The Presentation of Masculinity in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale’

February 8, 2019 by Essay Writer

The Wife of Bath, with the energy of her vernacular and the voraciousness of her sexual appetite, is one of the most vividly developed characters of ‘The Canterbury Tales’. At 856 lines her prologue, or ‘preambulacioun’ as the Summoner calls it, is the longest of any of the pilgrims, and matches the General Prologue but for a few lines. Evidently Chaucer is infatuated with Alisoun, as he plays satirically with both gender and class issues through the Wife’s robust rhetoric. Scholars and students alike have continued this obsession with her, and as a consequence Chaucer’s larger than life widow has been subject to centuries of scrutiny. Indeed, she is in the vast minority amongst the Canterbury bound pilgrims; apart from the in-vogue Prioress she is the only female – though she appears in no way daunted by the apparent inequality in numbers. It seems almost a crime to examine masculinity in her prologue and tale, but as I hope to show, there is much to learn both about the Wife and about Chaucer from this male presence.When we consider that Chaucer chose his pilgrims with careful precision to present a cross section of late-medireview society, the small number of women travellers can be seen as a clear reminder of the patriarchal culture in which the Wife existed. Nevertheless, despite Alisoun’s vigorous assault on ‘olde and angry nigardes’ she is the first to recognise the political ascendancy of men. Her prologue is peppered with allusions to great biblical patriarchs such as Abraham and Jacob: Lo, heere, the wise king, daun Salomon;I trow he hadde wives mo than oon. (35-36) Here, the Wife makes no attempt to deny Solomon’s sovereignty – she even praises him as a ‘wise king’; her marital arguments are social and it is for this purpose that she invokes his name. Importantly, Alisoun refers to ‘ancient’ patriarchs – not only is she prepared to acknowledge the male monopoly on politics, but also the deep rooted nature of their hegemony, a recognition reinforced by the setting of her tale in ³th’olde dayes of the King Arthour². Chaucer has created a woman who in spite of her fierce social ambitions, remains acutely aware of the civil order of her time. Masculinity also manifests itself clearly in the scholasticism to which the Wife continually refers: St. Paul, St. Jerome and Theophrastus. Once again these are historical figures, and though she aims to castrate their learned authority with her own experience, the very fact they are mentioned is an assertion of their erudite dominance. Ironically the bombast theology of such figures is applauded as much as it is assaulted: Ovid’s Midas is cited for her own purposes in the tale, while Ptolemy is exalted in the prologue: Of alle men yblessed moot he be,The wise astrologien, Daun Ptholome… (323-324) Her reference to ‘the wise astrologien’ echoes her description of Solomon as the ‘wise king’; clearly in both cases she holds their intellect in the highest regard. Perhaps most surprising in the Wife’s tone is the humility which arises from her near religious adoration of the man, and as these lines illustrate, there remains a degree of subservience on Alisoun’s part. Beneath her verbal offensive lies a submissive quality about the Wife, though this is not a negative feature. ³Only that which is filled with contradictions is alive², said Bertolt Brecht, and it is her dichotomic personality that gives her such zest and which truly marks out Chaucer’s genius.However, the masculine presence in the prologue and tale is not limited merely to historical figures, whose contribution is more thematic than personal. The chief male components are Alisoun’s five husbands – creations that we presume are Chaucer’s own. The first three of these are not distinguished as individuals, but the Wife informs us that they were rich and old – in the plainest terms, medireview sugar-daddies. There appears nothing remotely patriarchal about this pathetic triumvirate, and Chaucer (through the Wife) presents them as utterly malleable – they are figures of fun, archetypes of what Alisoun considers to be a ‘goode’ husband: But sith I hadde hem hoolly in myn hond,And sith they hadde me yeven al hir lond. (211-212) The first line is a middle-english idiom for control, a modern equivalent of which might be ‘under my thumb’. Nevertheless, it is impossible to ignore the sexual suggestion of this line, one that illustrates in a graphic manner the methods that the Wife uses to gain ‘maistrie’. Meanwhile the pun on ‘hoolly’ can be interpreted as a joke about the sanctimony of marriage, something for which Alisoun has little regard. Here, as the reference to ‘lond’ indicates, men are presented as the landowners: the powerful aristocract whose ascendancy is inextricably bound to their estates. Traditionally, a wife would simply become another of their assets, yet clearly the Wife has used sexual persuasion to manipulate and subvert such conventions, as she receives their property. In this instance, Chaucer’s presentation is socially pointed and amusingly ironic: men are powerful in theory, puny in practice. Husband number four, again nameless, but at least described in dislocation, is not so pliable. The Wife describes him as a ‘revelour’ who kept a mistress, a person you would assume to be immune to Alisoun’s unique methods of manipulation. Yet this is not the case, and the presentation of masculinity as an easily governable force continues, as with superb ingenuity the Wife feigns an affair: That in his owene grece I made him frieFor angre, and for verray jalousie. (487-488) Clearly he is a temperamental character, one whose personality up to this moment appears in the same mould as that of the Summoner. Yet for all his riotous activities, he still succumbs to the Wife’s sexual trickery, and Alisoun herself, confesses the extent to which she bent his nature: ³how soore I him twiste.