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Wife Of Bath: Literatures First Feminist Essay, Research Paper
9 November 1998
The Wife of Bath?s Tale: Literature?s first feminist.The Prologue to the Wife of Bath?s Tale is clearly longer than any of the other twenty-three Canterbury Tales. It is, in fact, as long as Chaucer?s General Prologue to the entire collection, in which he gives us portraits of most of the pilgrims. Some of these portraits are more detailed than others, and in links between some of the Tales Chaucer adds his initial characterizations here and there (Cigman 1). Nevertheless the Wife of Bath emerges as the pilgrim who is most thoroughly illustrated, through the autobiographical form of her Prologue , which has a directness and intimacy that make her the most rounded character by far. This paper will show that the Wife of Bath?s attitudes about women?s freedom, and relationships with men and marriage are more modern in spirit than traditional.
Chaucer?s reasons for overloading the Wife?s Prologue in this way have to be understood within the creative layout of The Canterbury Tales. This combined work is not a simple collection of stories matched up with their individual tellers, but a poem whose interests are divided between story-telling and mocking generalizations of human personalities (Winny 2). The Wife of Bath fits into Chaucer?s general ?scheme? by expressing opposing views on marriage. The Wife is placed in the midst of a group of lively characters, but is, by far, the most defined pilgrim of The Canterbury Tales. She, quite simply, portrays medieval woman at her most powerful and rudimentary (Cigman 2).
The Wife of Bath, although with an amazing marriage record, is no more than a conformist. The needs of the Wife are rather quite ordinary: she likes men, and she hates to sleep alone (Cigman 3). She is assertive and devious in satisfying these needs but, as far as we are able to tell, she seems to have remained faithful to each husband while he was alive. She flirts and enjoys an easy understanding with men but, whatever she may have done in her youth or later, she nowhere actually advocates sex outside of marriage. Her Prologue is a passionate and persuasive defense of her point of view.
Her indiscretions and character flaws do not stand for types of moral weaknesses, but as details of a complicated personality (Winny 5). She seems to have what today could be considered a severe psychological, self-realization problem. ?Like all great characters of literature, she retains something of that essential mysteriousness of the human personality that is found in a more than superficial analysis and can be reproduced in art only by a comparably intense act of imagining (Burlin 218).?
The Church was the head moral and spiritual authority in medieval England. It is therefore of extreme importance that, before the Wife launches into the drawn out account of her marriage experiences, she establishes her opposition to most of the attitudes of the Church on the subjects of sex and marriage. The first part of the Wife?s Prologue is an attack on these attitudes, it is also a defense of powerful sexual appetite. Her main course of justification is
reference to Scriptural authority. But, the Wife of Bath moves quickly from theory and influence to experience, and constantly repeats her delight in
sensuality in extremely personal terms (Cigman 4).
?And please don?t be offended at my views; They?re really only offered to amuse.?
With these words, the Wife ends her opening dialogue on marriage, chastity, and sex, and prepares to set out on the lengthy recollections which form the rest of her Prologue. She begins to offer her friends the kind of personal endeavors that, today, might be considered ?frank and fearless? things to say (Elbow 16). However, the Wife?s account of her five marriages is not intended as mere gossip or babble; it is a method of passing on what she regards as serious truths about marriage.
Most of the Wife?s Prologue is a story of her marriages, with examples from many authorities to support her conclusions and observations. One ambition that is clear in each relationship is also the dominant theme of her Tale: the desire (which she shows true of all women) for mastery over their husbands.
?I?ll have a husband yet who shall be both my debtor and my slave?
Ultimately, her Prologue and Tale are to reveal a surprisingly idealistic view of marriage. The Wife begins comparing sex to that of the world of commerce (Stone 22). A man must pay his debt to his wife; the sexual bond in marriage is an obligation involving sustained labor.
?They were scarcely able to fulfil the terms of their commitment to me–you know very well what I mean by that, by God!–Good gracious me, I
laugh now when I think how I made them toil pathetically at night!?
She announces the most intimate details of her married life with the same cheerful enthusiasm, acknowledging the sexual frustration which directed her to abuse her old and half-impotent husbands, as though it were only an amusing sideshow on feminine psychology (Elbow 36). Her point-blank references to the body and to sexual activity are part of the Wife?s refusal to be polite about the matter of which she is speaking.
The Wife?s first three husbands seem as easy instruments for her way of life, but the Wife?s fourth husband presents a more serious challenge to her moral dominance. Choosing to find his satisfaction outside marriage, perhaps with a more submissive woman, he impairs the sexual attraction which gives the Wife her supreme hold over men. Her long-held record of controlling her marriages
was slightly tainted by this venture (Cigman 12).
Her fifth marriage, the outcome of a love-match with a young man only half her age, begins with an hasty abandoning of authority and possessions to the husband; a mistake discovered only after an instance which leaves the Wife deaf
in one ear (Burlin 450). This proves to be yet another one of the lapses in judgement on the Wife?s part.
By regaining the upper hand after her last two mistakes, the Wife reinstates the principle upon which she bases her understanding of marriage. In the endless ?war of the sexes?, in the teasing games of flirtation as in the more harsh struggles of married life, the Wife has no intent of accepting the dependent position. She will only be satisfied with ?maistrie?, and the absolute surrender of her partner (Stone 36).
The Wife of Bath has been recognized as one of literature?s first feminists. Her actions and attitudes toward her husbands, and the pending laws of the church, do no more than support this recognition. She turns the tables completely around on the stereotypical marriage terms, where men are the dominant counterparts of the relationship and women seem to solely do work for them. She becomes the leading authority in the household, commanding her husband to, both, make the money, and satisfy her sexually.
To regard the Wife simply as the ?exponent? of an arch-feminist view of womanly reign in marriage is to accept a bland reading on an extremely imaginative work (Winny 16). The control which the Wife has attained is more than an ability to obtain a series of demoralized husbands, she opened a gateway for the independence and esteem of all women. The Wife of Bath truly is, and will continue without dispute, to be, literature?s first feminist.
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