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In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer sets up a rich and unexpected portrayal of The Wife of Bath, which is already well established by the beginning of her prologue to her tale. Her honest and shamelessly blunt diction and admissions, along with the inclusion of personal anecdotes, contribute to the unexpected nature of her prologue’s content; these aspects of the prologue all lend her words, and therefore character, a somewhat controversial and even taboo element. The audacity of her character, as evidenced by the blatant honesty and shamelessness with which she unveils much of her history and experience, particularly in terms of her marriages, not only draws a sense of separation between her and other women, but also conveys her as radical among the others present. Her wifely role, as described in the prologue, is unconventional for the time, as her desires and faults are largely at her discretion and in her own hands; her marriages are portrayed as malleable in response to her wishes.
The Wife of Bath uses biblical evidence to question and oppose conventional expectations for women in regards to marriage and sex. She initially contends that society is misogynistic and that women’s positions and images necessarily suffer due to this if they do not adhere to all of the behaviors of virgins or servile wives. One of the first and most prominent points that the Wife of Bath makes is that sex and remarriage should not be seen unfavorably as they often are, and she argues this at length, admitting the strength of her own sexual appetites. It is clear to the audience that the wife identifies first as a person and woman, and secondly as a wife, especially due to the fact that she has had five husbands and claims that she will “Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shal. For soothe, I wol nat kepe me chaast in al;” with the justification that “th’Apostle seith, that I am free” (lines 45-46, 49). She gives the clever justification that while men prefer women to be chaste and advise them to remain that way, “..conseillying is nat comandement;” (line 67). One way in which she criticizes the patriarchal constraints is when she light-heartedly argues by asking ““And certain, if ther were no seed y-sowe, Virginitee. Wherof thane sholde it grow” (lines 71-72). Although clearly the Wife of bath is empowered and bold in various ways by speaking out against the status quo and defying traditionally-held masculine ideas on how she should behave, she also is contradictory at certain times, for instance when she points out: “For wel you knowe, a lord in his household,/He hath nat every vessel al of gold;/ Somme been of tree, and doon hir lord servys” (line 99-101). This seems to be a sort of shift, because it positions her as admittedly subordinate for misogynist reasons, yet she does not seem upset by it. Her resignation to this fact is likely from her confidence that her views are correct, since otherwise God would have been condemning marriage and procreation, if he intended for women to remain virgins.
In her manner of addressing the fellow pilgrims, the Wife of Bath establishes polarity between her individual self and the group of them. She confidently tells them “And, lordynges, by youre leve, that am nat I. I wol bestow the flour of al myn age/ In the actes and in fruyt of marriage” (lines 112-14). At various points, she seems to be invoking controversial points and conclusions not only to stand her ground, but also to scandalize the people around her and to separate or distinguish herself. Her points are both bold and persistent, especially as she begins to discuss how she has gotten and kept the power in her marriages. For example, not only has she said that “In wyfhode I wol Use myn instrument/ As freely as my Makere hath it sent” (lines148-49), but she also asserts that her husband shall be “bothe [her] detour and [her] thrall,/ And have his tribulacioun withal/ Upon his flesh, whil that [she is] his wyf” continuing to explain that she owns his body during their marriage (lines 155-59). To cement this claim that their bodies are each owed to the other and meant to copulate, she begs the important question “..and for ese/ Of engendrure, ther we nat God displese./ Why sholde men elles in hir bookes sette,/ That a man shalyelde to his wyf hire dette? Now wherewith sholde he make his payment,/ If he ne used his sely instrument” (lines 127-32). However, implicit in this point is also the idea that without his sexual offerings to his wife, a man may have little or questionable other worth. It is already unexpected for a woman to assert such equality in a marriage or to suggest that she owns her husband as much as her husband owns her, however the Wife of Bath goes further than these notions, to actually say that without a man offering his wife sexual pleasure, how else can he really please or fulfill her? Her ideas here are fitting because she follows to give the listeners a glimpse into arguments that she has steered in the direction to give herself more control, throughout her many marriages. One important point that she comes to with her husbands, in a quite calculated but still inspired way, is that they cannot be masters of both her body and her property because women appreciate their freedom (line 322).
The Wife of Bath demonstrates the impossibility of a woman to be both satisfied and oppressed. Through imitating for the audience parts of generic arguments that have played out between her and various or all of her husbands, she shows that her main motive which secretly presides over all of her fights with husbands is to gain the power.
