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Women In Canterbury Tales Essay, Research Paper

Oliver Thompson

English 4 with Mr. Edson

November 3, 2000

Women in the Canterbury Tales

Throughout the Canterbury Tales women are treated as objects. In the “Knight’s Tale” a beautiful maiden is sought after by two men, men willing to do whatever it takes to have her. The carpenter in the “Miller’s Tale” married a young and beautiful women, and she is pursued by two men because of her beauty. Two students exact revenge upon a miller in the “Reeve’s Tale” by sleeping with his wife and daughter, taking their revenge on the miller by violating his possessions. Finally, in the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” a knight rapes a woman, and then despises his wife because she is ugly and poor. By acting this way the knight displays ignorance in his attitude towards women, treating them as nothing more than objects. Women in the Canterbury Tales are often given a worth, defined by their looks, upbringing, and wealth. Women are not sought after for their intelligence, knowledge, ability, or wisdom. It is only in the end of the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” that Chaucer uses the knight and the old woman as an example of how men should view women, and how there is more to women than beauty and money.

The “Knight’s Tale” puts a beautiful woman on pedestal, likening her to a goddess. Two prisoners fall in love with this woman, Emily, without knowing anything about her desires, her ambitions, or her personality. The two men want her for her beauty, treating her like a sports car, or a “trophy wife.” It goes so far as there is a contest, and the winner receives Emily as the prize. “Ready by battle to decide his claim/ To Emily.” (52) The “Knights Tale” exemplifies chivalry, yet despite this women are still objectified and viewed as possessions, not human beings.

The woman in the “Miller’s Tale” is a young wife of an old carpenter. He knows he is not what a young wife desires, but that did not stop him from marrying her. A student wants to sleep with her, he is after sex and this young woman complies with him, offering little resistance. In the following quote the wife of the carpenter agrees to love Nicholas after a single conversation with him. “Unless I have my will of you/ I’ll die a secret love?/In the end she promised him she would/ Swearing she’d love him.”(91) The woman is merely the desired object in this story; she serves no purpose but to inspire the men to humiliate themselves and others.

In the previous tale, the miller tells a story about a carpenter being tricked by a student. Now, the reeve tells his tale about a miller being tricked by students, and not only do they sleep with his wife but his daughter as well. This tale focuses more upon the miller and the students, Alan and John, showing how the miller cheats the people when he grinds their grain, and how the students are determined to stop the miller from stealing their flour. The two students fail to stop the miller from stealing their ground corn flour, but when they stay overnight at the miller’s house, they decide to exact revenge. The miller and his wife go to bed drunk, and Alan justifies taking advantage of Simpkin’s daughter in the following quote.

The law grants easement when things gan amiss

For, John, there is a law that gans like this:

“If in one point a person be aggrieved,

Then in another he shall be relieved.” (115)

The two students use sex with the miller’s daughter and wife to “ease” the humiliation of being tricked by the miller. The students sleep with both women, and by violating the miller’s wife and daughter they are devaluing them, and in turn hurting the miller because of his association with them as the husband and father. The women are not seen as having minds of their own, which dehumanizes them in the eyes of the reader.

A knight rapes a woman, and the king decrees that the knight is to be executed. The queen begs for his life and gives him a condition, that unless he can discover what a woman truly wants in a year and a day, he will be decapitated. The “Wife of Bath’s Tale” shows a knight deeply mired in the belief that woman are only worth something when beautiful and rich. “You’re so old, and abominably plain, / So poor to start with, so low-bred to follow; / It’s little wonder if I twist and wallow!” (289) The knight looks at his new bride, and all he cares to see is her age, poverty, and low social status. She refutes him, stating that gentlemen and gentility are not exclusive to the upper class, that a good man is a good man no matter his position in life. A fire burns bright both in the middle of a forest where no one can see, and in a fireplace in a house where many people can enjoy it. So too are gentlemen and kind people, just because gentlemen are not seen in the public eye does not mean they are not gentlemen. The old woman denounces the knight’s prejudice against poverty by stating that Christ chose a life of poverty, and preached against materialism. Last of all, the woman addresses her age, telling the knight that a true gentleman respects age and the wisdom that comes with the passing of many years. The knight realizes that her words are the truth, and accepts her for who she is.

The Canterbury Tales portrays women as objects rather than human beings. In all four tales women did not hold jobs, were not educated or upstanding members of society, and did not appear to have minds of their own. The women acquiesced to the will of the men in the stories, their thoughts and views deemed unimportant by the men in society. It is not until the “Wife of Bath’s Tale” that we see a man recognizing the importance of an intelligent wife.


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