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Checking Authority: The Wife of Bath as Pawn and Player

Intro

Below is one of my first essays freshman year of college. And yet, I don’t think it was a bad one, despite being written when I was quite new to the college experience. It is about a particular character from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. She is called the Wife of Bath, AKA Dame Alice. I hope you enjoy this.

Let me know in the comments if you have been enjoying the analyses I have been publishing based on my old essays. I am definitely considering creating new analyses of a similar style for literature, or even articles of a less literary nature that have the same strong research as my college essays.

Warning! Spoilers ahead!

Analysis

Dame Alice, the coquettish and overbearing Wife of Bath, whose amorous experiences are featured in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, plays a central role in revealing the flaws of a patriarchal society. In the beginning of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale, she has been recently freed from a favored—yet restricting—marriage by the death of her fifth husband, and undertakes a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett. On her way, she merges with a group of pilgrims and accepts the offer of their gracious Host to furnish a meal upon their return if they each tell two tales for entertainment on the round trip. The Wife of Bath brings her vast well of experiences into the telling, launching into bold statements about the topics of love, marriage, and the female role that permeated medieval religious discourse. Her aggressively persuasive voice challenges notions of inferiority and servility attributed to her from birth. The narrator distances himself from any negative repercussions of her subversive view by claiming to represent her story as she has told it, which provides the author the opportunity to reveal longstanding societal issues and discrimination to the discerning public. Chaucer uses the Wife of Bath’s dual roles as pawn and player in a male-dominated society to bring attention to social injustice against women in medieval times. This is completed chiefly through Dame Alice’s usage of Scripture and experience to rail against authority, the deliberation and dismissal of misogynist thought, and the story of the rapist knight.

Dame Alice’s described experience consists primarily of her marital woes, although she also draws from her background of previous pilgrimages and her arguably broad knowledge of Scripture, literature, and intellectual controversies. The Wife of Bath views “auctoritee”, or authority, as a suppressive force representing the sum of her desires as well as a tool for the systemic oppression of women (qtd. in Kolve and Olson 123). Since any opportunity for authority or dominion has been stripped from her upon the fatal termination of her previous marriage, she must bring this power from her past.

Experience, driven by powerful emotions and desires, dominates her—and gives her strength. Throughout her first four marriages, lust and greed prevented any possibility of marital unity. The first three husbands that she appreciated before Janekin were wealthy and elderly, and their inability to limit her excursions were the primary reason for her fond memory of them. By keeping them always on the defensive and providing sexual favors when they acted in accordance with her will, she dominated the marriage. It is this history, fraught with illusive freedom and frustration, that provide the basis for her prologue and tale.

Although Dame Alice uses experience as part of her arsenal to derail authority, she takes advantage of every opportunity to claim power, as if she is plagued by her “need for others to acknowledge her presence and validate her claims to prestige and a certain kind of status” (Gottfried 205). Her prologue is filled with examples of how she manipulated her husbands and wrested control from their hands through bribery and accusations. Yet in order for her to gain status, it appears that she must take down each authority figure. Using her experience as a method to uphold her own superiority, she deliberately overturns the authority of others and establishes herself in their place.

The first opponent she undertakes is the “ordered tradition of religious and social authority” (Payne 119). Within the first section of her prologue, she denies that Jesus intended marriage to occur only once merely because he attended one wedding, and goes on to slyly wonder why the Samaritan woman’s fifth lover was not considered her husband. This has led many scholars to condemn her rebellious suggestions as denying the hierarchy established by God, though others contend that one “ought to question the assumption that Dame Alice’s anti-misogyny is heresy” (Oberembt 288). In the examples above, she resents interpretations of the Bible that restrict her and directly attacks religious authorities. At the same time, she turns the Bible to her own use by pointing out the multiple marriages of Solomon and Jacob, and maintains that God never expressly forbade or denounced marriage as unholy, and that even Paul admitted its necessity in some cases. Though the Bible praises virginity, Dame Alice explains that this cannot be the policy of all, otherwise humanity would die out. Religious interpretations of the time limit her freedom, but she proves that Scripture may also be used to affirm her own position if used in the same narrow context that her opponents utilized. Dame Alice is involved with the Church and its charitable actions, but she does not submit to the yoke of religious authority and represents the “only woman making the pilgrimage to Canterbury who is not affiliated with a religious order” (Gottfried 205).

The medieval hierarchy did not permit the ambition of women, nor encouraged them to own property or material possessions. Upon marriage, most women ceded all of their assets to their husband. They “were themselves regarded as property and formed in the face of an idealized subservience” and “the Wife’s railing against authority can thus be seen in a wider context of literary and material pressures” (Brown 383). Every aspect of society attempts to reduce the Wife of Bath into an object to be pawned off to a series of husbands, offering sexual favors in return for increased freedom. Dame Alice works within the domestic sphere designated as her place while pushing the boundaries and using her power within the home to demand more control, as is the case with her final husband, Janekin, who relinquishes her property and wealth and forms a more equal union with her. Unfortunately, her prior experience reveals the rarity of mutually affectionate and respectful relationships between men and women in a society where woman’s true thoughts and desires are suppressed.

