“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer Essay
Updated: Oct 6th, 2020
The main character depicted by Chaucer in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue is an eccentric woman whose religious worldviews, attitudes to spousal relations, and overall appearance oppose the conventional views on morality that dominated during the epoch in which the tale is set. By analyzing the descriptions of the Wife’s visual image, as well as her perspectives on the issues of marriage, it is possible to identify why the character challenges the conventional notion of wifehood.
It can be argued that by using particular ways of the character’s representation and stylistic devices, Chaucer aimed to criticize the noncompliance with the Medieval religious and moral doctrines. To verify this idea, such aspects of the Wife’s image as her religious views, attitudes to marriage, appearance, and name will be discussed in the paper.
The character’s interpretation of religious beliefs is one of the most significant elements in her representation. During the period described in the literary piece, the Church had a powerful position in the society. Thus, religious motifs were the first to define individuals’ behaviors in various spheres of life. The Wife, however, has an unconventional religious perspective, which mainly serves to justify her lustful lifestyle. For instance, she uses some ideas provided in the Bible as an excuse for adultery.
From her point of view, reproduction is the major reason for the engagement in spousal relations. For this reason, she had “five husbands at the church door,” which means that all the Wife’s relations are legal and compliant with the rules of religion. Nevertheless, they are rather controversial from the perspective of morality as she sees marriage as a means for prosperity and sensual satisfaction
The Wife argues against the biblical prohibition on remarriage after widowhood. From her stance, there is no evil in “marrying two, or…marrying eight.” To support this idea, she refers to the Bible and compares herself to king Solomon who had many wives. She says, “I believe he had wives more than one,” and states that since God approved Solomon’s polygamy, it could not be that detrimental to her either. For her, Solomon’s multiple marriages justify all the marriages she had herself.
Overall, it seems the Wife misreads the main biblical idea about the marriage. Nevertheless, she might do it intentionally because, for her, marriage is the primary source of profit that would be accepted by the society. For this reason, religion becomes a cover-up for her moral impurity and unconventional behavior.
The description of the Wife’s body and appearance helps understand the character’s features more deeply. In general, her image can be characterized as voluptuous and seductive. The character stated that she frequently used her body as an “instrument” to manipulate men and achieve anything she wanted: “In wifehood I will use my instrument as freely as my Maker has it sent.” These lines can be regarded as a demonstration of the Wife’s vicious nature.
It is apparent that she likes corporal pleasures as well: “If I be niggardly, God me sorrow! My husband shall have it both evenings and mornings.” The woman often says that her numerous husbands had to “please her” and considers pleasure one of the most important aspects of marriage.
Overall, the character’s hypersexuality is supported by the image of her body, which she considers is created for satisfaction and corporal pleasures. At the same time, the author also endows her with some ugly traits, e.g., “teeth set wide apart.” Moreover, although the Wife is still energetic, she is far from being young and it seems that her behavior and views do not match with her age that well. Thus, it is possible to presume that the Wife’s appearance as such reflects her inner world to a large extent − she may seem to be visually attractive, yet there is still place for ugliness.
The representation of the Wifes image is completed by a detailed description of her clothes. It is worth noticing that during the period in which the plot is set, people usually dressed simply, but the Wife, on the contrary, prefers unusual and extravagant clothing. The Wife’s manner of dressing attracts attention as it is bright and ostentatious. For example, “her hose were of the choicest scarlet red, close gartered.” Red gloves and red stockings are the two things that apparently make people talk about her most.
Additionally, she wears this type of clothing on Sundays when people go to Church and are supposed to be especially humble. Additionally, she usually wears expensive garments. For instance, “her kerchiefs were on fines weave and ground;…they weighted full ten pounds.” It means that the Wife’s income is rather high and indicates her belonging to the privileged social class.
Overall, Chaucer created the image of a woman who wants to be noticed and show herself off. Additionally, it is possible to say that her privileged social status and unusual behaviors are emphasized by the way she dresses.
Chaucer uses color as a powerful stylistic device to attract readers attention to particular things. The red color is often utilized to describe the main character. As it was mentioned in the previous section of the paper, the character’s wears red stockings and gloves. This color is very bright, and it differentiates her from others. Additionally, since red is traditionally associated with passion, in the tale, the character’s red clothing can symbolize that she is full of desires.
In comparison to the wife, most of the women in the Medieval era used to be shy and compliant. To show this, they wore plain and simple clothes. In this context, red clothing can be considered eccentric. Based on this, it is possible to assume that Chaucer wants to show that the Wife enjoys the attention.
Name of the Character
In Chaucer’s tale, the character does not a have a personal name. She is simply called the Wife. The given stylistic device could be used by the author generalize the features of the character, i.e., he aimed to speak about the wifehood in general.
However, since it is unlikely that all women of that time demonstrated the same feelings, emotions, and desires that the Wife had, the generalized name could be used as an element of irony because, on the one hand, the character constantly pursues marriage but, on the other hand, completely misunderstands its true implications and dominant ideas regarding spousal relations of the Medieval epoch. Overall, by referring to the character as the Wife, Chaucer implicitly criticizes her behavior and uses her figure to indicate the boundaries of ethical spousal and intimate relationships.
The deviant nature of the character is reflected in her appearance, attitudes, interpretation of religious texts, and openly expressed sensuous desires. She is represented as a passionate person, whose manner of dressing along with the worldviews as such could shock the Medieval public. Thus, although she is called the Wife, her figure is rather endowed with unconventional features as she defies traditional expectations pertaining to the feminine gender role.
Overall, Chaucer does not criticize the Wife explicitly. However, he may imply that, although the old woman swaggers and preens, her very figure and behavior are ugly. In this implication, the author’s pursuit of justice and moralism can be found.
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