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Ten Reasons to Love Chaucer's Canterbury Tales: #6 and #7
In my last installment I suggested that Chaucer was centuries ahead of his time because he goes beyond using fictional narrators simply as story-telling devices, and actually uses the stories to reveal the characters of the tellers themselves. I specifically highlighted the intentional use of the badly told Reeve's Tale as particularly clever. And later I'll discuss an even funnier and more prominent example of the same device that's downright postmodern (I told myself I wasn't going to go labeling things, but the heck with it).
For me the next tale is even more fascinating because in it Chaucer shows a side of himself that's even more modern and more surprising, considering the culture he was writing in. It's unlike any of the other tales in the book and it's probably my favorite of them all.
Reason #6: The Wife of Bath's Prologue
The first unusual thing about the Wife of Bath is the length of her prologue. The pattern Chaucer has established up to this point is that each pilgrim introduces his or her (actually, make that just his) tale with a short prologue that explains his purpose in telling it. Then everything he has to say is told through the tale. The Wife of Bath breaks this pattern by giving a very long prologue--much longer than her actual tale. At one point Chaucer even inserts a discussion between the Friar and the Summoner who are anxious for the Wife of Bath to get to the point. But here's the thing: the prologue IS the point. If you like, you can think of it in terms of feminist literature (there I go with the labels again).
According to some, traditionally male literature is linear: it has a clear beginning, middle and end; rising and falling action; all the conventional story structures we're used to. And most importantly it all moves toward a definite point. Characteristically female literature, for some, tends to be more circular and fluid, arriving at multiple points from multiple directions. It may not have a climax. It may not even be about a story: it may just be about the people and relationships. Of course, this does not characterize all writing by women, or even all literature that can be considered feminist. It's merely an idea I have heard put forth that seems to fit well with the Wife of Bath's Prologue. Like I said, the tale is not the point. The point is the prologue, in which the Wife lays out her view of marriage. And she has plenty to say. She begins (This and all other modern English translations come from here):
Experience, though no authority
Were in this world, were good enough for me,
To speak of woe that is in all marriage;
For, masters, since I was twelve years of age,
Thanks be to God who is forever alive,
Of husbands at church door have I had five;
For men so many times have married me;
And all were worthy men in their degree.
The Wife of Bath opens by pointing out that she has been married five times, and she claims this experience as her own authority on the subject of marriage. This is in direct opposition to the prevailing view at the time--that authority comes from scholarly wisdom, passed on through religious texts. She’s essentially asserting that she knows as much, if not more, about marriage than any religious authority. This alone is a pretty bold claim for a woman to make, but it’s only the beginning.
Having established her authority the Wife of Bath begins to outline some of her radical views, including that marriage is just as noble a calling as chastity; that God made people for sex; that women should not hide their beauty in austerity; and that women should exercise power over their husbands (including the power of sex). The Wife comes across perhaps a little too forcefully with this last point, and scholars disagree on whether Chaucer intended her to be seen in a positive or a negative way. On the whole, though, I think she comes across as a very likable and reasonable woman. And for all her talk about controlling her husbands she expresses genuine love and sincere desire to make them happy. Even if the reader has any lingering misgivings about the Wife’s attitude toward men, they should be laid to rest when she finally gets around to illustrating her views in...
Reason #7: The Wife of Bath’s Tale
The tale begins with a knight who rapes a young woman and is to be sentenced to death. The queen steps in, though, and convinces the king to delay the punishment. She sends the knight on a quest to discover what women want more than anything else. He has a year to find the answer, and the reward for failure is death.
The knight begins immediately, and soon realizes the difficulty of his quest. He receives plenty of responses—money, beauty, fame, sex, fine clothes—but no two answers are the same. He is just about ready to give up when he comes across an old woman in the forest. This crone offers to tell him the answer to his question, but in return he must promise to do one thing she asks of him, no matter what it is. The knight agrees, and the woman whispers the solution in his ear before going with him to the court of the queen, where the knight reveals the answer:
"My liege lady, generally," said he,
"Women desire to have the sovereignty
As well upon their husband as their love,
And to have mastery their man above;
This thing you most desire, though me you kill
Do as you please, I am here at your will."
The story tells us that every woman in the court agrees with his answer, and it is decided the knight should keep his life. At this moment the old woman announces that she is the one who revealed the answer to the knight in return for his promise. She ten reveals her request: that the man will take her for his wife. The knight keeps his promise, but on the night of his wedding he cannot bring himself to go to bed with the old woman, citing her ugliness as well as her low station.
Here the woman delivers a lecture about gentility. The traditional view in the story (and in Chaucer’s culture) is that gentility is a status one gains through birth, passed along with a family name and estate. It’s this prejudice the knight reveals in complaining about the woman’s low status, as if it would be better if she were a wealthy old woman. But this hag rebukes him and lectures him on true gentility, which comes from a person’s moral virtues. It’s a wonderful criticism of Chaucer’s society that seems almost as radical as the Wife of Bath’s views on women.
After the lecture the old woman comes to the punchline of the story. She reveals that she has magical powers and can make herself beautiful, but she warns the knight that she will not be faithful to him if she can attract other men. So she lets him have his choice: she will be either an old, ugly, but faithful wife; or she will be very beautiful and unfaithful.
When I read this story with students I like to stop here and ask the boys in the room what they would choose. Being teenagers, most of them pick the beautiful wife. A few of them, sensing what they think is the correct answer, may say the ugly wife, but nobody comes up with the same answer as the knight.
The whole point of the knight’s quest was to teach him the right way to treat a woman, and at the end of the story he shows that he has learned well:
This knight considered, and did sorely sigh,
But at the last replied as you shall hear:
"My lady and my love, and wife so dear,
I put myself in your wise governing;
Do you choose which may be the more pleasing,
And bring most honour to you, and me also.
I care not which it be of these things two;
For if you like it, that suffices me."
Right answer! Because he has learned to let his wife control her own fate, she gives him the greatest reward of all: she will be both beautiful and faithful to him. And they lived happily ever after.
I think the message of this tale—that women should have control of their own lives—is powerful in any age. Even in our modern and enlightened era, people may not see for themselves the solution the knight arrives at. But I think the story is particularly remarkable given the culture it comes from. In Chaucer’s time, 500 years before women’s rights movements took hold in the West, women were little more than property, and were certainly not worthy of serious thought. For Chaucer to create the character of the Wife of Bath—a strong, intelligent, complex woman—is unusual. To use her character to challenge traditional views on women, gentility, and the Church is nothing short of extraordinary.
To read my complete series on The Canterbury Tales, follow the links below.
http://brendoman.com/kyle/2007/06/14/ten_reasons_to_love_chaucer_s_canterbury_3">Reason #2: The Pilgrims and Reason #3: The Knight's Tale
Just wanted to let you know how much I’ve been enjoying your walk through the “Tales’
I did a paper on Chaucer a few years ago…and I only wish I had the grasp of the subject..as you.
Nonetheless..I always thought the game between the story-tellers was pretty cool.
And..easily has become underrated/forgotten when mentioning great writers.
Your blog is great…and I visit it often…just to find out what is pulling your string this time.
I’m really enjoying these, too. After you finish the series, I’ll probably even get up the nerve to read the book. I’d really like to read it in the original language.