Misogynist writers influenced society’s views toward women, drawing authority from the Church, politics, and the community. Their works were widely read and generally accepted as appropriate, though they included exceptional accounts of the wickedness of women to make broad generalizations. Jerome’s “Against Jovinian” was a major source used by Chaucer, and the Wife of Bath examines his arguments frequently in a way that reveals their flaws. Jerome also makes biblical errors, asserting that the Samaritan woman claims to have a sixth husband, which is incorrect (Smith 136). Jerome justifies his harsh remarks with the question “What else can I do, when the women of our own time attack the authority of Paul?” (qtd. in Kolve and Olson 357). Dame Alice’s example demonstrates that women, by pursuing marriage and freedom, are not refuting the authority of Paul, and goes on to use Paul’s determination on marriage to support her argument instead. (Jerome, on the other hand, seems at times to disagree with Paul’s mandates within his works.) Additionally, the Wife of Bath uses Adam and Eve as an example of a holy and perfect marriage, regarding the virginity championed by Jerome as ideal but unnecessary for salvation and happiness (Oberembt 290).

Misogynists associate masculinity with reason and femininity with sensuality (Oberembt 292). Women were expected to be mild and submissive, and were forced to conform to this ideal rather than openly express emotion. The Wife of Bath does not fit this stereotype, and is instead characterized by planetary allusions; “Venus in her lust, and Mars in her strength and fortitude” (Brown 51). Still, it is clear when she is telling her prologue and tales that she is accustomed to veiling her hopes and true desires with her armor of experience, hidden under clever arguments and suggestive tales. In order to present her thoughts, she must defend each article with care or risk being dismissed by her mostly male audience, and she is constantly aware that they expect entertainment. Any opinion of hers must be encased in a woeful recounting or a reversal of expectations within her tale.

Dame Alice figuratively defeats the misogynists by her witty repartee, but literally defeats them in her violent struggle with her fifth husband. Her shattered patience forces Janekin to see what an illusion of masculine superiority can do to marriage. His constant lament of the wickedness of women leads to the moment in which his wife is lying as if dead on the floor, struck down by his hand. The Wife of Bath loses some of her hearing in this battle, but regains dominion over her property and herself, and convinces Janekin to burn the misogynist book. The compromise of the two leads to a more perfect union, and Dame Alice reflects on this marriage as the most dear to her, despite the violence that has been done to her. This may also be seen as an example, embedded in her experience, that demonstrates to her audience the value of a marriage in which authority is shared.

After completing her prologue, the Wife of Bath tells the tale of the rapist knight, a man whose immoral actions are in direct contrast to the misogynist tales of wicked women expressed in “Against Jovinian” and Janekin’s book. This tale combines “romance and realism,” making her “perhaps the only pilgrim to be wise in both worlds” (Lenhart 234). This is in conjunction with her prologue, in which the dramatic recounting of her life brings attention to the reality of discrimination against women. When the knight is brought to court, he must stand before the judgment of the Queen, who wields all the power in this scene while the king forms a distant figurehead for the state. Much like in chess, in which the Queen is the most formidable piece on the board, the court is set up as a reversal of misogyny and the knight’s fate is at the discretion of a woman.

The knight is offered an opportunity to escape the death penalty by discovering what women most desire. This sentence works to dispel illusions, forcing him to find the truth from a woman, rather than relying on the multitudinous assumptions that would put his life at risk. When an old woman agrees to provide the answer, the knight is spared, but is forced to follow through and marry her when she asks. When the knight complains of her age, appearance, and low class, she scolds him, but offers him a choice: she can be beautiful and unfaithful, or faithful and remain the same. Unable to decide, the knight gives her what she claimed all women most desire – sovereignty. The story ends with the woman accepting authority and yet doing what she believes will give the knight the most pleasure, and the result is that they live in blissful union.

Once again, the Wife of Bath has made the case that an effective marriage is one in which the woman is regarded as equal in intelligence and wisdom, and deserving of respect. It is through experience that she claims authority, and by experience that she disarms the arguments of those in authority. Each move she chooses must be made with care, her options limited by society, but she plays this dangerous game with expertise. Chaucer, though he does “share masculine views of his age” uses the Wife of Bath as a pawn to muse on “feminine desire, feminist readings, and the reform of patriarchy” (Beidler 108). Through the Wife of Bath, he encourages his audience to give a fair hearing to a woman wearied and indignant about the injustices she has suffered, while systematically striking at the foundations of misogynist and sexist impressions.

Works Cited

  • Brown, Peter. A Companion to Chaucer. Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2000.
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales: Fifteen Tales and the General Prologue. Edited by V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson, W.W. Norton & Company, INC., 2005.
  • Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Wife of Bath. Edited by Peter G. Beidler, St. Martin’s Press, 1996.
  • Gottfried, Barbara. “Conflict and Relationship, Sovereignty and Survival: Parables of Power in the ‘Wife of Bath’s Prologue.’” The Chaucer Review, vol. 19, no. 3, 1985, pp. 202–224. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25093919.
  • Lenhart, Gary. “Chaucer, Geoffrey (ca. 1342-2000).” World Poets, edited by Ron Padgett, vol. 1, 2000, pp. 227-236. Scribner Writer Series.
  • Oberembt, Kenneth J. “Chaucer’s Anti-Misogynist Wife of Bath.” The Chaucer Review, vol. 10,
  • no. 4, 1976, pp. 287-302. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25093359.
  • Payne, Robert O. “Canterbury Tales.” Twayne Publishers, ed. 2, 1986, pp. 102-138. Twayne’s Authors Series.
  • Smith, Warren S. “The Wife of Bath Debates Jerome.” The Chaucer Review, vol. 32, no. 2, 1997, pp. 129-145. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25096004.

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