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)

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Briana

“The Franklin’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer

Franklin Banner

Summary

When the lady Dorigen’s husband Arveragus goes off to battle, she worries about his well-being, eventually becoming fixated on how his ship will ever safely pass over the black rocks that surround Brittany when he journeys home. In the meantime, Arveragus’s squire Aurelius takes advantage of his master’s absence and professes his love to Dorigen. Appalled at the thought of infidelity, Dorigen exclaims she will only return his love the day that all the rocks of Brittany have disappeared. When Aurelius finds a way to make the impossible happen, however, Dorigen will have to choose between keeping her word and keeping her honor.

Form: Breton lai

Review

“The Franklin’s Tale” is perhaps one of The Canterbury Tales that is most immediately appealing to modern audiences in terms of theme. The couple Arveragus and Dorigen open the story by professing their love to each other and establishing equality in their marriage. Arveragus will act as the superior to retain public opinion, but in reality the two will be a team. The idea is unusual not only for the Middle Ages, but also for Chaucer. Up to this point in The Canterbury Tales readers have been treated mainly to stories of evil wives, submissive wives, and the Wife of Bath’s sort-of-but-maybe-not-really-feminist wife.

The couple’s happiness is endangered, however, when Dorigen unwittingly walks herself into a terrible promise. She wildly exclaims to Arveragus’s squire that she will love him if only he can make the rocks of Brittany disappear and somehow, eventually, he does. Readers will initially notice that the magic of the tale is not particularly well-explained. How the rocks disappear, or at least seem to, we never know. It is also a question Dorigen, the one with most at stake, never asks. The focus quickly moves onto her dilemma: Does she keep her promise to Aurelius, or does she keep her promise (her marriage vows) to her husband?

Many modern readers would probably find the solution to this problem simple. Dorigen never actually “meant” her promise; it was the medieval equivalent of exclaiming “I’ll date you when pigs fly!” So that means she does not have to keep it, right? “The Franklin’s Tale” is not so sure. The second part of the tale is a complex exploration of the importance of language, the value of female “trouthe,” and the question of what men and women owe their spouses. Even if readers do not ultimately agree with the actions and conclusions of the characters, there is plenty of food for thought here.

“The Franklin’s Tale” wins my admiration for presenting a complex female character and for telling a story that combines both the darkness and light of human nature. It is satisfyingly balanced in a way that many of the tales are not. I would definitely consider the Franklin to be in the running for winning Harry’s story competition.

Want more Canterbury Tales reviews? Check out:

The Clerk’s Tale
The Miller’s Tale
The Wife of Bath’s Tale

“The Clerk’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer

Clerk (Jason Long)

Summary

When a beloved marquis’s people come to him and request that he marry in order to secure his line, he agrees with only one condition: he will choose his wife himself.  Unbeknownst to anyone, he has been eyeing the virtuous maiden Griselda.  She is poor, but she is also the most virtuous woman in the land.  After their seemingly fairytale wedding, however, the marquis becomes increasingly demanding and increasingly skeptical of his wife’s love.  She obeys him literally in everything, but will it ever be enough for him?

Review

“The Clerk’s Tale” is undoubtedly one of the more puzzling, and the more troubling, stories Chaucer offers in The Canterbury Tales.  Up to this point in the pilgrimage, readers have seen portrayals of numerous marriages and numerous wives—but none are quite like this.  Griselda is wifely obedience incarnate; she declares her husband’s will is her will, and that she would kill herself at his command if she must.  So what are readers to make of this?

The two options the audience has seem to be 1) taking the story at face value and assuming that Griselda is supposed to be the model of the perfect wife or 2) looking for indications that this entire charade is absurd and searching for evidence that Griselda’s apparent obedience is actually a sneaky way of undermining her husband’s authority.  Matters are not helped by the fact that the narrator alternately indicates that both approaches are valid.  One moment he extols Griselda’s unmatched patience; the next he tells women they really should not let their husbands treat them like doormats in the way Griselda does.

The tendency as a reader is to pick a side and stick with it.  It is easy to say, “Well, medieval people were misogynist so Griselda must actually be meant as a role model.”  It is equally easy to say, “This is ridiculous.  There is no way this story is serious.  The point must be that the marquis demands too much.”   Both approaches, I think, are reductive.  Torn between two portrayals of a woman that are completely opposite, I was unsatisfied with “The Clerk’s Tale” until I read Laura Ashe’s “Reading Like a Clerk in the ‘The Clerk’s Tale.’”

In a nutshell, Ashe argues that the matter of interpretation is at the heart of “The Clerk’s Tale” (perhaps more so than obedience?).  Griselda herself interprets her husband’s increasingly terrible requests as well-intentioned.  She acts on them as if they are so—and thus somehow makes them so.  The clerk, then, is highlighting the fact that nothing, stories in particular, stands on its own.  Tales need to be interpreted.  And he challenges his audience by offering a story that somehow has two valid interpretations.

Suddenly, the clerk seems like an immensely clever fellow, instead of someone who fails to tell a story that makes any sense.  The joke becomes even better when readers remember that the Host had specifically asked the clerk to tell a light, entertaining tale instead of something too dry and scholarly for the rest of the pilgrims.  The Host thinks the clerk has indeed told a fun tale; he takes the story at face value and comments he really wishes someone would tell his wife about this character who is a paragon of obedience.  And the clerk can sit back and snicker that had actually told a complicated tale, and the Host completely missed the point.

Want more Canterbury Tales reviews? Check out:

The Miller’s Tale
The Wife of Bath’s Tale

“The Miller’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer

Miller Banner

Summary

The young clerk Nicholas is in love with his landlord’s wife Alison.  She will not agree to any tryst with him, however, unless he can manage to get her jealous husband out of their way.  Drawing upon his expertise in astronomy, Nicholas feigns he has a message from God: the world will experience a second Flood, and the only way for the household to survive is if they construct three separate boats, hang them from the ceiling, and wait for the rain to come.  His landlord credulously falls for this story and begins work, giving Nicholas and Alison the perfect opportunity to sneak away together.

