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The Prologue Of The Wife Of Baths English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3665 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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However, on deeper reflection, and after several readings, of her contribution on female attitudes to marriage as an expert on the subject (having been married several times); it is obvious that rather than glorify her as an early day feminist, it is more appropriate to classify her as deviant to classicism, which was the prevailing authority of her day and age. One can safely state as the thesis of this essay that Alison, the wife of Bath, did not appear to represent feminism both in her manner and her utterances on the subject of female and male equality. Modern day feminists, are generally well educated, and present their arguments for social and professional equality between female and male members of the same society. A true feminist will not tolerate the abuses from her husband, which Alison the wife of Bath tolerated from the men she married.

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Scholars of Mediaeval literature, particularly those who have carried out in depth studies of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury tales, have expressed varying opinions on the success of the overall contribution of Alison, the wife of Bath. Some authorities are of the view that her mostly male companions viewed Alison, as a veritable authority on the attitudes of women of her time, and others viewed Allison as Feminist Failure a medieval authority on the subject, April Joyner posits that:

“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue presents a perspective on “auctoritee,” or authority, that challenges that offered by the other, mostly male pilgrims’ tales” (Joyner, AYJW). However, she quickly made it clear that there is disputation between experts on the works of Geoffrey Chaucer as to whether Alison, the wife of Bath, succeeded in her efforts through her tale, or merely acted as a visible interpreter of the views of the generality of women of her period. For as Joyner put it in her aforementioned article: “embodying an antithetical persona to the anti-feminist doctrines widely espoused in Chaucer’s era and thus in challenging the anti-feminism of the other pilgrims… because the Wife of Bath acts as interpreter to texts of her era, just as Chaucer often modified preexisting tales to incorporate into his own work”(Joyner, AYJW).

Hence we can safely conclude that in consonance with our thesis, Alison, the wife of Bath, was merely interpreting the desire of Medieval women to improve their social status to the men of their day and hopefully attain social parity with them in the same. In this regard, it appears that these Medieval women, as represented by Alison, the wife of Bath, would settle for a freedom to pick and choose who they would marry without let or hindrance, and as frequently as they please. This desire to have the freedom to marry multiple times had been actuated by Alison, the wife of Bath, according to her tale. However, modern day feminists would rather view Alison, the wife of Bath’s approach to feminine freedom as being abnormal. Her actions of jumping from one husband to another, is to say the least, a far cry from what modern day women liberation movements stand for. Modern feminism is summarized in the following definition in the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia: “Feminism: Social movement that seeks equal rights for women. Widespread concern for women’s rights dates from the Enlightenment.”(Britannica Concise Encyclopedia)

One might be tempted to see the wife of Bath as a feminist. However, since Chaucer’s ‘wife of Bath tale’ is dated, so to speak, one can surmise that the feminist opinions expressed by Alison, the wife of Bath are merely a parody of what men of the Medieval period see as the shortcomings of the female struggle for equality with men. An authority on the subject characterized Alison, the Wife of Bath as followed:

“Though the Wife of Bath seems to see herself as a feminist, it is quite unlikely that any man of the time period saw her in the same light; rather she seems to illustrate all of the wrongs that men found in women. She is a perfect example of a “failed feminist,” a weak parody of what men see feminists as” (Joyner, AYJW). Modern day feminists tend to focus their attention on correcting the anomalies within the society which still tend to make women less equal than men.

The following are a short list of such anomalies:

“*Females (half the population) still do not have equal access to society’s resources.

** Women need an identity that is not dependent (or compared to) the identity of men.

*** Women need their own sphere so that they have the freedom to develop a sense of self-worth and utilize strengths/abilities which are undervalued or looked down upon by patriarchal society.” (Political Dictionary, 2003)

When critically examined in the light of the above shortlist of the social deprivations suffered by women, one comes to the inevitable conclusion that Alison, the wife of Bath might be highlighting some of these social inequalities suffered by women of her time and age. Alison sets out to denounce authority, in this case Clericalism, as being inferior to experience. Therefore she highlights her marital experiences as having provided her with a better insight to marital problems between men and women, that all the authority wielded by Clericalism and the Church in affair of marriage between men and women. According to Joyner:

