon of a “traditional figure of the wanton woman” (Justman 345), in that she is egocentric, dissolute, greedy, and a potential hazard to men. Given the predominant attitude towards women in medieval times, it is evident that Alisoun is, in Chaucer’s eyes, nothing more than a crude caricature of these traits.

In her personal life, Alisoun displays the characteristic of illogicality often attributed to women when she refutes her claim of being sexually gifted by lamenting, “But age, allas! That al wole envenyme,/ Hath me biraft my beautee and my pith/…The flour is goon…” (Chaucer 474-477). One cannot have both youth and experience, as the female protagonist of her tale learns as the story progresses. Assuming that the hag of the tale is a self-insert for Alisoun herself, that the hag chooses to be young and beautiful speaks of the Wife’s misguided priorities and illogical Taub 4nature. This trait is also painfully obvious when she exclaims that she loved her fifth husband, Jankyn, best because he was the worst to her, saying “I trowe I loved hym best, for that he/ Was of his love daungerous to me” (Chaucer 513-514). As her prologue and story center on the idea that women want that which they cannot have, this seems to contradict with her being content with Jankyn’s disregard and abuse towards her, thus being another clue that Chaucer is making a mockery of the Wife of Bath.

This inconsistency is also proven in her in her claimed desire for “sovereynetee” (Chaucer 1038) in her relationships with men, which she later admits to abandoning in a rather out-of-character fashion in her fifth marriage, once she acquires financial dominance. As David

Parker explains, “Her professed beliefs in female sovereignty in marriage…are not finally followed by the heroine of her tale, who obeys her husband…And her own claim to having exercised ‘maistrie’ over her fifth husband is to be doubted…” (Parker 94). By her blatantly disobeying her advice in her own personal life, Alisoun is continuously demonstrating the fickleness of her (and any other woman’s) character.

When reading any form of literature from times gone by, it is important to look at it through unbiased eyes. It is easy to apply our own understanding of the modern world to the words of authors who come from a time before us, and in doing so, the true meaning and intention is woefully misconstrued and neglected. Works of literature are pieces of history, and as such, should be admired in the light that they were intended in order to glean as accurate a understanding of its respective time period as possible. With this in mind, it is crucial to the reader, in order to fully understand Chaucer’s intentions, to not gloss over the blatant instances of antifeministic ideology in preference of a more forward-thinking attitude, because when every Taub 5 facet is taken into account, Chaucer’s view was a misogynistic one. The facts of Alisoun’s life, and her own words, show this. Her delusional opinions about her own life are “exploded by her own accidental self-revelations in the contradictions between statements she makes about her past” (Parker 97). As Parker notes, the Wife of Bath is “a character not in harmony but in conflict with itself” (98), and as such, is not a character that is meant to be liked or looked up to in any way, but is a clear image of exactly how women were viewed at the time: fickle, inconsistent, and dangerous creatures.

Works Cited

  1. Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” The Norton Anthology of English Literature Vol. 1A Ed. Stephen Greenblatt et al. 9th ed. Ed. M.H. Abrams et al. WW Norton, 2010. 272-281.
  2. Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. “The Wife of Bath and the Mark of Adam.” Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender. Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1992. 26-57. Print.
  3. Justman, Stewart. “Trade as Pudendum: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath.” The Chaucer Review 28.4 (1994): 344-352. Print.
  4. Parker, David. “Can We Trust the Wife of Bath?” The Chaucer Review 4.2 (1969): 90-98. Print.
  5. Wilson, Katharina M. “Figmenta vs. Veritas: Dame Alice and the Medieval Literary Depiction
  6. of Women by Women.”
  7. Spisak, James. “ANTI-FEMINISM BRIDLED: TWO RHETORICAL CONTEXTS.” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 81, no. 2, 1980, pp. 150–160. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43343323.

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