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The Wife of Bath's Tale

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Jennifer Kane
ENG 210
The Presence and Contradictions of Feminism in The Wife of Bath’s Tale The Wife of Bath’s Tale, a narrative by Geoffrey Chaucer depicted in his classic Canterbury Tales is a story that allows an individual reader to interpret its intended theme and purpose. Scholars have debated the position of Chaucer, as well as the positions of his main character, The Wife of Bath. Still, Chaucer uses an extended prologue and tale in an attempt to tell her story and to present her argument which involves claims of femininity and sovereignty. Although there is no solid critical consenting viewpoint of either the Wife of Bath or Chaucer himself, both motifs are present throughout the text, and it remains up to the reader to scrutinize what the text is trying to convey. In analyzing the controversial Wife of Bath’s Tale and prologue I determined that there were conflicting ideas, yet the overall intention of Chaucer was to promote a theme of feminism through the Wife of Bath during the medieval time period The Wife of Bath’s Tale begins with a prologue spoken by the Wife of Bath, also known as Alison. “Experience, though noon auctoritee/Were in this world,were right ynogh to me/To speke of wo that is in marriage” (Prologue 1-3). It is here, that she begins this autobiographical prologue with the clarification that her given insight will be based on experience, rather than authority. In continuing the prologue, the reader learns that the Wife of Bath has had five marriages in total, and is looking for a sixth. Here, it becomes obvious to the reader that this woman is radical and heavily opinionated, when considering typical women of the medieval time period. And it is this revolutionary way of thinking, that drives the Wife of Bath’s agenda of promoting feminist ideals and gender equality throughout her prologue and tale. This theme of gender equality is unique to the Canterbury Tales, as it would seem that The Wife of Bath is the only character in the sequence of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that addresses these pro-feminist issues (Carter 3). As S.H. Rigby discusses, “In a patriarchal society in which women enjoy a lesser degree of wealth, status, and power then the men of their own class, the construction of gender involves not just the creation of social difference but also the reaffirmation of a fundamental inequality between the sexes, as sexual differences come to be presented as a justification for sexual inequality” (“Feminist vs. Misogynist” 1). Despite The Wife of Bath’s, or Alison’s, claim to construct an argument of experience rather than authority, she retreats against this by using bible verses and scriptures to support her argument. “Whanne saugh ye ever in any manere age,/That hye God defended marriage/By expres word? I pray you, telleth me,/Or wehre commanded he virginitee?” (Prologue 65-69). Here, The Wife of Bath questions what god truly means in these scriptures and where it is within the bible that God forbids multiple marriages and condones virginity. In doing so, it would seem that she does not have the original and plain experience needed to make the argument that she previously claimed. Instead, she combats the argument used by the clergy against her argument of the acceptance of sexual promiscuity. This contradiction, makes the Wife of Bath seem less credible, and therefore less powerful in the eyes of her readers. Having power is something that the Wife of Bath holds as an important factor in her pro-feminist argument, and in this case that was not supported. A feminist is described as an advocator or supporter of the rights and equality of women. Provocative nature, power, dominance, and confidence are also related to the term. These qualities are present within the spoken words of the Wife of Bath throughout her prologue. Leicester describes her approach in conveying her messages of femininity, “Combative and competitive as ever, she takes an...