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Written in the Middle Ages, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue begins by revealing that Wife’s plethoras experiences in marriage qualifies her to reveal the realities about marriage. Married at the age of twelve, her first three husbands were good because they were old, wealthy, and submissive; her last two husbands were bad and quite the opposite. Wife, or Alison, comments on many contradictory things that the Bible says about marriage and virginity to validate her decisions of getting married more than once. She eventually concludes that anyone can interpret the Bible however they choose and that it is right for some perfect people, like saints, to remain virgins all their lives but most people like her, are not perfect.
The Wife’s ideas about marriage are portrayed to coincide with ideas that were developing in fourteenth-century England as a result of social changes, leading to the developing roles of women. Chaucer imposes a sexist view on Alison when he describes the other characters normally, but he talks about how many men she has been with and refers to her sexual life. This alone reiterates the common fate of women during this time period, which was to be a pleasing housewife to her husband all her life. Wife’s fifth husband reads a book about a woman whose “wickedness/ Brought all mankind to sorrow and distress,” rather than just people (Chaucer 277).
When women are anything other than confined, women are considered evil. The gender distinctions in The Prologue are distinctly marked. Men appear to be economically powerful and educated on their own while women seem to have to get what they want by manipulating men. Therein, the Wife uncovers the weaker side of the men she marries, who can be exploited through their desire for sex and status. But the location of wealth changes the condition of her relationships; the widowed Wife is powerful and independent until she gives her assets to her fifth husband. This social construction for women can still be seen today, as we are still experiencing the echoes of double standard society.
There were not many female authors at the time, but “if women had written stories. If Chaucer had written about Alison’s life as a male character, he would have blended in with all of the other characters. Because Alison’s attributes to her husbands portrayed women as always undermining their husbands, many see her as a feminist character. But this is abated by the fact that she herself conforms to these misogynist stereotypes. Wife describes herself as sexually insatiable but also as someone who only has sex for financial welfare, contradicting two female stereotypes. Despite the contradictions, these ideas about women were adopted by men to support a hierarchy in which men dominated women.
Social constructions are shared assumptions about reality created by our subconscious society in attempts to understand the world. Gender is always in flux, involving attitudes and social norms that society deems more appropriate for one sex over another. This can be seen through intergenerational changes within families, as changes in norms influence social values on gender. Wife of Bath is Chaucer’s creations, but she is forged from literary traditions in which there is a model for the sexually experienced older woman. I would strongly recommend Chaucer’s novel to those interested in how society illustrates the distinct causal effects of gender stereotypes, especially in a time period where patriarchal society is heavily reflected. Wife of Bath’s Prologue reveals that if gender customs are not biologically, but rather socially constructed, then they only exist because there are social relations and causes that keep them in existence.
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