Eng 150, Survey of English Lit
Professor Suzanne Johnson Flynn
Struggle For Female Equality in "The Wife of
Bath's Prologue and Tale"
* All citations from The Norton Anthology of
When Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales, the social
structure of his world was changing rapidly. Chaucer himself was
a prime example of new social mobility being granted to members of the
emerging middle class. He had opportunities to come into contact
not only with earthy characters from varied ports of call, but with the
wealthy nobility. He was also married to a knight's daughter,
someone of higher birth than himself, a clear demonstration of a more lenient
class structure (pp. 76 - 77*). As a member of this changing society,
Chaucer had a keen perception of the attitudes and philosophies which were
emerging and shaping the roles specific to people's lives. Among
these were ideas and customs which had dictated extremely subservient lives
for women. One of his characters, the Wife of Bath, contradicts many of
these oppressive customs and asserts her own overbearing assessment of
the roles of women in society and in relationships. However, while
apparently attempting to assert female dominance over men, the effect the
Wife desires is to bring men and women to a more balanced level of power.
No attempt to change the minds of others with regard
to social order could possibly be effective without a statement of the
shortcomings of the current order. This is where the Wife may often
be written off as a shrew-like bombast simply spouting her dissatisfaction.
She does, however, state several clever examples of how her society currently
treats women unfairly. She states that double standards for women
and men are too common and are deeply rooted in culture. She says
that the teachings of Christ tell her, "That by the same ensample taughte
he me / That I ne sholde wedded be but ones" (p. 117, ll. 12-13).
She knows though that many holy men have had more than one wife and states:
I woot wel Abraham was an holy man,
And Jacob eek, as fer as evere I can,
And eech of hem hadde wives mo than two,
And many another holy man also. (p. 118, ll. 61-64)
In this manner, the wife addresses and dispels the justification for
looking down on women who have been married more than once. She shows
that they are comparable in morals to men who have also had more than one
Women are also subject to what would now be termed
Catch 22s in their relationships with men. These inescapable paradoxes
from which men are exempt are also part of what the wife believes is keeping
women subservient. As part of her invective against one of her husbands,
the wife explains how women are often put in no-win situations. She
says, "And if that she be fair, thou verray knave, / Thou saist that every
holour wol hire have" (p. 122, ll. 259-60). She then shows
how women are stigmatized even if they are ugly, because then they become
the ones with voracious sexual appetites:
And if that she be foul, thou saist that se
Coviteth every man she may see;
For as a spaniel she wol on him lepe,
Til that she finde som man hire to chepe. (p. 173, ll. 271-74)
No matter what the woman’s characteristics, men employ a double standard
that prevents her from realizing virtue.
"Of five housbondes scoleying am I," (p.118,
l. 51) the wife explains in order to show the experience from which she
makes her bid for change in relationships between men and women.
She also states that three of them were old and rich and two young and
wild. The older ones, she says, were good because she could bring
them under her control through her tirades against the ways women are treated.
Further, once they had passed on, she was left with enough property and
wealth to ensure that she was comfortable. But she does not achieve
her goal until later when she actually fights with her fifth husband and,
by requiring him to admit her dominance, brings them to an even level in
The wife explains that the fifth husband was particularly
cruel in his assessment of wives. He also asserted his dominance
over the wife by showing off his education in a particularly nasty manner.
He reads to her from a book of wicked wives. The fight that eventually
brings them together is begun when, out of pure frustration and anger,
the wife rips three pages out of his book. The quarrel turns physical
but leads to the husband's realization that he must yield to her.
Once this occurs, though, he and the wife enter into a new level in their
relationship where they respect and are kind to each other:
After that day we hadde nevere debat.
God help me so, I was to him as kinde
As any wif from Denmark unto Inde,
And also trewe and so was he to me. (p. 135, ll. 828-31)
The wife then achieves what she wanted through all her shrewish behavior:
the realization of a relationship in which the partners mutually respect
each other and share the power.
The realism of the wife's life with five husbands,
the cruelty, and the eventual understanding she reaches with number
five are all mirrored in the witty tale she tells. She begins by
showing how, even under the rule of King Arthur and his chivalrous knights,
women are at the mercy of men by having the knight rape a young maid.
Immediately, though she begins to weave in her philosophy by showing that
the queen could get the king to leave the knight's life in her hands.
Further, the task given the knight by the queen, to find out "What thing
it is that women most desiren" (p. 136, l. 911), is important because
in reality very little attention is paid to what women want. This
places the focus of the story on women's need's rather than men's.
The relationship that develops between the knight
and the hag also illustrates the wife's intention of showing that submission
to the desires and needs of women does not result in the male being dominated.
Actually, the end result is again two people who are happy and secure in
their love for one another and respectful of each other's power.
The knight concedes in the end that he is not able to choose between having
her ugly and trustworthy or beautiful and lecherous. He finally gives
her the power to decide for the two of them what would be the best:
"My lady and my love, and wif so dere,
I putte me in youre wise governaunce:
Cheseth yourself which may be most plisaunce
And most honor to you and me also." (p. 143, ll. 1236-39)
In conceding this point of choice and giving the woman power, the wife
shows how the knight gains both choices and both become happy together:
"For by my trouthe, I wol be to you bothe--
This is to sayn, ye bothe fair and good . . ." (p.143, ll. 1246-47)
And she obeyed him in every thing
That might do him pleasance or liking
And thus they live unto hir lives ende
In parfit joye. (p. 144, ll.1261-64)
The end result for both the wife and the characters
in her tale is that they become happy. Of course, that is what anyone
trying to extoll a new way of thinking would say. However, this disproves
the idea that the character of the wife is merely a lascivious old woman
who cannot hold her tongue. To be sure, her intention lies buried
beneath a mound of sarcasm and purposefully derogatory invective.
The purpose in this facade may be to disguise the point of equality in
relationships or to show that the wife believes that the only way for the
happy medium to be achieved is to have the pendulum swing the other way
for a while.
However, she only believes this to be necessary temporarily.
After the men in her accounts have succumbed to the powers of the women,
the power-pendulum comes to a rest in the middle. The wife explains
that she and her husband no longer fought and that they lived in peace
until he passed on. The knight, by letting down his guard to the
hag, also gains wedded bliss. Of course the wife has to explain the
circumstances which make the world unfair for women. This makes her
case for equality even more convincing to anyone who appreciates fairness.
Nevertheless, the ultimate goal for her is not merely to engage in man
bashing. Therefore, writing off the wife as merely bombastic, lewd
and domineering is only skimming the surface of her obviously deeper mental
waters. Underneath the rhetoric and clever reasoning is a more sensitive
person who understands the value of balancing the power in relationships.
6th ed. v1. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993.
Jonathan Blake. All Rights Reserved. |
Published by Luminarium Through Express Written Permission of the Author.
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This page was created by Anniina Jokinen on November 6, 1998. Last updated September 5, 2009.
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