When focusing explicitly on the topic of a woman’s seemingly ever-evolving status, one would constantly perceive it to be a working progress of the woman and the rise of her independence. So, why when analysing both, ‘The Wife of Bath’ and ‘Death of a Salesman’ do these roles of the most prominent women seem to be in reverse? The history of a woman’s autonomy branches outwards from the past, therefore enforcing the idea of a woman, living in an earlier period, to exist under high demands of fulfilling the traditional expressive position.
Yet with regards to Chaucer’s tale, why is it that Alisoun is able to possess characteristics that are both a controversy for the 14th century during in which it was written, and to a certain extent, this era momentarily? On the other hand, the 1950s ‘Death of a Salesman’ harbours a heroine who remains true to her decade’s basic notion on how both a woman and a wife should persist to be, consequently presenting Linda Loman as a stock character.
With a distance of 6 centuries, is there an abstruse intention to why both the female protagonists are depicted in an unusual fashion, and totally out of the ordinary when its context is taken into account, or, is this simply the writers’ approach to manifest some sort of a response, whether it be mere shock, indulgent laughter, or utter appreciation? The titles alone contain an instantaneous conception on how both women are portrayed concurrently. ‘The Wife of Bath’ obtains an immediate link to Alisoun, unlike ‘Death of a Salesman’ which simply refers to Willy Loman and includes no innuendo of his wife Linda.
Alisoun’s ownership of the tale is reinforced by the noun ‘Wife’ as a direct association to her, suggesting that she is the focal point of the tale. But is she? The prologue is definitely in her possession with her martial history being the key plot; however the tale on the other hand clearly centres the knight as the protagonist, consequently endorsing the audience to make an initial judgment on Alisoun’s character as one which is strong enough to acquire her own title.
Maybe Chaucer’s main purpose was to make his eponymous hero a female to either stagger the audience by the pragmatical meaning of this whereby such power and eminence is handed to a female character, or to purely ridicule a woman with any supremacy, and in effect, is symbolic since it contains the intention of formulating humour for an audience existing in a 14th century world. With this reasoning in mind, the common use of the noun ‘Wife’ would then become a more abstract version of this since, in essence, this is merely an idea of her control and alliance to the city.
Perhaps the title ‘The Wife of Bath’ can be decoded then as a euphemism that solely associates with Alisoun’s, ‘Housbandes at chirche dore I have had five-‘ This has been translated as a misrepresentation of her being promiscuous which uses hyperbole to reinforce the concept and also assists in the beginning of a caricature adaptation of a woman who is unlike most others. On the contrary, since ‘Death of a Salesman’ purely refers to Willy, this would consequently support how dominating the male gender had been in the early 50s.
In relation to Linda however, the absence of any insinuation of her in the title holds a vital insight of how she is portrayed through the play itself. This maintains the persistent imagery of Linda conserving her private role as a housewife, and to an extent, Willy’s constant positive conscience, Willy – ‘I suddenly couldn’t drive anymore. ’ Linda – ‘Maybe it was the steering wheel again. ’
The adverb ‘Maybe’ certainly exhibits some indecision with Linda’s response indicating that even though she may not entirely know what Willy requires, she knows it is necessary for her to provide a reasonable answer that will help ease the blame off Willy, facilitating the assumption of Linda’s loyalty to her husband, even during the worst of times. Arthur Miller’s intention of having no connotation to Linda in the title could be indeed for the purpose of supporting the idea of her selflessness compared to Willy’s egotistical behaviour.
This theory of Linda’s ignored compassion is also demonstrated when Willy commits suicide. ‘I can’t understand it. ’ This simple sentence is most commonly used with the verb ‘do not/don’t’, but, semantically, Miller permits Linda to unusually phrase this with the modal auxiliary verb and the nagator ‘can’t’ to express her rejection towards comprehending his refusal of living life fully. Perhaps the importance of this approach was to portray just how vulnerable and helpless not just Linda, but the rest of the female population was in the 50s.
