The Canterbury Tales – The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and TaleStruggle For Female Equality in “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale”
When Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales, the social structure of his world was changing rapidly. Chaucer himself was a prime example of new social mobility being granted to members of the emerging middle class. He had opportunities to come into contact not only with earthy characters from varied ports of call, but with the wealthy nobility. He was also married to a knight’s daughter, someone of higher birth than himself, a clear demonstration of a more lenient class structure (pp. 76 – 77*). As a member of this changing society, Chaucer had a keen perception of the attitudes and philosophies which were emerging and shaping the roles specific to people’s lives. Among these were ideas and customs which had dictated extremely subservient lives for women. One of his characters, the Wife of Bath, contradicts many of these oppressive customs and asserts her own overbearing assessment of the roles of women in society and in relationships. However, while apparently attempting to assert female dominance over men, the effect the Wife desires is to bring men and women to a more balanced level of power.
No attempt to change the minds of others with regard to social order could possibly be effective without a statement of the shortcomings of the current order. This is where the Wife may often be written off as a shrew-like bombast simply spouting her dissatisfaction. She does, however, state several clever examples of how her society currently treats women unfairly. She states that double standards for women and men are too common and are deeply rooted in culture. She says that the teachings of Christ tell her, “That by the same ensample taughte he me / That I ne sholde wedded be but ones” (p. 117, ll. 12-13). She knows though that many holy men have had more than one wife and states:
I woot wel Abraham was an holy man,
And Jacob eek, as fer as evere I can,
And eech of hem hadde wives mo than two,
And many another holy man also. (p. 118, ll. 61-64)
In this manner, the wife addresses and dispels the justification for looking down on women who have been married more than once. She shows that they are comparable in morals to men who have also had more than one spouse.
Women are also subject to what would now be termed Catch 22s in their relationships with men. These inescapable paradoxes from which men are exempt are also part of what the wife believes is keeping women subservient. As part of her invective against one of her husbands, the wife explains how women are often put in no-win situations. She says, “And if that she be fair, thou verray knave, / Thou saist that every holour wol hire have” (p. 122, ll. 259-60). She then shows how women are stigmatized even if they are ugly, because then they become the ones with voracious sexual appetites:
And if that she be foul, thou saist that se
Coviteth every man she may see;
For as a spaniel she wol on him lepe,
Til that she finde som man hire to chepe. (p. 173, ll. 271-74)
No matter what the woman’s characteristics, men employ a double standard that prevents her from realizing virtue.
“Of five housbondes scoleying am I,” (p.118, l. 51) the wife explains in order to show the experience from which she makes her bid for change in relationships between men and women. She also states that three of them were old and rich and two young and wild. The older ones, she says, were good because she could bring them under her control through her tirades against the ways women are treated. Further, once they had passed on, she was left with enough property and wealth to ensure that she was comfortable. But she does not achieve her goal until later when she actually fights with her fifth husband and, by requiring him to admit her dominance, brings them to an even level in their relationship.
The wife explains that the fifth husband was particularly cruel in his assessment of wives. He also asserted his dominance over the wife by showing off his education in a particularly nasty manner. He reads to her from a book of wicked wives. The fight that eventually brings them together is begun when, out of pure frustration and anger, the wife rips three pages out of his book. The quarrel turns physical but leads to the husband’s realization that he must yield to her. Once this occurs, though, he and the wife enter into a new level in their relationship where they respect and are kind to each other:
After that day we hadde nevere debat.
God help me so, I was to him as kinde
As any wif from Denmark unto Inde,
And also trewe and so was he to me. (p. 135, ll. 828-31)
The wife then achieves what she wanted through all her shrewish behavior: the realization of a relationship in which the partners mutually respect each other and share the power.
The realism of the wife’s life with five husbands, the cruelty, and the eventual understanding she reaches with number five are all mirrored in the witty tale she tells. She begins by showing how, even under the rule of King Arthur and his chivalrous knights, women are at the mercy of men by having the knight rape a young maid. Immediately, though she begins to weave in her philosophy by showing that the queen could get the king to leave the knight’s life in her hands. Further, the task given the knight by the queen, to find out “What thing it is that women most desiren” (p. 136, l. 911), is important because in reality very little attention is paid to what women want. This places the focus of the story on women’s need’s rather than men’s.
The relationship that develops between the knight and the hag also illustrates the wife’s intention of showing that submission to the desires and needs of women does not result in the male being dominated. Actually, the end result is again two people who are happy and secure in their love for one another and respectful of each other’s power. The knight concedes in the end that he is not able to choose between having her ugly and trustworthy or beautiful and lecherous. He finally gives her the power to decide for the two of them what would be the best:
“My lady and my love, and wif so dere,
I putte me in youre wise governaunce:
Cheseth yourself which may be most plisaunce
And most honor to you and me also.” (p. 143, ll. 1236-39)
In conceding this point of choice and giving the woman power, the wife shows how the knight gains both choices and both become happy together:
“For by my trouthe, I wol be to you bothe–
This is to sayn, ye bothe fair and good . . .” (p.143, ll. 1246-47)
And she obeyed him in every thing
That might do him pleasance or liking
And thus they live unto hir lives ende
In parfit joye. (p. 144, ll.1261-64)
The end result for both the wife and the characters in her tale is that they become happy. Of course, that is what anyone trying to extoll a new way of thinking would say. However, this disproves the idea that the character of the wife is merely a lascivious old woman who cannot hold her tongue. To be sure, her intention lies buried beneath a mound of sarcasm and purposefully derogatory invective. The purpose in this facade may be to disguise the point of equality in relationships or to show that the wife believes that the only way for the happy medium to be achieved is to have the pendulum swing the other way for a while.
However, she only believes this to be necessary temporarily. After the men in her accounts have succumbed to the powers of the women, the power-pendulum comes to a rest in the middle. The wife explains that she and her husband no longer fought and that they lived in peace until he passed on. The knight, by letting down his guard to the hag, also gains wedded bliss. Of course the wife has to explain the circumstances which make the world unfair for women. This makes her case for equality even more convincing to anyone who appreciates fairness. Nevertheless, the ultimate goal for her is not merely to engage in man bashing. Therefore, writing off the wife as merely bombastic, lewd and domineering is only skimming the surface of her obviously deeper mental waters. Underneath the rhetoric and clever reasoning is a more sensitive person who understands the value of balancing the power in relationships.