Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Irony of the Wife of Bath

In the late 14th Century when Chaucer was writing The Canterbury Tales, there was a great surge of antifeminist writings.  Women were thought to be wicked, unchaste and essentially inferior to men who were generally regarded as more holy and just.  Chaucer’s character of the Wife of Bath is a woman who is vocally opposed to that notion—even fighting her fifth husband over it—yet lives her life in such a way as to fall stereotype to the teaching of antifeminists of her time period.  It is just as ironic for her character to behave in such a way as it is for Chaucer to depict her in the same fashion.  The argument can be made that Chaucer is as equally antifeminist as the medieval church at that time.

To begin, it is fitting to understand the preconceived notions about women during the lifetime of the Wife of Bath.  Our textbook gives a bit of background information, stating that the church believed “the rational, intellectual, spiritual, and, therefore, higher side of human nature predominated in men, whereas the irrational, material, earthly, and, therefore, lower side of human nature predominated in women” (Greenblatt, 256).  St. Jerome is mentioned to be a monk who was very much of this opinion and who wrote a diatribe against the writing of a much more sympathetic St. Jovinian.  In fact, both St. Jerome and St. Jovinian are referenced in the text of The Wife of Bath’s Prologue as well.  In lines 679-681, the Wife of Bath tells us, “And eek ther was somtime a clerk at Rome, A cardinal, that highte Saint Jerome, That made a book again Jovinian” (Greenblatt, 271).

This book happened to be a favorite of her fifth husband, and he would read it “night and day” for his own “disport” or entertainment (Greenblatt, 271, lines 675-676).  The book—which he would condescendingly read aloud to her—used Biblical stories, myths and proverbs to illustrate the wickedness of women.  This irritated the Wife of Bath so much that she tore some pages out of his book and struck out at him with violence (Greenblatt, 274, lines 796-799).  To me, it is very ironic that the Wife of Bath would become irate over this antifeminist literature which insists that women are conniving and untrue when she herself has used sex to manipulate men all of her life.

The book her husband reads says:  “That wommen can nat keepe hir mariage” and “A womman cast hir shame away when she cast of hir smok” (Greenblatt, 272 and 274, lines 716 and 788-789), meaning that women are most shameful when they engage in sex and break their wedding vows.  Logically, one might suppose that to counteract this horrible accusation of womanhood, the Wife of Bath might live a life of chastity and fidelity, but that is not the case.  Her prologue is steeped with infidelity and she uses the Bible—of all things—to justify her lifestyle.  Beginning in line 28, she says:  “God bad us for to wexe and multiplye” (Greenblatt, 257) and then goes on to cite biblical men who had multiple wives.  She even says that she does not value virginity and makes it very clear that the body is made to have sex.  She blames her lustful appetite on her Zodiac, employs her sexuality as a means of gaining control over men, and lies her way out of sticky situations.  In short, she falls into every negative stereotype of her gender.

Chaucer, in writing her character, depicts the Wife of Bath in a way that is both unflattering and oddly endearing.  I, for one, greatly enjoy reading her radical views on womanhood and sexuality and can appreciate her for her honesty.  She never makes an excuse for her actions.  Unfortunately, the Wife of Bath’s championing of women’s rights and refusal to conform only furthers the medieval notions that women are inherently evil.  Although we are able to understand her point of view—even to the point of being sympathetic of her plight—we can’t help but see that she is no different than Eve who brought about the fall of man when she bit into the forbidden fruit.  We see that she is similar to Delilah who took away Samson’s strength; to Deianira who caused Hercules to light himself on fire; to Xantippe who pissed upon Socrates’ head (Greenblatt, 272, lines 721-735).  The Wife of Bath’s story would fit perfectly into the book she despised so much.

While the Wife of Bath’s character is so ironic—both despising and embracing antifeminist opinions—so is Chaucer himself.  At first glance one might suppose that Chaucer is against these primitive notions, for why else would he let his female character speak out against them?  But by putting those words into the mouth of a woman so sexually immoral and obviously selfish, he negates every feminist thing she says.  He discredits her.  In the end, Chaucer has depicted a woman just like St. Jerome says all women are:  “irrational, material, earthly, and, therefore, lower” (Greenblatt, 256).  Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is ultimately antifeminist, while pretending to argue against it.

Works Cited

Greenblatt, Stephen, ed.  The Norton Anthology of English Literature.  New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.  Print.

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