The opening of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue, in fact, marks the whole as a discourse on authority and experience; in essence, who wields the power and responsibility of interpretation. Much analysis of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue has divided this analysis along gender lines: male reading versus female reading of texts. Indeed, the issue of male versus female interpretations rests at the core of Carolyn Dinshaw’s analysis of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue in her book Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics”. (Joyner, AYJW)

Having settled the issue of authority versus experience in favor of experience, Alison, the wife of Bath then went ahead in the Prologue, to quote passages from the Bible and gave her own interpretations to them, which would appear to suit her purposes, in highlighting the disparity in the society’s treatment of issues involved in marriage between men and women. For example Alison, the wife of Bath questions the societal definition of one man, one wife, by citing from the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the water well in Samaria as a result:

“15 Beside a well, Jesus, God and man,

16 Spoke in reproof of the Samaritan:

17 `Thou hast had five husbands,’ he said,

18 `And that same man that now has thee

19 Is not thy husband,’ thus he said certainly.

20 What he meant by this, I can not say;

21 But I ask, why the fifth man

22 Was no husband to the Samaritan?

23 How many might she have in marriage?

24 I never yet heard tell in my lifetime

25 A definition of this number.” (Harvard Edu. Interlinear Translation, pp 15-25)

After paraphrasing the admonition which Jesus gave to the Samaritan woman on her promiscuity in having married as many as five husbands, Alison the wife of Bath goes on question Jesus’ authority, and by extension the Church’s in stating by fiat, that the Samaritan woman’s fifth husband was not her husband, like the previous four. Alison, The Wife of Bath uses Biblical passages such as the one above, to support her primary notion that successive marriages are permissible. The example of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the water well is a clear example of Alison’s challenge to Clericalism’s authority in questions of marriage. At the beginning of the Prologue, she had made it clear that she was ready to challenge authority and substitute experience as the more tenable alternative to issues of marriage.

However, it is noted that the wife of Bath apart from showing some personal shortcomings of her own also exhibited a failure and unsteadiness in her tale. It is illustrated that;

“… But let us drop all this, and think only of mirth and jollity. Madam Partlet, so happy am I when I look upon the beauty of your face-you have so fine a scarlet round your eyes, that it banishes all my fear; for truly may we say, ‘ In principio mulier est hominis confusio,’ (Madam, the meaning of this Latin is, ‘ Woman is man’s joy and delight,) for when I feel by night your soft side, as we are seated upon our narrow perch, I am so full of comfort and happiness, that I defy all dreams and augury..” (Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, pp264)

as a result, we see that although the beginning of her tale promised us a lively discussion of romance and female liberation, her arguments on her many romantic forays was intermixed with cutting remarks bordering on sarcasm. She does not lead us to a clear understanding to her position of women liberation from the shackles of a male dominated medieval society.

In her contribution to the discourse on the proper classification of Alison, the wife of Bath in the women liberation debate, Shannon Elizabeth Harden asks a rather rhetorical question: Is Chaucer’s Wife of Bath a Feminist or a Failure? Although our thesis statement appears to draw the conclusion that Alison, Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, was no feminist, it can be admitted that some of her views and comments on the marriage institution may well portray her as a feminist. Shannon Elizabeth Harden states firmly in her essay that Alison’s views are rather inconsistent.

The Wife of Bath is a complex character-she isn’t what she seems to be, and maybe not even what she herself thinks she is. On the surface, it seems as though she is a feminist, defending the rights and power of women over men in both her prologue and tale. But when looked at from the point of view of a man of the time, her entire image seems to shift. Though the Wife of Bath seems to see herself as a feminist, it is quite unlikely that any man of the time period saw her in the same light; rather she seems to illustrate all of the wrongs that men found in women. She is a perfect example of a “failed feminist,” a weak parody of what men see feminists as. (Harden, 2007: pp18).

We gain the most knowledge about Alison, the wife of Bath from the Prologue, to her tale. Our knowledge of Alison is first hand, she tells us her own history and beliefs as regards to marriage from her own experience. Having stated firmly that experience is the best authority on such issues as marriage between men and women, there is consequently no better way to know a person than have them tell us their life history in their own words. However, we distinguish certain inconsistencies in Alison’s views.

