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Critical Approaches Paper: The Wife of Bath Essay

Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) was an English author, poet, philosopher, courtier as well as a diplomat. Sometimes referred to as the father of English literature, the man is most famous for The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s major works also include the translation of Roman de la Rose; The Book of the Duchess; The House of Fame; Anelida and Arcite; The Parliament of Fowls; the translation of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy as Boece; Troilus and Criseyde; The Legend of Good Women; and the Treatise on the Astrolabe (Geoffrey Chaucer, 2007).

Being a well-rounded intellectual, Chaucer was aware of the gender stereotypes permeating his medieval society. As a matter of fact, men of the Middle Ages deeming marriage “a full great sacrament” took most seriously the woman’s promise “to honor and obey. ” The slightest breach of this vow of obedience was hailed as a crying offense to both God and man. The principal vice of the medieval times was pride. Disobedience was but an offshoot of this self same vice. And so, obedience was due not only unto God and one’s parents, but, as the old phrase went, “to husbands and other benefactors and sovereigns.

” Women were known to be subjected to men, and there was not as much thought poured over women’s equal right to manage affairs. Thus, we find in medieval literature instances such as the ones briefly touched on by Frederick Tupper (1968) in Types of Society in Medieval Literature: An old Parisian benedict of the fourteenth century, playing mentor to his young bride offsets Petrarch’s story of the obedient Griselda with the example of a wife rightly burned for the disobedience into which she was led by her pride – quite as

CRITICAL APPROACHES PAPER: THE WIFE OF BATH Page # 2 grievous an offense this, so he tells us many times, as the fault of Eve or of Lucifer. It was during this period that Chaucer chose to represent his woman in literature – the Wife of Bath – as an extraordinary lady who believed in subjecting her men to her desires. The lady is open to express her views about a different role that women can play despite the essential gender stereotypes of medieval society.

The Wife of Bath has control of her husbands’ property, presumably acquired through successive marriage settlements. She therefore has no need to make efforts to please her mates, if such efforts would have given her greater authority over her men in terms of wealth or pleasure. According to her Prologue, her first three husbands had “bad luck in bed,” for which they are chided by her. The woman would demand payment in bed, in return for which she would make payment (sexually) of the marriage debt she owed them (Nelson, 2002).

Knowing that all medieval women do not behave like her when it comes to controlling their husbands’ property or getting money out of them, the Wife of Bath is asking young girls to back out of marriage altogether. Why please a man when it is more fruitful over all to please and serve God? – is her final argument on the question of marriage. The Wife of Bath says that three of her husbands were good, and two were bad. The first three were rich, old, and submissive, although she tormented them with accusations that were total lies – she confesses to the rest of the pilgrims.

She accused her husband of having an affair, for example, and then launched into a tirade in which she charged him with a bewildering array of accusations. If one of her husbands got drunk, the Wife of Bath claimed that every wife was out to destroy her husband in particular. She also made her husband feel guilty this way, and so CRITICAL APPROACHES PAPER: THE WIFE OF BATH Page # 3 he gave her what she wanted. The Wife of Bath admits that she deliberately caused her husbands grief.

She teased them in bed by refusing to give them full satisfaction until they had promised her money. She says that she made them work at night, in fact, to pay her marriage “dette. ” What is more, the woman admits proudly that she used her verbal and sexual power to bring her husbands to total submission. In point of fact, the Wife of Bath uses the same tactic, i. e. , verbal power to bring the young knight to total submission in her Tale. She confesses in her Prologue that she failed to follow the marriage rule of “biheste is dette.

” But when the young knight in her Tale is sentenced to death by King Arthur’s court for raping a defenseless young woman, his only chance to escape the penalty of execution is to find the answer to the question, ‘What do women want most? ’ The young man’s search for the answer is fruitless until he meets an old woman who promises to give him the answer if he would promise her, in return, to grant the request she makes of him. The rapist promises to keep his word, and after he has supplied Arthur’s queen with the answer that can save his life, the old woman asks him to marry her.

In this case, as in the personal story of the Wife of Bath, the woman is subjecting the man unto herself by asking him to make a promise for something in return (Nelson). The Wife of Bath is knowledgeable enough to admit that more than a few Fathers of the Church, including the Apostle Paul, had proclaimed the importance of virginity. But if virginity was so critical, there would be someone still to produce virgins! Thus, she would leave virginity to the perfect, and allow herself instead to use her gifts as best as she could. Besides her use of intellect in marital affairs, undoubtedly the gift that she refers to is sexual power.

