Women in Canterbury Tales

In the religion Christianity, the original story of sin is used to explain the struggles of women and why they are inferior to men. Eve was made from Adam, the idea of women being made from a man showed a weakness in women; thus women were inferior to their male counterparts. This important text plays great significance to the characters who tell the collection of stories that compose the Canterbury Tales, most of the pilgrims were familiar with the Bible and believed that the Bible’s word was law. For that reason, the popular belief of the time was that women were inferior to men. Female characters in the Canterbury Tales challenged this viewpoint and show that women were also capable of making their own choices. As the pilgrims have issues of where women belong, their view of Eve in the story of original sin is altered as well. From mild indifference to personal involvement, each pilgrim has a different attachment to the story of the women Eve, and their views on women in society are reflected in their connection to the story.

The Monk recites a tale of Adam and his fall from God’s grace in his series of tragedies, but Eve is noticeably absent compared to the references to her in the other tales. The monk describes Adam’s removal from the garden as “As Adam, til he for misgovernance/ Was driven out of his high prosperity/ To labour, and to helle, and to meschaunce” (2012-2014). The Monk easily could have made Eve the reason for the original sin, but instead, he tells the tale with Adam as the subject of the tragedy. In doing so, the Monk is either making arguing that it was only when Adam ate the fruit that created the original sin and that the actions of Eve were inconsequential, or that too much blame is placed on womankind in the story of the Garden of Eden.

The Monk could easily be read as an anti-feminist viewpoint in the tales. The Monk continues on with more tragedies that feature women who instigated the defeat of their significant other. As Angela Jane Weisl notes in “‘Quitting’ Eve: Violence Against Women in the Canterbury Tales,” women were doomed to repeat “Eve’s walk down the path to hell, usually bringing men with them in the process,” (115). Yet, the Monk chose not to include Eve in his telling of the Garden of Eden.

Eve’s non appearance could possibly imply that the Monk does not completely blame her for the original sin. Most of the pilgrims in his company would consider Eve to be the main cause of the problem, but the Monk fails to read further into it. From his proception the Monk believes that Eve was created from Adam, and therefore, the traits that she has are from him. “If Eve is made ‘lyk to himself,’ of Adam’s ‘bely-naked’ flesh, why is she instinctively deceitful, untrustworthy, and carnal?” (35) asks Elaine Tuttle Hansen referring to the Merchant’s Tale in her book Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender, and the Monk asks the same question. Eve is made up from the same matter as Adam, so Adam possesses the same characteristics that encouraged Eve to take a bite from the fruit. Because he focuses the blame of the sin on Adam as opposed to Eve, the Monk represents himself as a character who believes that too much blame is placed on women.

The Wife of Bathe approves of women doing their husbands “no pleasaunce” (Chaucer 408) in order to get what they want, and tells a tale about how what women really want is sovereignty. Caroline Dinshaw plainly states: “she represents independent feminine will and desire” (114). Unlike some of the other pilgrims, the Wife of Bath clearly believes that women are capable of making their own decisions and are able to be trusted. If she were to tell her own version of the original sin, she would undoubtedly make it seem that Eve made the correct decision in eating the forbidden fruit. In her eyes, Eve deserved the knowledge that she gained in eating the forbidden fruit. However, the version of the story that is told in the prologue to the Wife of Bath’s tale is not her own, but rather her ex-husband Jankyn.

Jankyn does not share his wife’s beliefs about women’s sovereignty. In fact, he takes joy in reading to the Wife of Bath from his ‘book of wikked wyves.’ The first wife that he teaches her about is the first woman. He tells her that “for [Eve’s] wickedness/was all mankind brought to wretchedness” (Chaucer 714-715). He even declares that “That woman was the loss of all mankind” (Chaucer 720). Jankyn continues on with multiple stories of wives and how they brought pain and suffering to those around them, and eventually the Wife retaliates. She rips a few pages out of her husband’s precious book, and Jankyn beats her so brutally that she becomes deaf in one ear.

As the Wife fights against the restraints that her society places on women, she brags about her traits that give her power in her relationship. “She boasts, for instance, of her traditionally feminine powers to lie and deceive and manipulate men” (Hansen 32), and these characteristics are not characteristics that are typically considered to be admirable. In fact, Chaucer describes the Wife as the complete opposite of the patient Griselda and reasonable Dorigen–those women in the tales who are generally considered to be ‘good.’ In making these traits the key to her power, the Wife emphasizes the evil that many men see in women. She makes “that woman was the los to all mankind” (Chaucer 720) a more accurate description. The Wife of Bath’s interaction with the story of Eve reveals her to be a woman who desires to be free from the prejudice of men, but who is continually oppressed by men and falls into the trap of becoming the woman who all men fear.

The pilgrims never come to a consensus on where women belong in society. They all come from varied backgrounds with different experiences that have shaped their personal opinions on the topic. The Monk has never had to deal with the issue in his isolated life, while the Wife of Bath deals with the consequences of Eve’s reputation every day. The tale each character tells and their portraits give brief insight on what each character has lived through, but each pilgrim grapples with the issue in a way as different as his or her personality. No one has experienced the same things, so nobody reads the same story exactly the same. Therefore, the pilgrim’s interpretations of Eve vary. Eve’s story may be written very simply in the Bible, but the way that the pilgrims interact with scripture make the straightforward account take on more diverse interpretations.