² The Wife revels in her victory with an almost perverse enjoyment. Indeed there is even the suggestion that she drove him to his death-bed. Once again Alisoun exposes empowered masculinity as weak and feeble, and Chaucer’s presentation of men maintains its consistency – in spite of political or physical supremacy, men retain an Achilles’ heel in the form of the sexual act.However, the force of the above lines, with the ‘angre’ and ‘verray jalouse’ does highlight another aspect of masculinity – that of aggression. This manifests itself both verbally and physically; the former of which can be seen clearly in the interjecting confrontation between the Summoner and the Friar at the close of the prologue. As the Friar nonchalantly ridicules the Wife’s waffle, the Summoner erupts with indignation: ³ ‘Lo’, quod the Somonour, ‘Goddes armes two!’ ². What follows is a humorous quarrel that equates to little more than harsh words, but reaches its climax as the seething sarcasm of the clergyman is countered by,³I bishrewe thy face² – the epitome of the Summoner’s plain bullishness. The ease with which Harry Bailey quashes the scuffle leads us to doubt that there is any physical intent behind the aggressive language, as once again it is the lack of substance beneath the powerful front of masculinity that becomes the source of amusement. Nevertheless, this aggression takes on a repressed, physical form in the tale, one considerably darker than the amusing male misdemeanours in the prologue: Wommen may go now saufly up and doun.In every bussh or under every treeTher is noon oother incubus but he… (878-880) Here the Wife demonstrates the more vindictive facet of her nature, as she gains retribution for the Friar’s previous interruption. At the same time Chaucer allows himself the opportunity for anti-clerical social commentary. An ‘incubus’ is traditionally a male-spirit who, according to popular folk-lore, would have sexual intercourse with sleeping maids, and this reference maintains the fairy-tale background to the Wife’s tale. Nevertheless, the suggestion of nymphomania on the Friar’s behalf is clear. The manner in which such implications are obscured by the cotton-wool of ‘elf-queenes’ and ‘faieries’ reflects the way that the immoral vices are carried out in the seclusion of bushes or under trees – evidently this sexual aggression is repressed. As before a sharp distinction between masculine appearance and masculine reality is drawn, though rather than power concealing weakness, the Friar obscures sexual degradation with religious virtue.This idea of male authority and integrity being only superficial seems equally present in the two chief males of the piece: Jankin in the prologue, and the junior knight (or ‘lusty bacheler’) of the tale. As the perpetrators of shockingly violent acts, both fail to live up to the standards expected of their position. The anonymous protagonist of the Wife’s Arthurian romance is anything but chivalrous: He saugh a maide walkinge him biforn,Of which maide anon, maugree hir heed,By verray force, he rafte hir maidenhed. (886-888) The words ‘force’ and ‘rafte’ are stressed and clearly stand out in the iambic pentameter. Their monosyllabic nature further enhances the stresses on the words, while the harsh dental plosives within ‘rafte’ heightens the sense of violence. There are no docile fairies here – Alisoun is candid, and though she chooses not to ponder on the violation, she does seem at pains to emphasise the aggression of the act through the vigour of the last line. Furthermore there are definite implications of a struggle in the phrase ‘maugree hir heed’. Such premeditated violence seems incongruous not only with the young man’s status, but also with the quasi-courtly nature of the narrative. Such rape is the antithesis of the Knight’s Tale and this reminds us that we are not hearing Chaucer’s view of masculinity, but the Wife’s – an opinion that has its foundations in experience. Indeed this experience may be that of her fifth marriage to Jankin, a man who as a former ³clerk of Oxenford² combines scholasticism and marital commitment. Such a learned male you would expect to be passive – ‘above’ the stereotypical brutish behaviour of the Summoner. Yet as with friars and knights in training such expectations would be incorrect, and following Alisoun’s petty vandalism to Jankin’s misogynistic ³booke of wikked wives², he quite literally beats her deaf: And he up stirte as dooth a wood leoun,And with his fest he smoot me in the heed. (794-795) The prolonged ‘o’ sound created by ‘dooth’,’wood’ and ‘smoot’ is pervasive and has resonance with the sounds of pain and despair ­ the Wife is the clear victim. Here the allusion to the lion can be perceived as something of a dichotomy. On the one hand, a feline has strong associations with feminine passivity and elegance – the lion is a creature of beauty. Yet on the other hand it is a symbol of bestial aggression and of patriarchy, as ‘king of the beasts’. Chaucer uses the lion to accent Jankin’s own contradictory nature. While at a superficial level he is the young idealistic scholar, behind closed doors he is guilty of domestic abuse. This masculine aggression of the junior knight and Jankin appears to counter the malleable nature of Alisoun’s earlier husbands.However, the use of brutality does not lead to masculine despotism, since it is the Wife (or the ideals of the Wife embodied in the loathly lady) that ultimately gain the ‘maistrie’, as the physical fury of the males proves futile against manipulative feminism. Both men succumb to their female companions, as Jankin is shocked into submission by the Wife feigning death: He yaf me al the bridel in myn hondTo han the governance of hous and lond. (813-814) The rhyme of ‘hond/lond’ echoes the couplet 211-212, with the final recognition that, in spite of disparity in personality, the fate of marital subservience eventually unites all five husbands. The poetic justice and humour of the situation belongs to both protagonist and writer. Thus, while the Wife remains acutely aware of the patriarchal ascendancy of her medireview world, she succeeds in subverting social gender roles in her own realm of experience. Many have cited Chaucer’s ‘Wife of Bath’ as a satirical portrait of females and feminist ideals, yet this suggests that Alisoun is the chief figure of fun. In my own opinion, it is the hollow futility of a superficially empowered masculinity that becomes the true subject of the poet’s irony in this piece.

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