Written by Ng E-Ching, 2A01B, 5 August 1996.
Consider the view that the Wife of Bath's Prologue could be read as merely an attack on women and married life.
As the Wife of Bath's Prologue is spoken by a woman of exceeding experience with husbands, with strong opinions on how married life should be conducted, but is written by a man it is natural to examine the purpose with which Chaucer wrote it. This is especially so as many of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales condemn themselves out of their own mouths, such as the Monk and the Friar. While the Wife spends most of the Prologue arguing in favour of the deceit and deviousness that wise wives will execute, the argument is often illogical and can approach ridiculousness in its vehemence. Are we to agree with the views that the Wife of Bath puts forward so strongly, or does Chaucer present her as a caricature of every negative quality women are traditionally guilty of? [Excellent intro.]
A great deal of the Wife's Prologue is spent in her narration of the tirades that she subjected her first three husbands to, largely a list of accusations made by anti-feminists of women, and the Wife's spirited responses. The Wife's replies defend women's behaviour -- if a husband has enough sex from his wife, she says, he should not care "How mirily that othere folks fare". She attacks scholars who accuse women of all manner of vileness by asking "Who peynted the leon, tel me who?" and that because scholars (Mercurie) and women (Venus) are diametrically opposed, "Therfore no womman of no clerk is preysed." However, while it is clear that the Wife is on the side of fellow females, in a logical sense the Wife's arguments are not particularly effective against the anti-feminists' view that women are as vain as cats, as sex-crazed as spaniels, and as destructive as "wilde fyr". She advances her argument by means of pouring scorn on her husbands and cursing them. While "old lecchour" and "with sorwe!" may defeat her husbands' supposed wrath, it cannot be said that the Wife herself logically defeats the attacks made by anti-feminists on women and married life.
Indeed, the Wife's speech and behaviour, as well as her account of her history, appear to support the accusations of lechery and destructiveness made by anti-feminists. It appears that Chaucer is being ironic, in having the Wife defend herself against accusations which her speech and [good] behaviour prove. Other pilgrims do this too, especially the Monk and Friar. The Wife tells the pilgrims that she has always followed her appetite, ignoring whether a man is "black or white", and that she walks from house to house and entertainment (during Lent!) in order to seek her "grace", or next husband/sexual adventure -- proof of her appetite, at a time when ideally women left the initiative to men. She has outlived four [5?] husbands, possibly having a hand in their deaths by forcing them into over-exertion in bed, and certainly creating as stressful a situation as possible for them, clear indication of her destructiveness. The Wife is vain in her appearance, enjoying bright colours like red in her stockings, and pesters her husbands for "thrifty clooth" in order to embarrass them by attracting other men.
Worst of all, the Wife is an incredibly forceful character, while the concept of the ideal woman was that she should be as submissive as Katharine in The Taming of the Shrew eventually becomes. [good] She defeats three of her much older husbands in argument, starting according to her at age twelve; she forces them into giving her money, lands, power, and probably clothes, before allowing them access to her body. With all this, she suffers absolutely no pangs from conscience -- indeed, she conceives of no right or wrong except what suits wise wives, and glories in her selfish acts: "I laughe whan I thinke / How piteously a-night I made them swinke!" The Wife is sex-crazed, unscrupulous and destructive -- all of men's worst suspicions of women united in one character. It seems to follow that Chaucer's aim in presenting a character with such negative qualities that she approaches caricature, is to show how dangerous such women can be, and to warn men against marrying; among the pilgrims, the Pardoner takes this warning before our eyes.
However, the vitality and forcefulness of the Wife forces us to avoid coming to so neat a conclusion. Dame Alison is frightening and dangerous, true. By the moral codes of society, she has sinned by committing adultery, and strictly speaking, should not have married so many times. However, the language that Chaucer has her speak is not that of right and wrong, it is that of total amorality and self-service. The Wife does not pretend to better behaviour, nor does she accuse anyone else of sinning, and so we cannot accuse her of hypocrisy. In contrast, the Monk and Friar [good] are clearly the targets of irony, as they do not seem to be aware of the contradictions in their arguments. The Wife's contradictions are so staggering and frequent: confusing bigamy with remarriage, using God's commandment to "go forth and multiply" although she is childless, and especially, her frank admission that in previous showdowns with her old husbands, "al was false" that she accused them of. She is not a hypocrite; on the contrary, she glories in her irrationality and manipulation of her material. It is difficult, therefore, to see her as being attacked through irony, as the Monk and Friar are.
The Wife's view of married life as a continual battle for "maistrie" may not be right, but it does mean that we judge her not on whether her actions were wrong, but whether they were effective. The vitality which she brings ["]onstage["]: the spontaneous laughter ("I laughe whan I thinke"), the direct addresses ("lordinges, by your leve, that am nat I"), and the confidentiality of the narrative, all force us to become involved with her conflict, if not sympathetic. Chaucer's presentation of the Wife is not an effort to make us judge the degree of her sin. It is not moralistic: it is simply a presentation of an interesting character and her exciting escapades. With her forceful domestic idiom and colourful language, the Wife forces us to become involved in the fight for mastery between her and her husbands, even if we do not fully agree with her. Her prowling of the streets is understandable when we hear her description of her husbands as "bacon", or old meat -- her destruction of Jankyn's book is justified by her lengthy descriptions of Jankyn's book, as well as the briefer moments of his attempts to discipline her. While the Wife's character may invite attack from anti-feminists, the tone of Chaucer's narrative does not invite moralizing.
Clearly, Chaucer does want us to think about the Wife of Bath as an intriguing character. Her forcefulness is unusual, as are her non-ideal feminine qualities of lechery and unscrupulousness; that is why Chaucer writes about her. By allowing both her and Jankyn bliss when he finally surrenders power to his wife, Chaucer does not appear to disapprove of this state of affairs on principle. The Wife of Bath is, however, a psychological study of a powerful, sexual woman and a speculation on what such a woman's life might be like. It is clearly one that intrigued Chaucer, as can be seen from the length of the prologue, which dwarfs all the others by comparison. Chaucer's aim in writing this prologue appears to have been the presentation of a character so strong, she approached a force of nature, rather than an attack on women and their conduct in married life.
A. Coherently argued, aptly illustrated. Much less comprehensive essays will receive the same A grade.
Attack on Women & Married Life (Siew Lian's),
Anticlimax of the Tale
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