She uses this power not only to enjoy her life to the full, but as an instrument to manipulate her men as well. CRITICAL APPROACHES PAPER: THE WIFE OF BATH Page # 4 Patricia Clare Ingham (2002) calls the Wife of Bath one of the most ingenious readers in the history of literature, and sees the aggressive “re-reading of scripture” on the part of the Wife of Bath as a means of displaying and resisting the medieval anti-feminist tradition or misogyny.

The Wife of Bath frequently misquotes the scriptures. Scholars believe that these “misreadings” of texts were a mark of political and cultural acuity on the part of the Wife of Bath, as these bad readings give us a clearer picture of the culture of the time and the medieval gender relations (Schibanoff, 1986). The Wife of Bath’s re-readings of scripture have additionally been referred to as a “utopian group fantasy,” whereby the women would direct themselves against the anti-feminist tradition of the time, which was actually a social institution that was neither necessary nor the only face of truth of the Middle Ages.

This idea of “group” or sorority was, in fact, explored by Brian W. Gastle, who wrote that although it is difficult to prove that women had gathered forces to beat the odds, there may have been a sorority of this kind that functioned outside the boundaries set by the established guilds to which working women also belonged. The Wife of Bath, as we know, is into the cloth making business (Ingham). The lady blasts clerkly writers for their biased perspectives, and in so doing, activates the literary tradition for an entirely new set of social uses, such as understanding the importance of women.

Her assessment of the politics of writing is interlinked with her representation of the politics of reading. She desires the production of an entirely different kind of literature, the kind that the feminist classroom would read. Her Tale is included in this category, of course, and it is revolutionary. Still, critics worry that the Wife of Bath may be strangely affirming masculine desire through her Tale. As Lynne Dickson (1993) puts it, the Tale may really “reward the CRITICAL APPROACHES PAPER: THE WIFE OF BATH Page # 5

concession of masculine ‘maistrie’ with the very thing patriarchy wants to begin with. ” The Tale is, after all, about a rapist knight who can turn magically into a dutiful husband; and about an aged lady who becomes a sweet young thing yet again; apart from an old middle-class woman, “comen of so lough a kynde,” who gains status and rule from her aristocrat husband. Most scholars have interpreted the Wife of Bath’s interest in sovereignty of wife over husband as an expression of her dissatisfaction over the rule of her nation.

Sovereignty extends beyond the confines of the bourgeois household in this case, given that the Irish were concerned about sovereignty over a nation at the same time as Chaucer and his contemporaries were writing about sovereignty over a husband (Eisner, 1957). Indeed, there do appear to be political questions posed in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, especially when the recalcitrant knight objects to his marriage to the old lady, saying, “Alas, that any of my nacion/ sholde evere so foule disparaged be!

” The old lady wonders aloud if the knight’s rejection comes through his subjection to the laws of the court: “Is this the lawe of Arthures hous? ” she asks; “Is every knight of his so dangerous? ” Only a lady of charisma, of great political insight coupled with leadership qualities, could have addressed intricacies of the political life of the nation at the time of the Wife of Bath when gender stereotypes were comprehensively controlled by the authorities, including the Church.

The woman seems to know how to tackle legal terminology to boot (Ingham). She truly is remarkable for the Middle Ages, and deserves a continual round of applause from everyone today. CRITICAL APPROACHES PAPER: THE WIFE OF BATH Page # 6 References 1. Dickson, Lynne. (1993). “Deflection in the Mirror: Feminine Discourse in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale. ” SAC, 15, 1993, p. 61-90. 2. Eisner, Sigmund.

(1957). A Tale of Wonder: A Source Study of the Wife of Bath’s Tale New York: Burt Franklin. 3. Geoffrey Chaucer. (2007). Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki/Geoffrey_Chaucer. (24 February 2007). 4. Ingham, Patricia Clare. (2002). Pastoral Histories: Utopia, Conquest, and the Wife of Bath’s Tale. Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 44, Issue 1. 5. Nelson, Marie. (2002). Biheste Is Dette: Marriage Promises in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 38, Issue 2, 2002, p.

167. 6. Schibanoff, Susan. (1986). “Taking the Gold out of Egypt: The Art of Reading as a Woman” In Gender and Reading: Essays on Readers, Texts and Contexts (Ed. Elizabeth Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweickart). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. CRITICAL APPROACHES PAPER: THE WIFE OF BATH Page # 7 7. Tupper, Frederick. (1968). Types of Society in Medieval Literature New York: Biblo and Tannen.


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