The character Wife of Bath of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is one of the most memorable characters in the story for her “modern” critical thinking of patriarchal society (Grappe 1). She has often been considered a true feminist figure because of her thoughts and actions both in the Prologue and in her tale, causing controversy over the exact meaning and value of the character as an idea of anti-patriarchal system. However, most scholars question her character as a feminist due to a lack of consistency between her speech and her actions in the poem (Hansen 1). On one hand, part of the individuals who read the story believes that the Wife sof Bath is the true personalization of feminism by being shameless about her sexual and marriage experience, controlling her husband, and challenging the men’s right to control their wives. Although, on the other hand, it is argued that Chaucer was only confirming with his audience that women are inferior than men.
Both David Reid and Elaine Tuttle Hansen argues that Chaucer is not representing a woman who wants equal rights between the husband and wife, but instead, is a satire of how a female character should not behave (Hensen 399). It is important to cite that the story was written in a time that men viewed women as the lesser of the two sexes. It is explained that at that time, the medieval stereotype of females was much different from today in which adhered to the suppressive ideals of the patriarchal power (Grappe 1). When added the many inconsistencies in her actions, it is highly unlikely that Chaucer was actually a forward minded but instead was drawing an antifeminist sentiment by showing how awful a woman would be if controlling their husband. (Reid 73).
As quoted by Reid, “In common sense human terms [the Wife] is absurd and grotesque, a figment of that anti-feminist gallimaufry, the Prologue to her Tale. That many take her as a triumph of Chaucer’s mellow and humane art tells us more about the place of women in our tradition than about the words before us…It seems much more likely that they have found a way of misunderstanding Chaucer…It has made her an embarrassment, so that, fearing for Chaucer’s good name, we misunderstand her elaborately”(Reid 73), reinforce the possible misconception of Chaucer’s character Wife of Bath.
Grappe also analyzed this misunderstand, explaining that “female characters in medieval literature, which was predominantly produced by male were often molded into the stereotypical monstrous woman: “self-indulgent, lustful, treacherous, domineering, greedy, prone to sin, and, most importantly considered a danger to man’s salvation” (Grappe 2), and for that reason strongly suggests that the Wife of Bath is not a true feminism characterization.
As suggested by Grappe and Hansen, the Wife of Bath is “a feminine monstrosity who is the product of the masculine imagination against which she ineffectively and only superficially rebels” (Hansen 407) and for that reason, ironically, fits perfectly in the mold of Jankyn’s Book of Wikked Wyves, which contains a collection of antifeminist reading (Grappe 2). In addition to that, Alison demonstrate to be selfish, greedy, shameless, illogical and dangerous to men – a traditional figure of woman – when she states:
“As help me God, I laughe whan I thynke
How pitously a-nyght I made hem swynke!
And, by my fey, I tolde of it no stoor.
They had me yeven hir lond and hir tresoor;
But sith I hadde hem hoolly in myn hond,
And sith they hadde me yeven al hir lond,
What sholde I taken keep hem for to plese,
But it were for my profit and myn ese?” (Chaucer 201-214)
In the Prologue, Alison tells us a tale about the Knight who was sentenced to death because of an accusation of rape. The queen, however, saves his life and in return give him one year and one day to figured out what women want most. The heroine of the tale, an Old Hag who is able to gain mastery over her husband, give the knight the answer, however, by the ending of the tale, not only the rapist men saved his life but was rewarded the promise of an unfailingly, beautiful, obedient and faithful wife, revealing that Alison herself does not have confidence in both her and female power (Hensen 405).
Another contradiction of Alison was first demonstrated by Charles A. Owen, Jr and expanded by David Parker in which explains that the Wife of Bath’s beliefs in female independence in marriage are not followed by the heroine, Old Hag (Parker 94). Two passages of Chaucer tales support that:
“And she obeyed hym in every thyng/that myghe doon hym plesance or likyng” (Chaucer 1242-70)
And “after that day we hadden never debaat. God helpe me so, I was to hym as kynde As any wyf from Denmark unto Ynde, And also trewe, and so was he to me”. (Chaucer 822-25)
As a conclusion, the debate about the Wife of Bath either been feminism or anti-feminism is without doubt the larger among all the other characters in the poem The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, however, due to the fact that many contradictions between her theory and actions are heavily supported by the scholar’s community makes the balance lean more to the argument that Chaucer uses Alison character as a satirization and ridicule of the role of women in both marriages and society.