As if to say it had nothing to do with the capacity of the female brain but the knowledge of where that woman should remain to be. The title is therefore a description of Linda’s personality and depicts just how much Linda is taken for granted. In the earliest stage directions of ‘Death of a Salesman’, the lexis used to describe Linda Loman all relate to the semantic field of household items and the act of obeying a person: ‘stirred’ ‘iron repression’ ‘admires’ ‘listening’ Semantically, theses lexicons relate to the play itself.
The stative adverb ‘admire’ implies Linda may not feel worthy of Willy therefore she can only have a high regard for him and not the ability to put herself in his position. According to this then, Linda could be summarized as a character that has a low opinion of herself. The comparison to household items proves to be crucial since it could be categorized as an exposition, introducing the audience to Linda’s most prominent characteristic. A more modern audience, and in particular contemporary women, would argue that this was very demeaning since it implies this was all they are known for.
Throughout the description of the Wife from the General prologue, the audience obtains a direct inkling of her character. ‘Housbandes at chirche dore she hadde five’ This sentence delivers an eye opener as to what Alisoun’s social status is. Since only the elite managed to marry inside of a church, this would then imply that from the age of 12, Alisoun has supposedly not ascended the ladder of social mobility. The syntax of this however creates some hesitancy to admit the true number of her failed marriages. Given that she leaves the actual amount ‘five’ till last reinforces the idea of her true emotions towards them.
The similarity between Linda and Alisoun then would be that aside from the fact that one woman has had considerably more partners than the other: Alisoun is still in search of love, remaining to be ever willing to find her true match. This is further proven with the syntax from the quotation. As ‘Housbandes’ is the first word in the sentence, it indicates she finds pleasure in having a husband because of the urgency to articulate the concrete noun ‘Housbandes’, despite the fact that they were all failures. Linda’s crime is that she loves her only husband far too much.
It is evident that in spite of her devotion to Willy, he still ignores her and takes her for granted, Linda- ‘Take an aspirin. Should I get you an aspirin? It’ll soothe you. ’ Willy- ‘I was driving along, you understand? ’ Here it is visible that Willy does overlook his wife completely by his sudden change in topicality and the flouting of the Grice’s maxim of relevance. Perhaps this is due to the way he perceives Linda, and the minimal respect he has for her. This is further evident with his tag question, ‘you understand? Unlike Robin Lakoff’s female language theory, this does not abide by her rules. In her opinion these tag questions imply a need for some support rather than a critical remark. However it is obvious that Willy does not require any backing since he is the most dominant speaker. The pragmatics of this statement show how much of a low disregard he has on Linda’s capability of understanding such a simple concept as driving, consequently suggesting he does, in actual fact, take his loving wife for granted. Miller’s intentions here differ depending on the gender perspective.
Since this is one of many occurrences where Willy insults Linda’s intelligence, this provides evidence of her complete devotion to her husband. Perhaps this mirrors the reality of the 1950s’ female audience therefore Miller’s motive in creating such a character was simply to please the existing female population at that time and nothing more. From a male point of view following the same thesis of art imitating life, Willy’s ability to have both control and authority over Linda would have also been Miller’s method in satisfying the male audience.
Linda’s speech also indicates some reluctance of being abrupt towards her husband. ‘Take an aspirin. Should I get you an aspirin? ’ This reads to be an almost repaired statement, strengthening the notion of her delicacy when interacting with her husband. Depending on the stage direction as to how this is supposed to be acted out, another contention could be that Linda’s true being slipped out for a moment. The unusual abruptness of the first sentence followed by the modal verb ‘Should’ may imply how Linda must always remain to be conscious of the words she speaks even if she truthfully isn’t like that.
This could possibly have been Miller’s subtle approach in exposing just how human a woman truly is. Linda’s character is one that appears to be careful in every action she undertakes, Alisoun on the other hand gives the impression of being self-sufficient in her decisions. ‘What that he mente therby, I kan nat seyn; But that I axe, why the fifthe man Was non housbonde to the Samaritan? How manye mighte she have in marriage? Yet herde I nevere tellen in myn age Upon this nombre diffinicioun. ’ In a Russian Formalist literary opinion, her attitude here in this verse would suggest she is blasphemous and very defensive of her deeds.
