Chaucer’s use of irony in the characterization of The Wife of Bath.
Within the literary world there are several devices that are used to either enhance or play down particular situations, events, and or characters. One device that will be explores within the contents of this paper is irony. Irony can be defines as “as implied discrepancy between what is said and what is meant.”1 Although irony is seen as an obscure difference of what is and what was; its format is contained within three different types: verbal, dramatic and irony of situation. Geoffrey Chaucer, a medieval writer, explores the boundaries of each type of irony within his well-known tale, The Canterbury Tales. It is in these tales that he introduces a character that defies all of the stereotypes and label of this gender during the medieval era. Chaucer characterizes this boisterous lady, The Wife of Bath, in a way that greatly adds to her already feminist portrayed aura. Women of the medieval era were characterized as weak and in need of protection. A book produces on the women of English literature entitled Social Backgrounds of English Literature, reports that “the sincere intention was, no doubt, to protect women –first from physical violence, and later from any contacts which might be even faintly distasteful to them. Outwardly and actually it ensured a security from harm greater than any previous protection women had known.”2 This description is completely against the Wife’s character, the spirit that she gives off to her fellows travelers is extremely contrary to whom this lady actually is. Because Chaucer allows The Wife of Bath to contradict herself throughout her prologue and tale, it makes her potentially an interesting character to those who read her story.
Verbal irony, “when an author says one thing and means something else”3, is omnipresent throughout the Wife’s account. Practically every word that is uttered from her lips is deviating from her true nature and character. This deviance however, makes her account one that is full of intrigue, and laughter. While there are several examples of this type of irony in her tale, the first obvious illustration would be the feminist voice that is put out by Chaucer for her. By feminist it is meant that both men and women are equal. Chaucer’s character puts out the radical feministic approach. This term is defined as women that object to the oppression that is placed upon them by society and males. This voice that she speaks in is extremely convincing to her fellow travelers, but not to those who read her words. Chaucer uses the literary device known as aside, where the reader can know the woman’s true thoughts and feelings on the subject she speaks of. This type of device concretely demonstrates her enormous of contradicting utterances that stem from her voice.
The Wife of Bath allows feminist ideas to come out of her mouth. Within these statements are attitude, anger, domination, and other suppressive statements. As modern as her statements are, she really has the nature of women in opposition of her character. While she speaks of total domination over each her husbands, in truth she wants to be dominated and submissive to them and only them. She only wants what most women want from men in their life…love. This notion is no more prevalent than in her speech about her last husband. In her prologue she states, “And yit he was to methe moste shrewe:
That feele I on my ribbes al by rewe,
And evere shal unto myn ending day.
But in oure bed he was so fresh and gay
He coude winne again my love anoon.
I trowe I loved him best for that he
Was of his love daungerous to me”4
She tales of how he would beat her and dominate her throughout their relationship. Through all of that she proclaims loudly and strongly that she loved him best of all.
While this antifeminist woman constantly voices feminist statements and attitudes, another intriguing example of how Chaucer enhances her character...
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