As humans, we often like to dichotomize things. It’s much more orderly that way. It’s part of our human nature to see things as simply right or wrong, black or white, or hot or cold. We often forget that there is more, more complexity. We overlook the fact that things can be neutral, gray, or even warm. (Elodie). Likewise, for centuries, many scholars have many scholars, for centuries, have been looking at the simplistic nature of the “Wife of Bath’s Tale.” They have been claiming that the Wife of Bath’s Tale, by Geoffrey Chaucer, is a work of feminist literature, and that she, herself, is a feminist character.
I too originally believed this; however, after deep analysis into the text, this is certainly not the case. The Wife of Bath, Alisoun, for the longest time, has been considered one of Chaucer’s most memorable characters for her openness and her modern stance on the woman’s role in society. For this, along with her belief in female sovereignty over their male counterparts, she has been considered a feminist character. However, it is nearly impossible to overlook the inconsistencies found throughout the text where the Wife of Bath’s words do not match up with the way she behaves. Chaucer portrays the Wife of Bath in a way that she verbally suppresses the common beliefs and roles of the time, but instead, through her actions, portrays a misogynistic figure, and therefore, is not a feminist character.
When directed to the actual tale itself, we see, in the beginning, that there were a group of beautiful, young fairies. They were considered the independents, the ones separated by the man. However, this sense of being self-dependent is quickly demolished when“The Elf-Queen and her courtiers joined and broke/ Their elfin dance on many a green mead,/Or so was the opinion once, I read,/Hundreds of years ago, in days of yore./But no one now sees fairies any more./For now the saintly charity and prayer/Of holy friars seem to have purged the air” (Chaucer 31-36). In other words, these fairies, who were thought to be individualistic, suddenly disappeared, presenting the notion that this represents the women of medieval society. As literary critic Warren Edminster had once stated, “The loss of fairy magic parallels and is symbolic of the loss of feminine expression and independence.” Chaucer may have been trying to show that those self-reliant type of women didn’t exist at the time, so the Wife of Bath’s tale was not women empowering, but indeed the opposite.
Furthermore, this concept is later elaborated when we are introduced to the scenario of the young maiden who was raped by the knight and then immediately removed from the story. A true feminist, or work of feminist literature, would want the female character to reappear as a sign of strength and tenacity; on the contrary, she disappears, and the knight is seen as the hero. Even then, his “punishment” is very debatable, as he later escapes it, and is rewarded with a young, beautiful wife. The idea that the knight receives the happy ending and the maiden isn’t even mentioned once again shows the embodiment of anti-feminism.
The Wife of Bath’s actions essentially condones and accepts the behavior of violence towards women, although she claims otherwise. This entire situation can be related to the private life of the author Geoffrey Chaucer. In 1380, this famous poet was charged with rape by Cecily Champagne, even though he was cleared of the charges, a shadow over his life and relationship with women was being greatly showcased (Sauer).
To further elaborate, I believe that Chaucer created the tale and plot line in this manner as a way of symbolizing himself through the character of the knight. His life experiences are directly connected in the exact same way, whereby he did not get severely punished, and neither did the knight, when both performed the same, wretched deed. His purpose of doing this may have been to open society’s eyes and make them realize that there is nothing wrong nor unconventional with this, as he went through it which once again shows the anti feminist demeanor.
As mentioned before, it is the common belief of many critics and scholars that the Wife of Bath is a feminist character and that Chaucer’s writing is a work of feminist literature. They may say this on the basis of her being a strong and courageous woman. One who is shameless regarding her story, and is rebellious in the male-dominated society. They may even argue that throughout the story, she makes the assertion that in marriage, there should be equality: where women should have “self-sovereignty” in comparison to their husbands. Within her marriages, the Wife of Bath even describes how she was also able to have some control, even though men were supposed to be dominant, using her… wit. However, this is ironically faulty as she gains control and power over men through her sexual attributes.
For instance, her first three husbands were old and wealthy, and she even admitted that she would tease them in bed until they would pay her. With the fifth husband, she genuinely fell in love with, but was treated wickedly in return. The Wife of Bath even said that she loved her fifth husband Jankyn the best, as he was the worst to her. A direct example of this is apparent when she states, “I trowe I loved hym best, for that he/ Was of his love daungerous to me” (Rossignol). This is where I recognized that the Wife calls for female empowerment in theory, but she does not believe in or dictate this in practice. It is later revealed that the fifth husband taunted her by reading the “Book of Wikked Wyves” which contains stories and collections regarding anti-feminist tracts and traits of evil women. Alisoun disregarded these claims and stereotypes with the justification that they were not created by women; rather, misogynistic men (Adolphus).
Absurdly, Alisoun fits this label perfectly. In the entire tale, we see that her main power is her sexuality over men, and even that is fading. Alisoun is shameless about her sexual exploits and portrays a negative, almost monstrous, demonstration of women. A truly subversive feminist would prove herself in a way independent from men. Instead, Alisoun uses the men for her monetary, and other benefits, making it seem as if she is unable to rely on her own intelligence, effort, and self-sufficiency to provide for herself.
All of these illustrations clearly demonstrate the Wife of Bath, both consciously and unconsciously, encouraged and exemplified the misogynistic role of women that she is attempting to fight against. The Wife of Bath simply advocates and shows that she needs the male to survive and that she supports the corrupt nature and practices that were taking place in medieval societies. This is where many people and scholars do not see the complexity.
Throughout “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” Alisoun promulgates the stereotypical male-dominated society when her goal is to censure it. Chaucer’s intent may have been to create a feminist character; however, his writing reflects otherwise. Instead, he created a monstrous woman. A self-indulgent, lustful, and greedy character who was too foolish to realize that she exemplified everything that she verbally expressed she was against. This is exactly where I believe that many people often overlook that there is more to the norm, more than what they may originally think. Just as many things in our life are not merely right or wrong, black or white, or hot or cold, the Wife of Bath is not merely a feminist character, but instead, a self-contradicting, anti-feminist character.
- Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.” Collections 12. Translated by Nevill Coghill, HMH Publishing, 2015. 77-88.
- Edminster, Warren. “Fairies and Feminism: Recurrent Patterns in Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath’s
- Tale’ and Brontë’s Jane Eyre.” Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte, Updated Edition, Chelsea House, 2006. Bloom’s Literature, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=101204&itemid=WE54&articleId=46605. Accessed 16 Nov. 2018.
- Elodie. “Is the Wife of Bath Feminist?” Spark Notes. 1 Dec. 2016, http://community.sparknotes.com/2016/12/01/is-the-wife-of-bath-feminist. Accessed 19 Dec. 2018.
- Rossignol, Rosalyn. “Wife of Bath’s Prologue’ Critical Companion to Chaucer, Facts On File,
- 2006. Bloom’s Literature,
- online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=101204&itemid=WE54&articleId=16342. Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.
- Sauer, Michelle M. “How to Write about Geoffrey Chaucer.” Bloom’s How to Write about Geoffrey Chaucer, Chelsea House, 2017. Bloom’s Literature, online.infobase.com/Auth/Index?aid=101204&itemid=WE54&articleId=45631. Accessed 15 Nov. 2018.
- Ward, Adolphus William. “Characteristics of Chaucer and His Poetry.” Geoffrey Chaucer,
- Chelsea House, 2007. Bloom’s Literature,
- Accessed 18 Nov. 2018.