By allowing an illiterate female commoner challenge basic Christian belief, Chaucer invites an astonishing controversial angle on reality. An audiences’ reaction to this from the 14th century would be of great annoyance towards Alisoun since she occupies no immense background to express such a powerful opinion. According to the first line ‘What that he mente therby, I kan nat seyn’ this also suggests that her judgment is based on a more personal outlook rather than facts. From my own 21st century perspective following the same Russian Formalist fundamentals, this verse stands to be an opinion and nothing more.
Alisoun’s analysis may not have changed but the reaction from the audience would have instead. In actual fact, her intrusive manner would have been one that would have been valued despite of her gender. Regardless of the fact that both texts are fictional, their mediums exhibit various conclusions: since ‘The Wife of Bath’ is classed as poetry there are some limitations as to what could have been written. It would appear that Chaucer’s main objective was to entertain the listener rather than being factual. This is evident due to the consistent structure of rhyming couplets and alliteration. Somme seyde women loven best richesse, Somme seyde honour, somme seyde jolinesse,’ There is a distinctive pattern here which works throughout the rest of the tale. Seeing as though there are no breaks or clear stanzas in the poem, the use of parallelism suggests that a list is about to form without abiding by the usual formation of a list. The rhyming, alliteration and sibilance ‘Somme seyde’ ‘richnesse’ ‘jolinesse’, adds emphasis on the ideas explored throughout the tale in a way which amuses an audiences of any age.
Death of a Salesman’ has none of these restrictions, whereby no rules or patterns are needed to be followed. Miller is able to write as he wishes, therefore could it be said that this enables him to write according to the truth? As an audience we are only ever permitted to listen and believe the character’s opinions. This limits exactly how much we should class as valid and thus acts as a confinement of plays in general. The importance of this does not only rest on how valid these texts are historically. In context to the essay question, the mediums affect the way the theme of power is portrayed.
With the aid of humour, Chaucer is able to manipulate how the audience perceives the unusual occurrence of a woman who owns such authority. This comedy enables the audience to interpret the dubious topics mentioned in the prologue half -heartedly therefore suggesting that the text can’t completely be taken seriously. Conversely ‘Death of a Salesman’ does not include many entertaining scenes to conceal the control Willy has over Linda and consequently Miller sanctions the audience into producing their own take on the subjects referred to all through the play.
Sometimes a woman’s basic actions can be justified by her experiences. Alisoun has the ability to convey such intense concepts because of her endless incidents in the past. Her character’s reputation appears to be licentious which consequently enables an audience to reign in on their annoyance of her. Chaucer has portrayed Alisoun in a way which can only be described as caricature. What should be taken into consideration is that perhaps Chaucer’s overall intention when creating such an exaggerated character like the wife was to humour the audience with the ridicule of a woman with such freedom.
Or perhaps it was to produce a character like no other that owns the ability to question the acts of society and their standard beliefs. Out of the entire ‘Canterbury Tales’ there are only two women who possess the ability to tell their story: the Prioress and the Wife. Since the Prioress already maintains the basics of a 14th century woman graciously, Alisoun is possibly Chaucer’s technique in inventing a woman who stands for everything the ordinary woman of that time would not and as a result, portrays life on each end of the pole for all types of audiences to experience.
Linda’s character owns a front which, even after the analysis, maintains the idea of an obedient wife. However, the initial idea of her abiding by this characteristic has evidently changed. Yes, she still sticks by with her husband, even after affairs and a lack of care and attention, but is she not a stronger woman in spite of all this? Alisoun has the ability to end her marriage as soon as it goes wrong as if to say she is still searching for her ‘ideal man’ and so self-sufficient that she refuses to lead a miserable life, yet Linda remains to be as courteous as ever even after the marital problems.
For a 1950s audience, Miller birthed a female icon, a woman who exists in a realist play regarding the common aspiration of the attempts at conquering the ‘American Dream’. All in all, the roles which appeared to be in reverse now seem to walk side by side along the path of independence. Six centuries apart, diverse situations at hand but both individualistically vigorous women ready to undertake what life has planned for the both of them.
Courtney from Study Moose
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