From her choice of words and manner during her story telling, Alison the wife of Bath attempts to make us believe that she is a feminist and as well as a strong, powerful, independent woman, particularly from her narration of her experiences with her husbands; some of whom were abusive to her, and how she stood up to them.

“… The ancient term ” gentle” was used only to imply high breeding. A gentle knight was a knight of high family. In some parts of England, to this day, the best white bread is called “gentle bread,” to distinguish it from the brown or common. The rode forth alone, carrying the whole on his horse before him. In the grove and at the time and place appointed they met. The colour fled from their faces at the first exchange of looks: like a Thracian hunter, who stands in a gap with his spear, waiting for the roused bear or lion, and hears him coming through the Underwood, crushing boughs and leaves in his passage, and thinks, ” here comes my mortal enemy, whom without fail I must kill, or he will take my life:” so it was with these from the moment either caught sight of the other. No salutation, no compliment, passed at meeting, but each helped to arm his antagonist as friendly as be would his own brother; and then, with their sharp strong spears they long lashed and strove for victory..” (Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, pp101)

Alison seems to believe that the experiences she gained from her five marriages have conferred on her the label of an expert and her views on such matters should be considered as those of an expert. Alison, the Wife of Bath boasts about how she stood up to her husband’s drinking, probably seeing herself as being the woman who is brave enough and strong enough to stand up to her man.

44 Of five husbands’ schooling am I.]

45 Welcome the sixth, whenever he shall appear.

46 For truly, I will not keep myself chaste in everything.

47 When my husband is gone from the world,

48 Some Christian man shall wed me straightway,

49 For then the apostle says that I am free

50 To wed, by God’s side (I swear), wherever it pleases me.

51 He says that to be wedded is no sin;

52 It is better to be wedded than to burn.

53 What do I care, though folk speak evil

54 Of cursed Lamech and his bigamy?

55 I know well Abraham was a holy man,

56 And Jacob also, insofar as I know;

57 And each of them had more than two wives,

58 And many another holy man also.

59 Where can you find, in any historical period,

60 That high God forbad marriage

61 By express word? I pray you, tell me.

62 Or where commanded he virginity? (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue Harvard Edu. Interlinear Translation, pp44-62)

As stated earlier, both her male companions and her contemporaries, appear to agree with her view that she is something of an expert on interaction between men and women in the marriage institution. Alison would like her male companions on the pilgrimage to grant her recognition as the kind of woman who will not allow such things as the society standards of her time to hinder her set purpose of getting what she wanted, particularly in her desire to have as men as she felt entitled to as husbands.

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Rather than see Alison as the epitome of women’s liberation, as she sought to portray herself, these men would merely classify Alison as a bragging and promiscuous vixen. Alison’s critical tales of her five husbands and the venom with which she told those tales would have convinced these men that their age long views of women as the degraded, scandalous creatures they’ve been trying to convince the world they are since the days of Adam and Eve; are perfectly justified. So, in this context, rather than advance the course of feminism, The Wife of Bath, had vicariously though maybe unintentionally set the hands of the clock back on the progress of women liberation.

The men in her company would then consider her many marriages as illustrations of lack of morals by the average woman of their day. In an age when morality was highly valued, men would consider the trait exhibited by Alison, the wife of Bath as one that makes them supposedly inferior to their men. Alison’s carefree attitude and rather misplaced quote of God’s injunction humankind to reproduce at will, would further justify men who consider women as nothing more than a baby factory.

27 But well I know, expressly, without lie,

28 God commanded us to grow fruitful and multiply;

29 That gentle text I can well understand. (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue Harvard Edu. Interlinear Translation, pp27-28)

Alison’s views in this context goes to show her as holding a somewhat antifeminist belief. Moreover, in her own confession, her real motives for marrying so often, was her acquisitive nature and desire to dominate her men. The following passage illustrate the less than altruistic nature of Alison, the wife of Bath:

