Classic Remarks: Is “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” Feminist?

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating!


Do you think “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer is feminist?

Canterbury Tales

Anyone who has ever taught a class about the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale will know that students love the Wife of Bath, and the number one thing they love about her is how feminist she seems.  She speaks her mind! She’s been married multiple times! She shows her husbands she has a say in the relationship, too! And her tale is about punishing a knight who raped a maiden!  However, all the essays in the world encounter a major problem: Can you call someone feminist who existed before feminism was even a concept?

It’s a tough question, one which people sometimes try to skirt by calling the Wife of Bath “proto-feminist” and moving on.  I think it’s more complicated than that, but for the sake of this post I’ll say that the Wife of Bath (particularly her Tale) does seem interested in increased equality between men and women, though she doesn’t have a 100% percent modern view of what that looks like and seems primarily interested in women being able to gain power in their marriages (basically the only place women had any power or social standing in the Middle Ages).  That is to say, the Wife of Bath doesn’t seem particularly interested in single women being respected or women being able to support themselves or anything like that.  Those would have been incredibly foreign ideas in medieval England, so much so that they simply don’t  occur to her–or really anyone.

However, yes, the Wife of Bath wants women to have sovereignty within their marriages, which is  the entire theme of her tale.  The story opens with a knight raping a maiden, and everyone is outraged and demands King Arthur dispense justice (already pro-woman).  Normally, “justice” is death, but Queen Guinevere proposes an alternative: If the knight can come back to court in a year and a day and tell her what women most desire, his life will be spared.  This is a very tidy plot, with related crime and punishment. The knight harmed a woman, and now he must learn to understand women to atone for his crime.  (Again, pretty pro-woman.)

The real puzzle comes at the end of the tale, however. If you’re reading this post, you probably know the plot of the tale: the knight finds a woman who gives him an answer to the riddle (Women most desire sovereignty) in exchange for his agreeing to marry her. He agrees because he wants to live, but the problem is that she’s an ugly old hag, and he’s not really into that. But, plot twist: On the night of the wedding, the hag (his wife) offers the knight another deal.   He can choose for her to be ugly and faithful to him or for her to be beautiful and potentially unfaithful.  The knight really wants her to not be ugly, but he also doesn’t want her sleeping with other men, so this is a dilemma. Unsure what to pick, he tells her to choose what she wants.  (He gives her sovereignty.)  Giving her sovereignty is the correct answer, so his wife tells him he can have everything, that she will be both beautiful and faithful:

‘Kiss me, and we won’t quarrel any more,
For I’ll be both to you, upon my honour!
That’s to say, beautiful as well as good.
May death and madness be my lot,’ she said,
‘If I am not a wife as good and true
As ever wife was since the world was new,
And if I’m not as pretty as a queen,
As ay empress that was ever seen
From east to west, before tomorrow’s dawn,
Then you can deal just as you like with me.
And now, lift up the curtain and see.’ (250)

Is this feminist? I’d say yes, since the wife seems to be making the decision to be both beautiful and faithful of her own free will.  A couple lines later, the narrator notes that “she obeyed him in all things,” but that also seems to be her decision.  There’s no implication that the knight is forcing her to do anything.  Everything–from getting married in the first place, to offering him the decision of how she will look and act, to choosing to obey him always–appears to have been her idea.  It sounds limiting from a modern perspective, yet she appears happy, and I suppose that’s what feminism aims for.

At any rate, the Wife of Bath has her own commentary on the story she just told:

And may Christ send up husbands who
Are meek and young, and spirited in bed;
And send us grace to outlive those we wed;
And I pray Jesus to cut short the lives
Of those who won’t be governed by their wives;
And as for all old and ill-tempered skinflints,
May heaven rain upon them pestilence! (250)

These final lines actually seem contradictory to her tale in some ways.  Is the knight really meek?  Or governed by his wife? We may not have enough details about their married life to know definitively.  We do know that the Wife of Bath wants women to have power in the marriages, but “sovereignty” doesn’t always have to be flashy or forceful.  The Wife might boss her own husband[s] around, but if the lady in her story finds happiness in doing what most pleases her husband, that seems fine too.

*Translation by David Wright (The Canterbury Tales, Oxford University Press)

If you are participating this week, please leave us your link in the comments!

Briana

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3 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Is “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” Feminist?

  1. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Great post!! It’s such an interesting topic (so interesting that I did an essay on it at uni) you’re right that it’s more than being proto feminist- Chaucer actually used a lot of mysoginistic tropes and then countered them with what we call “feminist” attributes- by doing this he created quite the paradoxical character. His reason? He’s sending it up! (The trick to most Chaucer is not to take it too seriously- 90% of the time he’s being funny)

    Like

    • Briana says:

      That’s a great point. Most of Chaucer’s works aren’t straightforward, and it’s hard to say they definitively take one side in any debate. I really like “The Clerk’s Tale” for this reason. There’s a great article by Laura Ashe that talks about how there’s really not a right interpretation, and that’s the entire point–that you can interpret it however you want, based on the given evidence.

      Liked by 1 person

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