Review

As a fabliau, “The Miller’s Tale” is definitely one of the bawdier contributions to The Canterbury Tales, offering a stark contrast to the courtly love story that the knight tells just before it.  Readers will realize fairly early on that they are in for a wild ride; after all, Nicholas rather forwardly grabs at Alison’s crotch while pleading his love to her and is hardly rebuked for the action.  And, of course, the entire plot centers on how Nicholas and Alison can contrive to cuckold her husband.  The raunchiness is definitely enough to amuse many readers.  However, the characterizations, details, and wider themes are also worth looking at.

Alison herself is a very compelling place to start.  Although it may not be entirely clear if one starts reading The Canterbury Tales at the beginning (since the miller’s is only the second tale in the book), most of the stories center on marriages and women.  The question here might then become: how much do readers sympathize with Alison?  For my part, I have trouble excusing or empathizing with adultery in most fiction—and it is worth nothing that, however much a fool her husband might be for believing his tenant had a vision about a second Flood, he was apparently concerned for his wife’s safety.

Nonetheless, the story does not seem to ask readers to dwell on this.  It observes fairly early on that old men should not wed young women; they are too different from each other and the wife is unlikely to be happy.  If one believes this, it in some way excuses, or at least explains, Alison’s behavior.  The ending of the tale also does not do much to bolster the husband’s standing.  Nicholas may get a comeuppance himself, for misusing Scripture and abusing his position of knowledge, but the only one who really escapes unscathed is Alison herself.  And while the audience is laughing at everyone’s antics, moral considerations may get lost in the mix.

I have to admit that “The Miller’s Tale” is not my favorite.  While I do believe it introduces many themes that continue to be raised throughout The Canterbury Tales and does a good job of explicating them within this specific tale, as well, the fabliau may simply not be my genre.  Bawdiness does not really appeal to my sense of humor, and I mostly thought it sad how poorly things turn out for all the characters.  (Even if one side character—Absolon—is fairly amusing.)

“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer

The Wife of Bath's Tale

Summary

It is the reign of King Arthur.  A knight rapes a young maiden, and the country calls for justice.  As a sign of mercy, Queen Guinevere sets the knight a task: he must give her an answer to the question “What do women most desire?” within a year—or else he will die.  The knight scours the countryside seeking the answer, but every woman he asks gives him a different reply.  Finally, the knight finds an old hag who claims she has an answer that will satisfy the queen.  To learn it, all the knight has to do is promise he will grant her the next thing she asks.

Review

SPOILERS (Based on the assumption everyone has read this tale!)

I first read “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” in high school, and although I am deeply interested in Middle English literature, I have to admit to not having paid it much attention since then.  “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” I figured, is sort of overdone.  Everyone reads it.  Everyone knows it.  One could probably build a mountain out of the scholarship on it.  I moved instead to looking at other “loathly lady tales” (stories where an old hag has a run-in with a man, gives him some sort of choice, and magically becomes beautiful by the end).  I was most captivated by “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle,” a fifteenth century version of the story that most likely used Chaucer’s “Wife of Bath’s Tale” as a source.

The thing about “The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle,” although it is an entertaining read, is that much of the critical attention it has received has been to the effect of, “Well, this certainly isn’t as good as Chaucer’s version.  Let’s go read that.”  “The Wedding” is accused of just not being as consistent, as logical, as well-written and put-together as “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.”  Well, after re-reading “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” I am uncertain that is true; it turns out I have a lot of questions about this story, too!

In general, “The Wife of Bath’s” tale does have a nice arc.  The knight rapes a maiden.  He learns that women desire sovereignty.  He puts his lesson into practice by granting his own wife sovereignty. And he wife becomes beautiful and faithful as his reward.  While readers may scratch their heads at that last part (so the rapist gets rewarded???), the story has a nice unity.  The knight’s crime, his task, and his penance all fit together.

But then someone pointed out to me a small detail that indicates that none of this was really planned, at least not within the context of the story itself.  (Chaucer obviously wanted things to go this way.)  When the queen sets the knight his task, she requests “an answere suffisant in this mateere” (an answer sufficient in this matter) (line 910).  When she tells the knight to find out what women most want, it appears she does not know herself!  When he returns and states that the answer is sovereignty, the women of the court basically consult among themselves and decide that sovereignty sounds like a great idea.  There was never a “correct” answer to the question.

Also troubling is the question of whether the knight’s wife (note that none of the characters have names) actually receives the sovereignty the knight supposedly grants her.  The Wife of Bath tells this tale as if to illustrate a case where a woman got the better of her husband and was able to rule her own life.  Yet, immediately after wife receives sovereignty, the narrator reassures the audience that she “obeyed [her husband] in everything that might give him pleasure or enjoyment” (lines 1255-1256).  Perhaps there is something in the fact that the wife can freely choose to be obedient—but her ending still does not read quite like any type of liberation.

“The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is one of the more popular stories from The Canterbury Tales with good reason.  It features a fascinating plot, rounder characters than can be found elsewhere, and a dash of magic.  It also raises a lot of questions readers are still interested in today—differences between the sexes, how marriage should work, how one should be punished for one’s crimes.  I am definitely glad I revisited it.

Notes

  • I hope for this review to become part of a Canterbury Tales series, so look out for more tales!
  • If you would like to revisit “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” yourself, Harvard has a useful interlinear translation.
  • The background image for the banner was taken from a photo by Sven Schleger, which was downloaded from Unsplash.