195 I shall speak the truth; those husbands that I had,

196 Three of them were good, and two were bad.

197 The three were good men, and rich, and old;

198 Hardly might they the statute hold (pay the debt)

199 In which they were bound unto me.

200 You know well what I mean of this, by God!

201 So help me God, I laugh when I think

202 How pitifully at night I made them work!

203 And, by my faith, I set no store by it.

204 They had given me their land and their treasure;

205 I needed not work hard any longer

206 To win their love, or do them reverence.

207 They loved me so well, by God above,

208 That I reckoned little of their love!

209 A wise woman will be constantly busy

210 To get their love, yes, when she has none.

211 But since I had them wholly in my hand,

212 And since they had me given all their land,

213 Why should I take care to please them,

214 Unless it were for my profit and my pleasure?

215 I set them so to work, by my faith,

216 That many a night they sang `Woe is me!’

217 The bacon was not fetched for them, I believe,

218 That some men have in Essex at Dunmowe.

219 I governed them so well, according to my law,

220 That each of them was very blissful and eager

221 To bring me gay things from the fair.

222 They were very glad when I spoke to them pleasantly,

223 For, God knows it, I cruelly scolded them. (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue Harvard Edu. Interlinear Translation, pp195-223)

From this point rather than view the wife of bath as a feminist one would rather classify her as a shrew, and a nagging and overbearing vixen; all of the things men seem to find fault with in their wives. In summary therefore, our thesis that Alison, the wife of Bath was not a feminist in the true sense of the word, but rather a calculating vixen with rather loose morals, who masqueraded as a feminist, which of course she was not.

It is noteworthy however, that the author of Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer, merely used the case of the Wife of Bath tale to expound on his own views of marriage and perhaps to take a crack at the clergy; which in Medieval Europe was the sole authority on such matters as the institution of marriage between men and women. Hence it would appear the Chaucer handed Alison, the wife of Bath a difficult subject which properly belonged to the sphere of ecclesiastical scholars. Alison quoted authorities, too, like a clerk would. The Clerk took umbrage with The Wife of Bath on this issue. Such things, he says, are best left to ecclesiastics, as illustrated in this passage:

“… This beautiful lady bore in her right hand a wand, about which were twined two serpents crowned with an olive garland. It was like the famous rod that Mercury bears when he goes forth with some charge from the Gods. In her other hand she held a fair cup filled to the brim with nepenthe. Nepenthe is a celestial cordial, ordained by the Gods to assuage all grief of the heart; to chase away bitter contention, and anguish from rage and strife…”.’ (Chaucer, Canterbury Tales, pp224)

Hence we presume from the above, that Chaucer did not set out to make the wife of bath appear as a feminist as such. His purpose appears to be to interpose his views on the subject of marriage on his dramatis personae in the Canterbury Tales. Alison, the wife of Bath has expounded the views credited to her by Chaucer, with all at great length and with all conceivable gusto. On the subject of virginity, for example, which the Mediaeval Church glorified, in her opinion is not required of women. Female bodies are created by God and given to women given us to use as they pleased. Those people, who consider themselves saintly, are welcome to be celibate if they choose. Alison, the wife of bath made it abundantly clear that she had no intention to imitate the saints or join their company. She was content to lead her life as she pleased, without necessarily subscribing to or accepting the ecclesiastical authority on such a subject as the free or restricted use of a woman’s body in marriage. Moreover, she disagreed with the ecclesiastical doctrine, operative at the time that a widow or a widower must not marry again. She asked the question in her speech: Where is bigamy or even octogamy forbidden in the Bible? Having experience both sides of the divide, in marriage, Alison jubilates in her reminiscences of her sensual pleasures.

Alison, the wife of Bath’s attitude appears on the whole to be scornful, of ecclesiastical authority on the issue of marriage although she exhibited quite a bit of good-humor in her repudiation of what the Mediaeval Church taught in that respect. In addition to her repudiation of the Medieval societal and ecclesiastical mores on the marriage institution, Alison, the wife of Bath, committed what would amount to heresy, when she maintained her position that wives should be overlords to their husbands. To prove he point she applied this doctrine by giving an account of her own life, and further illustrated this view with a tale of the knight of King Arthur who learned that

Wommen desiren to have sovereyntee

As wel over hir housbond as hir love,

And for to been in maistrie him above. (The Wife of Bath’s Prologue Harvard Edu. Interlinear Translation


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