The Wife of Bath is one of only two female characters who actually tell tales in Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. As such, she's worth taking a look at. (Or at least I thought so when I wrote this essay for my class on Major English Poets.) A brief summary of her character: she's a working woman from Bath who's been married five times. A very dominant, manipulative, and all-around strong woman, she outlived her first four husbands and she never mentions what happened to the last one (the only one she loved, and incidentally the only one who was "in control" of her: he beat her). The prologue to her tale is the longest of any in the Tales, and in it she defends the fact that she married more than once, a practice which was frowned upon, especially for women. Sorry, this essay is rather long. Without further ado:
Gender identity in "The Wife of Bath's Prologue"
Th’Apostel, whan he speketh of maydenhede,
He seyd that precept thereof hadde he noon.
Men may conseille a womman to been oon,
But conseilling is no comandement:
He putte it in our owene jugement.
For hadde God comanded maydenhede,
Thanne hadde he dampned wedding with the dede.
From The Canterbury Tales
, “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” lines 64-70
The title “the Wife of Bath” in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales denotes a certain superficiality of character, implying that, while other characters in the tales are identified by their trades or stations in life, her sole distinguishing characteristic is the fact that she is, or was, married. Chaucer gives her descriptions that do little to negate this perceived superficiality; in both the General Prologue and the prologue to the Wife’s tale, her role as a married woman is continuously emphasized. For instance, the fact that she has had five “housbondes at chirche-dore” (“General Prologue,” line 460, and “Wife’s Prologue,” line 5) is mentioned twice, and almost the entirety of her unprecedented 856-line prologue is centered on the story of her five marriages. It seems that Chaucer would have the reader believe that the Wife is a flat character; that her title is the only characterization necessary. However, Chaucer refutes this idea with a brilliant example of indirect characterization in “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue.” He develops her character in great depth, examining her perception of herself in her role as a wife, and in turn her perception of the role of women in general, by having her present a Biblical argument in favor of marriage. Specifically, the way in which the Wife argues poses a challenge to the traditional idea of male domination within the religious structure, and this challenge becomes an affront to gender roles in a broader sense as well.
The first thing the Wife says in her prologue is “Experience, though noon auctoritee/Were in this world, is right y-nough for me…” (1-2). This indicates her preference for real-world experience and her scorn for the authority of historical texts, which seems to contradict the fact that she uses them liberally in her lecture on the merits of marriage. However, in presenting her argument, the Wife of Bath does not merely cite Biblical passages: she contemplates and analyzes them, often coming to startling conclusions that demonstrate her lack of blind reverence for “auctoritee.” When speaking of Jesus’ condemnation of the Samaritan woman’s multiple marriages, for example, the Wife readily states that she doesn’t think the story makes any sense, and then goes on to form a rebuttal of Jesus’ position using other Biblical allusions; “God bad us for to wexe and multiplye,” (28). Later, she also refutes the Apostle Paul’s counsel about virginity, pointing out that he actually had no divine directive and was merely offering a suggestion which she is free to ignore. In these two instances, the Wife is questioning some of the most powerful men in the Bible, thereby casting doubt on the authority of the Bible itself, a document which most medieval people regarded as holy, infallible, and divinely inspired. Because of this, her argument has a lot of shock value: it is unlikely that her listeners would expect that anyone, especially not a woman, would dare question the authority of the Bible. Choosing to attack such an authoritative text makes clearer her intention to undermine masculine authority; a motive that would perhaps otherwise be obscured by her pro-marriage argument, the more obvious pretext of her lecture.
The way in which the Wife constructs her arguments further indicates that she is presenting an affront to masculine authority. Most of her arguments are structured as questions and answers. The questions are rhetorical, meant to introduce the issue at hand, but they are delivered in a demanding tone that not-so-subtly displays the Wife’s view on the issue. For example, she demands of her listeners, “Wher can ye seye, in any manere age,/That hye God defended mariage,/By expres word? I pray you, telleth me.” (59-61). In this particular question, the otherwise unnecessary phrases “in any manere age,” “by expres word,” and “I pray you, telleth me,” act as intensifiers, amplifying the force of her question and evoking the sense that the Wife is daring her audience to disagree with her. This is a verbal challenge which she herself then goes on to meet, by first asserting that there is no instance in which God forbids marriage and then by proving it, taking a Biblical example (Paul’s counsel on virginity) and essentially turning it on itself by pointing out its flaws (the lack of divine directive). She is placing herself on the offensive, attacking the Bible more than she is defending herself.
Chaucer turns the Wife’s attack on male Biblical figures into an attack on gender roles by applying it to the Wife’s own convoluted sense of gender and sexuality. She continually compares herself to male Biblical figures: while defending her practice of marrying a succession of men, she argues that King Solomon had several hundred wives, and then jokes that she wishes she could be “refresshed” half as often as he must have been; later, she cites that both Abraham and Jacob, two Old Testament heroes, had multiple wives. This continual comparison of herself to masculine figures clearly demonstrates that the Wife, whether knowingly or not, is not conforming to traditional gender roles. In using the actions of men to justify her own actions, she seems almost unaware of any difference between the rights of the sexes; a difference which certainly existed in medieval as well as Biblical times. In addition, her outward expression of her sexual appetite, evinced by her desire for the kind of sexual gratification Solomon had at his disposal, is in blatant opposition to expected norms of the time period. While women were viewed as the evil, promiscuous sex in the Middle Ages, they were also expected to be outwardly mild and at least somewhat demure; for example, Alisoun of “The Miller’s Tale” at least makes an attempt to stave off the advances of Nicolas. The Wife, on the other hand, is almost exuberant about her sexuality.
To further complicate the Wife’s perception of gender, she seems to identify with females as a group in spite of her somewhat masculine mentality. For example, the lines, “But conseilling is no comandement;/He putte it in our owene jugement,” which refer to the Wife’s belief that the decision to marry or remain a virgin should be in women’s control, are a strong indication of her identification with other women; specifically, the words “our owene” imply that she sees herself as part of that distinct group (67-68). The Wife’s convoluted sense of gender and sexuality can be read as an attack on gender roles because, while the Wife’s rambling lecture may leave her readers feeling dazed and confused, Chaucer makes it clear that the Wife is happy; she may have defied the norm, but she got sex, she got money, and eventually she got love, and now she’s ready to give it another go. In this respect, the Wife is a very powerful character. The overall tone of her prologue is positive; she comes across as a character satisfied with her life, and, whether she intends it to be or not, Chaucer certainly makes this into an argument in favor of her atypical lifestyle.
Chaucer the author’s own feelings about the Wife’s affront to gender roles are unclear at best, but the important point is that he chose to represent her character in that manner at all. Most of the other women in the Canterbury Tales are fabrications of the minds of the (predominantly male) travelers. As one of the only “real” women in the story, the Wife’s characterization as an independent iconoclast is quite significant; whether Chaucer agreed that women should be as powerful as the Wife or not, he chose to show that real women of the Middle Ages were not necessarily confined to the stereotypical roles indicated by their titles or stations in life.
Note: Dunno if I need to cite this, but the only referenced I used was the Norton Critical Edition of the Tales: The Canterbury Tales: Nine Tales and the General Prologue, copyright 1989 by W. W. Norton & Co., edited by V. A. Kolve. (sorry, I don't remember how to cite things properly...)