When her husbands have shown jealousy for legitimate reasons, she would persuade them that they were being paranoid and unjustified in their anger. She also delves into many circumstances in which she will invent her husband’s guilt in a given situation, in order to satisfy her wishes. She shamelessly describes the way she tells her husbands certain ways they have wronged her when they are drunk, saying that “Lordynges, right thus, as ye have understonde,/ Baar I stiffly myne old housbondes on honde,/ That thus they seyden in his dronkenesse,” ultimately in order to get her way (lines 379-81). The wa in which she withholds sex from her husbands in order to make them bargain with her, although she has admitted to how much of a sexual drive she has, shows that her ultimate goal in her marriages tends to be to keep the power shifted so that she consistently has more. The Wife of Bath conveys her ability to manipulate her husbands through her examples, but she also shows that she does not tend to use this ability unless she is in an inferior position, and, therefore, must alter her circumstances. She admits that women are dishonest and calculating by nature, and that “Deceite, wepyng, spynnyng God hath yeve/ To women kyndely, whil that they may lyve” (line 401). Ironically, the listener or reader gets the impression they are witnessing some learned advice based off of immense experience in many of her stories. While they are portrayed and confessed in characteristically crass and brutal terms, she takes on the position of a mentor who is giving women invaluable advice for how to conduct their marriages, which becomes apparent when she alerts the audience that this tale “Wynne whoso may, for al is for to selle” (line 414). She displays deliberately constructed behavior as a form of display for the listeners so that they can both be amused and learn from her experience.
There are various situations in which the Wife of Bath relied on certain appearances and fabrications of artificiality in order to get what she wanted out of her marriage. Many of her duties as a wife are doable because of her beyond average degree of authority for a woman in a marriage. For example, although it is a counterintuitive idea, the wife used her ability to be false when her fourth husband cheated on her and she hoped to have him believe she was doing the same. This concept is inherently ironic and while it may seem unnecessary and unnecessarily false to no worthwhile end, it essentially allowed her to remain on top or equal in the power struggle of their marriage. In a similar vein, she enacted other means of artificiality to other ends that she described in the prologue. For example, in order to have Jankyn believe that she loved him, although she actually did not at the time she tells him that he was becoming infatuated with him which she explains by saying “I bar hym on honed, he hadde enchanted me: My dame taughte me that soutiltee” (lines 575-76). The wife seemingly has no reservations at all about using these forms of artifice, which can be attributed to the fact that in order for a woman w=to have power and authority in such a powerless time for women, they must do things which are undesirable and which degrade themselves or others. When her fourth husband died, the Wife of Bath shares that she “weepe algate, and made sory cheere, As wyves mooten, for it is usage” (lines 588-89). Her other instances of deliberate and calculated false behavior were usually to satisfy her mind or state of mind, or to ensure that some situation would work out positively for herself, and were not self-conscious of the perception of outsiders. In this situation, her decision to pretend to cry a lot while she did not feel great sadness is perhaps relative to her more socially vulnerable position as a widow, rather than a married woman. In order to ensure that her future prospects would turn out the way she planned, it seems that she had to play the role of aggrieved widow.
Being comfortably situated within a marriage, The Wife of Bath makes clear that her displays of artificial behavior were reserved for necessary occasions and that most of her behavior was based upon her actual impulses and desires. The Wife of Bath overtly shares this with the others by saying “I ne loved nevere by no discrecioun, But evere folwed myn appetite” (lines 622-23). Already somewhat uncommon for the time and the condition of marriage at the time, her own agency and control in marriage were made especially apparent through the juxtaposition of Jaynkin’s volatile and aggressive behavior that she describes and her casual outspokenness. She refuses to deal with his tendencies that devalued and criticized and generalized her as a wife, and therefore, she rebelled against the control he had over her by slapping him and ripping out the book pages. She tells the listeners, in explanation, “Of his proverbs n’of his olde sawe, Ne I wolde nat of hym corrected be” (lines 661-62). In an unexpected turn of events, this leads him to tell her “Myn owene trewe wyf, Do as thee lust to terme of al thy lyf,” ultimately relinquishing all power in the marriage to her (lines 819-820). The wife is intensely honest with herself and everyone else about both her power and limitations in her marriages; certain manners in which she did not have control were those representative of elusive human nature, such as the source of her initial love for Jaynkin; because “he was of his love daungerous to [her].” She continues to justify this by explaining “We women han, if that I shal nat lye, In this matere a queynte fantasye; Wayte what thing we may nat lightly have, Therafter wol we crie alday and crave” (lines 514-518). Evidently, although many of her actions were constructed and deliberately manipulative, one can still identify the human voice and spirit at the core of all that she says, bringing her arguments a great deal more credence and profundity. The Wife of Bath ultimately finished out her prologue in a similarly cunning and masterful manner of getting what she wants without somebody realizing her artful ways at work. After explaining for a long time how she has manipulated men for years, she asks the friar his permission to continue, since he was previously displeased with her prologue. This serves to confirm and exhibit the exact ways she had described in which she is empowered, but slyly and artfully, among the men in her life.
The Wife of Bath is an enigmatic character who uses her intelligence, creativity, ability to invent and fabricate, and stubbornness to have her way with men. Although she does not charm and ingratiate all the pilgrims listening to her words, she displays, within the very course of the prologue, how she manages such processes and situations, which ultimately reveals the truth of her words and experience.
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